Divergent is the latest in a line of many popular young adult novels that are being translated to the big screen. Director Neil Burger does very little with the source material to elevate it above and beyond the pages and to hook newcomer viewers to the story or its characters, leaving a film that’s merely surface-level fluff at best. Divergent isn’t a complete waste of time, but it barely gets by, thanks to Burger’s flat direction and a loaded supporting cast that does very little with what they’re given. Shailene Woodley proves that she’s a next level star, delivering the film’s only fine performance and becoming the saving grace for an otherwise lifeless and bloated production.
In the near future, war breaks out and pushes the world to the edge of extinction. People are separated into factions to help keep order and things seem to be running smoothly because of it. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is the latest of the youth to take a test that will result in her choosing her proper faction for the rest of her life. Things don’t exactly go as planned and her results are distorted, placing her in a rare group of people known as Divergents.
This means that they possess traits from all the factions and don’t fit into one specifically. This also makes her a giant target for those higher up that see Divergents as deadly forces that can possibly throw a fork into the system and cause the entire thing to become unstable and off balance.
Now, Tris must trust the mysterious Four (Theo James) and a group of others as she discovers what’s so dangerous about Divergents and why some want them dead and erased from society.
Neil Burger‘s Divergent is another fine example of how not to adapt a widely popular and successful young adult novel to the big screen. Sure, Divergent probably works as a fine piece of fan service for those that have fallen in love with the books and the characters, but as an outsider looking in, the film borrows from many and adds very little to the mix. Also, it wastes over two hours doing so and becomes one of those films that presents interesting characters, situations and settings, but only briefly touches up on them, leaving you scratching your head the rest of the running time, wondering when exactly the explanations or deeper character dissections are going to take place.
The problem is that these things never happen. Everything feels like a feet wetting, simply giving you a taste for a possible grander and much more rich story to come, but the problem is that most won’t even want that after seeing Divergent. I’ll admit that the first Hunger Games film absolutely disappointed me, only for Catching Fire to blow me away and maybe that’s the same thing that will happen with Divergent and its inevitable sequels, but when picking this one apart as a standalone film, one might walk away with very little to chew on or to get excited for in future installments.
For starters, director Neil Burger paints a very dull and lifeless picture, both from a visual standpoint and from a character standpoint. Most of the film looks like a middle-to-low budget production, showing off its so-so CGI renders, while also sticking with lots of dark and ugly grays opposed to anything somewhat interesting. The whole thing has a washed out and lifeless feel to it and while I get that the story relates to that look and feel just fine, most of the film feels like a carbon copy of just about any other recent young adult novel translation. Except Divergent doesn’t have anything unique or interesting about it from a visual standpoint, just more empty and “futuristic” set pieces that look and feel noisy, yet far from busy.
The characters also keep this one from being something somewhat memorable. Shailene Woodley‘s lead performance as Tris is a fine example of the talents that are housed inside this young actress. She has no problem exercising her skills and showing off her raw ability and general kindness. Woodley is a first class actor thrown into a second class story with third class supporting actors.
Theo James is laughable as the film’s second in command and Tris’ love interest. He comes off as a cross between Dave Franco without a tone and an extra from the movie Elf. There’s just something about his failed attempt at delivering serious dialog that rubs me the wrong way and leaves me completely uninterested in anything that he has to say or do.
Ray Stevenson, Kate Winslet and Miles Teller are perhaps the film’s only supporting players that try somewhat harder than the rest to give their own characters some air to breathe, but the script has a difficult time juggling anyone else aside from Tris and Four, thus robbing everyone of any layering or detail and reducing them to mostly nothing. You’ll only know which characters are good and which are bad, but aside from that, not much is revealed or given any sort of substantial detail.
All of these problems lead back to director Neil Burger and his failure to balance out the story, its characters and the world in which they live in. Divergent is supposed to feel like a large story, full of characters and locations worth exploring, or at least that’s what one would assume when being told that it’s based off of a popular series of novels. This first film feels rather small and not small in an intimate way, but small in a way that reveals a director’s lack of focus and attention to important details and pacing.
Divergent is a slow and mostly dry film that takes a heck of a lot of time to “get going” and by that point it doesn’t really matter what happens, because the train has left the station and the characters have no choice but to jump on. As an uneducated viewer, I’d strongly recommend second-guessing spending any hard-earned cash on this one without at least brushing up on the books or watching the trailer a few more times. Divergent isn’t something that you’re going to sink your teeth in and want more of, unless you want more half-cooked characters that are smashed into a world without a pulse, expanded and made to feel even less important by a director that clearly has no idea what made this material worth adapting in the first place.
Divergent – 5.5/10