The latest big-screen adaptation to cash in on the young adult craze, “Divergent” offers some distinct pleasures but suffers from an overriding sense of sameness.
Movies with strong female heroes, such as “Divergent’s” Tris (Shailene Woodley), should be celebrated. That’s still a distressingly rare phenomenon.
But the contours of this aspiring franchise’s dystopian universe and the story contained therein bear a distractingly strong resemblance to “The Hunger Games” and other predecessors.
The familiarity inherent in the futuristic Chicago at the heart of Veronica Roth’s book series, brought to multiplexes by director Neil Burger, ranges from its portrayal of class strata across factions instead of districts to the chic apocalyptic imagery and glossy monochromatic surfaces.
In the “Divergent” universe, humanity only survives in the wreckage of the Windy City, where humanity is split into groups called Dauntless, Erudite, Abnegation, Amity and Candor. For reasons best left unexplained here, residents can choose to leave the faction of their birth and join a different one at 16.
The majority of this first effort finds the headstrong Tris, born into Abnegation, trying to make it among the Dauntless. The Dauntless are society’s brave protectors, which means lots of intense combat training and trying psychological tests spearheaded by the dashing Four (Theo James) and the psychotic Eric (Jai Courtney).
Of course, Tris isn’t your everyday citizen. She’s actually a Divergent, meaning that she doesn’t really fit in any of these groups, transcending categorization and threatening the future of this fractured system.
There’s really no point in trying to understand exactly what this all means. It’s profoundly convoluted, a strained excuse to build another freedom-from-autocratic-oppression narrative. “Divergent” makes “The Hunger Games” look positively streamlined and simple in comparison. Plus, this first movie in a planned trilogy is all setup with little payoff.
Still, the movie does a lot right. There are some impressive set pieces, especially one in which Tris zip lines across the entire city, and cleverly designed dreamscapes. The screenplay engages with the recesses of its characters minds, considering deep-rooted fears and concerns in a smarter-than-normal fashion for this sort of picture.
Woodley reaffirms her genuine movie star qualities; she’s smart, charismatic and destined for a long career. Another top-notch performer, Kate Winslet, plays a villain for the first time, which carries with it its own pleasures.
It’s just all in service of a story that treads recognizable ground in muddled fashion. You know exactly where it’s going even if you’re not sure you understand exactly how it will get there.
Directed by Neil Burger
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet