In theaters Friday, March 21
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
Yes and yes. The questions: Could this much-anticipated YA adaptation really be the second coming of The Hunger Games, and is it just as riveting? Beatrice "Tris" Prior (Shailene Woodley) might — might — just take Katniss Everdeen in a showdown of wills.
Both heroines certainly know their way around a bleak dystopian society. In Tris' world (still referred to as Chicago), the government maintains the peace by forcing 16-year-olds to choose to live in one of five communities based on their personalities. The smartest cultivate their talents in the Erudites, for example. Well, let's just list them all: The brave Dauntless group police the city; the Abnegation are selfless; the Amity group are peaceful; and the Candors are honest. Each teen is born into one particular "faction," but must still take a placement test that's intended to nudge them in the right direction. Factionless? Then prepare to live in blue-collar, low-income hell.
But during Tris' test, she learns that she is uniquely Divergent: She fits into more than one group because she's a non-conformist. A threat to the world order, her technician (Maggie Q) warns her that she can't tell a soul about her secret. Not her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn, members of the Abnegation). Not her brother (a new Erudite member). And certainly not the villainous Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), the Erudite leader who greets Tris at the Choosing Ceremony with a warmly cold smile and barely masks her contempt for any free thinker. Ah no, the symbolism isn't subtle. That's OK.
(Hi, let's break quickly here in the parenthesis for those who haven't read Veronica Roth's trilogy. The annual Choosing Ceremony is supposed to be highly dramatic, with each teen solemnly picking a faction by cutting themselves with a blade and squeezing a few drops of blood in one of five bowls. But what's the point of the placement test if the teens can overrule the results anyway? And if everyone is able to choose their factions, why are all the parents in anguish? Why don't their kids just tell them in advance? And why don't the kids just stay with their parents? For that matter, aren't selflessness and peacefulness a little too similar? Where's the Cliff's Notes for this book when you need it?
And now, back to our story. Tris has chosen the Dauntless faction, in which she tries to survive a brutal initiation process. In quick succession, she must jump through a bottomless pit and is thrown into a boxing ring to spar at a fellow trainee. Even with her Divergent status, Tris finds herself at the back of the pack in terms of her strength and moxie. Enter Theo James' Four, a Dauntless veteran who becomes a somewhat hesitant mentor. (In one of the very few instances of humor in the film, Tris wryly tells him, "You're so approachable.") With his help, Tris rises through the ranks. The blazing training montages have a dreamy and transfixing visual aesthetic. Particularly during Phase 2 of the initiation, when Tris is drugged with a serum and must subconsciously conquer her fears — without letting her hyper-thinking Divergent qualities emerge. Drink it all in.
Woodley — who admirably appears in virtually every scene of the film — blossoms from tentative teen into a wily rebellion leader. It's a tricky transformation, and, at times, the actress can't get a firm grip on the role. Though Tris is admittedly just a few years removed from adolescence, Woodley has the doe-eyed look and bouncy diction of a 2014-era high school soccer team captain. She's just not menacing enough to wield a machine gun with authority. (At least, not menacing enough yet). She does, however, put the right amount of heart and soul into her budding romance with the strapping James. Blessedly, there isn't a hometown boy pining away for her: Tris and the Dauntless golden boy merely have to overcome a secret government overthrow in order for their love to thrive.
That coup comes nearly two hours into the 143 minute film, when it appears that the film might end with Tris' tension-filled final test in Dauntless. Until that point, the thriller moves as fast as one of the speeding trains that she must learn to jump out of. But the climax is a frenzied information overload that tries to dot too many Is and cross too many Ts. (There's only one of each in the word "Divergent"). Save a little something for the sequel, guys!