Film review: Society is divided in Divergent’s thin premise

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Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley and Theo Jones, tries to capture the young dystopian movie audience, but never quite catches fire. Divergent, starring Shailene Woodley and Theo Jones, tries to capture the young dystopian movie audience, but never quite catches fire.

It’s the distant future. The citizens of what was once Chicago live in a dystopian society—is there any other kind of post-apocalypse?—that is divided into five factions. Members of Erudite are intelligent. Amity are peaceful farmers. Candor speaks truthfully and handles the law. Abnegation is selfless and runs the government. And then there’s Dauntless, the brave. They handle security. The factions exist to keep peace.

That’s what Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) lays out in Divergent’s opening voiceover, and that’s as much backstory as we get. Maybe that’s because Beatrice has blindly accepted the world in which she lives. She’s part of Abnegation, the faction that helps others and doesn’t look in mirrors. (Maybe if she looked in a mirror, she’d realize how odd it is that she’s always wearing false eyelashes.)

The central conceit of Divergent—that society willingly lives in these factions—is pretty thin. No one, post-war, said, “Hey, we’re all individuals. I want to read books and help the poor and fire guns.”

Of course not! Then there wouldn’t be obstacles for Beatrice to overcome, starting with what happens when she has to choose a new faction. See, each kid is tested at roughly 18, and the test results reveal which faction they should join as adults. Most kids choose the faction they’ve been brought up in. Some go to a different faction. And once you choose: No take backs!

Beatrice has a problem: She tests as a divergent, a person who shows aptitude for more than one faction. Her tester, Tori (Maggie Q), who has a habit of showing up when the plot needs her to, fudges Beatrice’s results to make her appear as Abnegation. Divergents, apparently, are a threat and usually killed.

At the choosing ceremony, Beatrice joins Dauntless. Based on the actions of other Dauntless members, they should be called “Careless Assholes,” but why quibble with Divergent’s grand design?

Beatrice renames herself Tris and develops gooey feelings for her trainer, Four (Theo Jones, who’s admittedly dreamy). She makes friends with Christina (Zoë Kravitz, a great example of the perils of nepotism), and enemies with Peter (Miles Teller, who’s given too little screen time) and Eric (Jai Courtney). Eventually she runs afoul of Jeanine (Kate Winslet, who’s just right), the Erudite leader who’s maybe plotting to overthrow the Abnegation faction.

There’s a lot of fat in Divergent’s 139-minute running time that could be trimmed. But without teeth, what qualifies for cutting? Who would say, “Nah, these recruits can have fewer heartfelt conversations, and fewer trips to the tattoo parlor, and fewer conversations that are pure exposition.”

And there’s also the troubling notion that all people with intelligence (that’s Erudite) are scheming to control everyone else. Does Divergent know it’s anti-intellectual?

There are some nifty moments amid the humdrum. The psychological tests that each new Dauntless member must undergo provide some stunning visuals. And Woodley, who’s mostly pitch-perfect, has a dynamite scene during which she, in order to save the planet (or maybe just Chicago), points one of her enemy’s guns directly at her forehead and tells him to shoot.

In the end, it’s much ado about nothing, especially when the ending—after the necessary gun fights—doesn’t really set up a sequel. The movie peters out, as if they grew tired of stretching a 90-minute idea into nearly two and a half hours.

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