A wise man once said something about counting your chickens before they hatch; once again, Hollywood has ignored that particular bit of wisdom in its never-ending stampede towards a quick buck. With trilogies and quadrilogies and whatever you want to call Marvel’s epic run all the rage these days, every studio wants a few of their own. Sometimes that means ignoring the needs of the first movie in favor of setting up all the others, which usually ensures that “all the others” never make it to screen. Ask The Golden Compass. Ask Green Lantern. And ask Divergent, which demands that we eagerly embrace the delights of deferred payoffs while they get all the messy exposition out of the way.
That said, it still beats Twilight eight ways from Sunday, which is important since it clearly follows that playbook. (The Hunger Games is actually closer in tone, though that saga outclasses Divergent many times over). Its message of finding your individuality amid extreme pressure to conform is well taken, and it earns brownie points for delivering a heroine with genuine spunk and personality, instead of another vapid cheerleader. She goes by the name of Tris (Shailene Woodley), and in the future Chicago where she lives, society has divided itself into five distinct castes. Everyone gets sorted in their teenage years and lives out their lives fulfilling duties specific to their caste. But when someone doesn’t fit into a neat category, they’re labeled “Divergent” and bad men with guns show up.
Tris starts out training for the Dauntless caste, charged with policing the city and guarding the walls. (There’s an enemy out there, but we never find out who or what… presumably until one of the sequels comes along.) But it soon becomes clear that she’s not like the rest of them, and with a sinister Hillary Clinton clone (Kate Winslet) on her tail, the time soon comes to-
Wait, scratch that. The time never really comes, save for an interminable action climax that resolves nothing and clarifies less. Beyond that, it’s a whole lot of training scenes. So many, many training scenes, tastefully shorn of drama (or indeed anything that might construe a plot) and repeatedly pounding us on the head with its message lest we forget it. Divergent clearly left its subtlety at the door, but that can’t help it deliver any dialogue or development worth talking about: just interminable struggles with Tris’ uniqueness, her outsider status and the fact that someone may (but never really does) try to kill her for them at any time.
That may sound a bit harsh, but when you’re teetering on the verge of unconsciousness for two hours, it leaves a mark. Divergent does better in the technical categories, which carry a lot of polish and help sell this world as a viable place to host a movie trilogy. The acting works too. Woodley knows her way around the camera, and unlike Twilight, her character faces real alienation and exclusion before finding her purpose in life. The bar stands pretty low on this front (Katniss Everdeen notwithstanding), so any signs of honest-to-god girl power need to be met with thunderous applause.
And yet for all that, director Neil Burger never gets the drama out of second gear. This material likely played a lot better on the printed page, where we could really get into Tris’s head and follow her turbulent thoughts. Burger has to make do with plaintive glances and a lot of talking that doesn’t add up to anything interesting. With the world fleshed out, it wouldn’t take much to breathe life into this storyline. Apparently, we have to hold on for that, and with the level of competition readily available, holding on feels like testing our patience.
I’ll be interested to hear what fans of the book think of this film. For my part, I found it a pretty appendix rather than stand-alone entertainment, and while future entries in the series are promised, I did not see one compelling reason to care. Yes, you need a strong foundation to make a franchise work, but many of the biggest sagas in cinema managed to do well enough on their first outing to justify the exercise. Divergent has a few things going for it, but the bulk of its interesting material appears to be on back order. And no one has ever enjoyed themselves by being told to sit and wait.