Embargoed for Thursday. ... A girl trying to find her place in a post-apocalyptic world is so been there, done that. But that didn’t stop “Divergent” – all 140 minutes of it – from happening. It’s the latest film adaptation of a dystopian-set young-adult trilogy. And despite a title that promises something atypical, there’s nothing different about this first installment culled from Veronica Roth’s smash series of books.
A girl trying to find her place in a post-apocalyptic world is so been there, done that. But that didn’t stop “Divergent” – all 140 minutes of it – from happening. It’s the latest film adaptation of a dystopian-set young-adult trilogy. And despite a title that promises something atypical, there’s nothing different about this first installment culled from Veronica Roth’s smash series of books.
That being said, Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”), kicks futuristic butt as Tris Prior, the film’s unlikely heroine. Once I stopped envying her voluminous ponytail and unfairly comparing her to Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, Woodley really grew on me. I believed her character’s transformation from dutiful daughter to dynamic warrior in the Dauntless faction, the bravest of the five societal groups that classify citizens based on their aptitudes and values. At age 16, a trippy test is administered to determine which faction you fit. A “Choosing Ceremony” ensues, where you’re free to pick what you want, but the choice is for life. The other factions are: Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), Amity (the peaceful) and Candor (the honest). People like Tris are called “Divergent,” meaning she fits into more than one faction, making her a threat to society’s peace. It’s Kate Winslet’s job as leader of Erudite to obliterate these nonconformists to avoid future conflict.
The script from Vanessa Taylor (“Hope Springs”) and Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) has Tris spending most of the movie trying to keep her Divergent status secret while training in something called the “Pit” to make the Dauntless team, despite odds stacked against her. She gets bloodied, bruised and beaten by her “Spectacular Now” co-star Miles Teller and bullied by her leader Eric (Jai Courtney). But, like Katniss Everdeen, you can’t count a beautiful teen rebel out. Especially when the stakes grow to life-and-death proportions, as Jeanine Matthews (Winslet) manipulates the Dauntless faction to carry out the execution of the Abnegation tribe, which includes Tris parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn).
Tris is aided in her quest to stop the slaughter by the mysterious Four (Theo James), her hot-on-top-of-hot Dauntless instructor. His square jaw and black back tats should each receive their own credit. For his part, James does an admirable job with a one-note character (they all are, really) who is serious and brooding. Perhaps he develops a personality in the second film, “Insurgent,” due out next year. Tris’s fellow initiates played by Zoe Kravitz and Ben Lloyd-Hughes aren’t given anything to do, either.
Director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) charges Woodley with carrying the film on her slender shoulders. She charms with her mix of naïveté and strength, and is all smiles when she wins a capture the flag-like training challenge, and later, jabbing a punching bag until her knuckles bleed. She’s in it to win it. Woodley’s performance isn’t enough, however, to rise above a rote script that stays faithful to the book, which will likely please Roth’s built-in audience, but will likely leave the rest divided.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @danabarbuto.
DIVERGENT(PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality). Cast includes: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller. Grade: C+