Second Opinion: Divergent

I may not be the target demographic for these teen literary franchises because of my age, but I still should be cinematically. I still want to see young people empowered by creative stories. I just found Divergent to be another boring retread of established formulae. Only the terminology has been changed to make it sound new. I realize that the terminology came from a book. I’m saying all the books are the same too.

Instead of different wizarding schools or different districts, the world of Divergent has different factions. The premise that the factions are based on defining characteristics would be interesting, if anybody in those factions actually ascribed to their defining characteristic. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is divergent. She’s supposed to have multiple traits, but that only matters if the rest of the world is truly singular. However, the epitomes of Dauntless (bravery) display plenty of mercy and hesitation, and the whole of Abnegation (selflessness) doesn’t seem willing to adapt to any other factions’ needs around them. Of course, the point is that nobody can reduced to a single characteristic, but to make that point you have to actually demonstrate what would happen if they were. It doesn’t seem that hard for anyone to break free of their traits, and the only way they actually stick to them is with a mind control device in the film’s climax.

Original Review: Brian Formo says Divergent is “better than The Hunger Games.”

The world of Divergent is well assembled. When Tris has to make her choice of factions, the cheering section of each faction is as palpable as the tears of the rejected factions. The outside world seems really interesting, but we hardly get to see it. Instead, we’re stuck in a training camp with Tris and her friends. Tris and the other new Dauntless recruits have to prove themselves in a competition. Another competition, to the death for some who don’t make the cut, but at the very least banishment from all five factions for the losers. I guess simply finding a place to belong isn’t motivation enough, Divergent has to throw another life or death competition into the mix.

I may be rather picky when it comes to training movies. I think of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or Rocky. Divergent is basically an extended boot camp. Do we really need another franchise for fights and workout exercises? A better name for Dauntless would be Parkour because that seems to be all they do, jumping onto and off of things. The fights are more like minor skirmishes. There’s no spectacle.

The methods of instructors Eric (Jai Courtney) and Four (Theo James) should be obvious to anyone watching or participating. They invent new rules, and if you question it, you’re not Dauntless. The kids still have to ask and have it explained to them. It is a pretty sly intimidation tactic, but there’s no real danger that the stars of the movie will die. Maybe fourth tier players, but it’s an empty threat when it comes to Tris or even Christina (Zoe Kravitz). At least all of the training exercises do pay off in the end, but 90-100 minutes of training is still boring.

The main threat to Tris is the secret that she is divergent. Were anyone in Dauntless, or any faction, to find out she was divergent, they would kill her. This becomes somewhat interesting as Tris’s outside the box solutions in training would actually give her away. It is a good message that people should find outside the box solutions rather than the instructions they are given, but be prepared for those solutions to threaten the status quo. The story just pads itself out with the suspense of “will they find out her secret?” Well, no, because the movie’s not over yet.

Divergent only gets outside the training camp when Tris and Four climb a Ferris Wheel and see a bit of post-apocalyptic Chicago. And she takes a zip line through the burnt out city once. They get out of the training camp, virtually at least, in the fear landscapes. One of the training exercises is a chemical that gives you visions of your greatest fears. So instead of a computer simulation it’s a chemical simulation, but we’re still dealing with virtual reality like we’ve seen before and since The Matrix. Those simulations are still not the world of post-apocalyptic fenced-in Chicago where the story is supposedly taking place.

The portions of the world we do see are well made, and the performances are all sincere. Great care was clearly made to honor the book. I assume it’s faithful to the book, because that would be the only reason not to take some more interesting detours away from this basic structure. I was just hoping for something more original, or at least more daring than the same old rebels vs. conspiracy story. I just called Divergent boring. Does that make me Dauntless? 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.