When a trend gets hot, the entertainment industry rushes to fill every corner of mass media with clones in hopes of cashing in. Whether it be publishing, TV (looking at you, CW Network), or film, the Sci-Fi teen drama is all the rage. From dystopian societies that force kids to fight each other to the death, to secret cabals of vampires and werewolves that fight each other for the affections of a vapid, uninteresting girl, to the sons and daughters of mythological Greek demigods fighting their parents’ battles, recent pop culture has been weighed down with this surging new genre.
And now we have Divergent. The book trilogy, by Veronica Roth is in the process of becoming a film trilogy (or quadrilogy if it follows recent Hollywood trends) and the first film hits theaters this week.
The film stars Shailene Woodley (Spectacular Now) as Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a young woman who doesn’t fit into the caste system that society has evolved into after a devastating war. Because she can’t be labeled, she is known as a “divergent”–hence the title. The five castes, or factions, as they are known, represent the five pillars of society. You have the warriors, the thinkers, the judges, the doers, and the givers. Of course they all have better names, like Amity, Candor, Erudite, Dauntless and Abnegation.
Prior to her 16th birthday, Tris–a lifelong, second generation giver–takes a test that is supposed to tell her which caste she belongs to, but when the results come back inconclusive, she takes the opportunity to choose for herself and she sides with the fun loving, warrior/police class called Dauntless. There she meets Four (Theo James), who has a history himself of leaving behind his giver upbringing to join the badass warrior caste. Four has a rival in the guise of Eric (Jai Courtney), who also serves as one of the trainers. These two young men bump chests more often than not and Tris is caught in the middle as Four instantly, um, respects her. We’ll go with that.
Tris befriends a few other new recruits and soon they are all turning on each other as it becomes a competition to even stay with the Dauntless faction, because kids fighting each other–sometimes to the death–for status is apparently the future if all of this fiction is to be believed.
Of course, Tris and Four fall in love at the same time that the Erudite (thinkers) faction, led by Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) makes a play to overthrow Abnegation, or the ruling class, led by Marcus Eaton (Ray Stevenson) by using the Dauntless as their personal soldiers, and then all hell breaks loose.
This is where Divergent shines. The story of the factions using and manipulating each other is terribly more interesting than a shaky, underdeveloped and underperformed love story. The film sizzles when the power play begins, but up to that point, it feels like an overlong, and seldom watched, CW Network TV show.
As a 40-year old male, maybe the film is just not for me. Good genre films will transcend their intended audiences and appeal to everyone. Divergent fails to do that. Neil Burger (Limitless) is afraid to cut the film, so the two-and-a-half hour run time is excruciatingly noticeable throughout. Screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor try to remain as close to the 487 pages source novel as possible, and that too signals a failure. I understand that the huge fan base demands that everything be true to the book, but if they want the book, then read the book.
In fact, all of Tris’ friends are essentially worthless here, and the only bright spot is in Peter (Miles Teller), who plays the guy as the dick he’s supposed to be. I cannot remember the names of Tris’ other friends, further showing how forgettable they were and how deserving they were to be cut from the film altogether.
It’s also evident that Burger did whatever possible to show the Dauntless faction as the true party, “fun time” faction. Every time we see them, they are running and laughing, parkouring all over a futuristic, war torn Chicago. The other castes dress in drab colors and work hard in the fields, or at desks studying, or in the alleyways feeding the poor, all while the warriors have fun. I didn’t care much for being hit over the head with which faction was supposed to be the best, and by the end of the film, I was rooting for the Erudite to actually succeed in their coup de tat.
Divergent is the first film is what Summit Entertainment hopes will be a franchise. It will be wildly successful for a week or two and will then be buried by Steve Rogers and Marvel Studios. A long, boring film that appeals only to tweens, young women, and bored housewives just won’t have the legs to be a powerhouse that all involved hope it will be.
I am slightly interested to see how the uprising plays out, I just hope that the producers hire an editor or two capable of making the hard decisions to leave something on the cutting room floor, so the subsequent films run faster, leaner, and ultimately better.
Divergent is rated PG-13 and opened in theaters on Friday, March 21.