There's no avoiding this issue: there's no way to talk about Divergent without comparing it to The Hunger Games.
This, of course, is what studio Summit Entertainment wants. With Twilight having wrapped up, the studio was looking for their next huge young-adult franchise hit. And with The Hunger Games raking in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, why not pick another YA book series about a girl in a dystopian society who challenges her place in said society while being embroiled in the requisite love triangle/forbidden love?
But Divergent, based on the first book in Veronica Roth's trilogy, doesn't quite hit those notes like The Hunger Games does. Obviously, these are not the same stories. Divergent follows Tris (Shailene Woodley), a young girl born in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. Society has been divided into five "factions" based on personality traits: Abnegation (the ruling faction, known for generosity), Dauntless (the brave, serving as protectors), Erudite (the intelligent, who want to overthrow Abnegation), Amity (the friendly, working as farmers), and Candor (the honest, who are lawyers, naturally). Tris - born into Abnegation - chooses to join Dauntless after her aptitude test (this universe's version of Harry Potter's Sorting Hat) proves inconclusive. Tris is "divergent," meaning that she doesn't fit into any of the five factions, and therefore is a threat to the stability of this society.
The film aspires to be the next big dystopian adventure hit. But it fails in a few big ways.
More (mild spoilers) after the jump.
The film's biggest failure is the most crucial element to this kind of story: world-building. There's an opening exposition about how terrible "the war" was that left at least North America in shambles, yet there aren't any details about what exactly happened. Similarly, the importance of the faction system to maintaining a peaceful society is asserted over and over again, by Tris' voiceover and multiple other characters, but there's never a reason for this given. In fact, for most of the film, these sort of details are explained with an implicit "because we said so." Overall, this raises more questions than it answers. Why are the factions based on personality types? Why these particular five types and their corresponding roles? Why is this so important?
Compare this to The Hunger Games. The competition itself comes with a sense of history - the one in the first film is the 74th Annual Hunger Games, implying that this ritual has been conducted for decades. The division of Panem, the fictional nation in which the film takes place, makes sense: geographic districts based on the industries that dominate the region. There's a sense of class divisions and unrest amongst the districts, stemming from the conflict that first destroyed whatever Panem was before. In short, the film creates a believable world with realistic stakes, which in turn informs the action of the main narrative and lends it importance and plausibility.
Yet Divergent doesn't have this. Instead, Tris' journey to stop Erudite leader Jeanne (Kate Winslet) from violently overthrowing the Abnegation faction doesn't carry much weight because its unclear why this matters. There's no clear case given for why Erudite would want to rule other than "because they're evil," which gives the film an unusual anti-intellectual bent (particularly with Tris choosing Dauntless; better to be pugnacious than smart, it seems). There are no motivations beyond "these are heroes, these are villains." And the world of this future Chicago (which isn't given a name) doesn't carry a sense of history. There was a war that everyone agrees was terrible, and a giant fence meant to keep "them" out, but there's no indication of what happened, who "they" are, and why "they" are still a threat.
The problem here is very simple: Divergent wants to build a mystery for the audience to get engaged in, dangling little bits of information with answers promised in the film's three planned sequels. But there's not enough here to actually prove enticing. The vagueness that the film wants to hook viewers with does the opposite: it drains all of the stakes and energy from the narrative, leaving the film feeling like an incomplete first act at best, a shallow, dystopian paint-by-numbers at worst. It ends without any real reason to care about what comes next.
Which is a shame, because the film's not a total wash. There are a few scenes that work really well, such as a capture-the-flag game that is not only thrilling, but also organically builds the budding romance between Tris and Dauntless leader Four (Theo James). Director Neil Burger, previously best known for 2006's other dueling magician film The Illusionist and the 2011 Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless, proves to be quite adept with the film's action sequences, and keeps things visually interesting even when plot developments are telegraphed early. The performances are mostly fine too, with Woodley showing off an impressive physicality and Ashley Judd making the most of a glorified cameo as Tris' mother. It's the men who have the worst of it: James isn't a particularly expressive actor, Jai Courtney, as Four's friend/rival Eric, mostly glares from under his Macklemore haircut, and Tony Goldwyn and Ray Stevenson are basically just there to be "complicated" father figures.
And yet, for all of that, there's one particular scene that stands out. It happens late in the film, with a test that requires Tris to face her four biggest fears in a serum-induced simulation. The first three are fairly routine for this sort of film, but it's the fourth - her biggest fear - that stands out. It's not killing her family, nor is it anything like heights or spiders. It's Four sexually assaulting her. This is an unusual take for a film aimed at playing it safe; it's an openly feminist moment that feels smart and assured, a reminder that Tris is a woman and faces the same challenges of women everywhere. It's a brief flash in the film - no longer than ten seconds of the running time - yet it speaks volumes more about Tris and her world than anything else in the film.
It's a shame that the rest of the film wasn't bold enough to follow along this same path. Despite having some fine elements, Divergent never manages to feel like anything more than a Xerox copy of other, better films. Being a little more dauntless wouldn't hurt it. C