“Divergent” is a science-fiction film based on a young adult novel. Because of this, you may be inclined to make certain assumptions:
You might assume that the protagonist is a spunky heroine with a special quality that alienates her from her peers and you would be correct.
You might assume that the brooding, good-looking loner she meets early in the film will become her love interest by its end and you would be correct.
You also might assume that following an extensive origin story and a moderate third-act climax, the film's conclusion will practically beg for a sequel and once again, you would be correct.
“Divergent” doesn’t offer anything new to the “based on the best-selling young adult novel” film genre, but it succeeds where many others fail. It’s not quite as good as the Hunger Games franchise, but it is markedly better than clunkers such as last year’s “Mortal Instruments” and “The Host.” Those films were little more than teen romances disguised as sci-fi/fantasies.
“Divergent” wisely keeps its romance in check. And that restraint results in a more believable, natural narrative.
The film is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where in the aftermath of a mysterious war, survivors have built a massive wall outside the city limits of the remains of Chicago. Little is said about what happened or what still remains outside the wall, but to keep the peace, survivors have divided themselves into five “factions,” each named for its dominant character trait. One group favors truth, another is selfless, etc.
It’s an odd kind of segregation, but at least it allows for lateral mobility. Once a child comes of age, he or she is tested to see which faction is the best match for his or her personality. They can then accept that fate or choose another faction. It’s kind of a strange cross between Harry Potter’s sorting hat and NBA free agency.
But some people don’t fit so easily into a simple category, and that’s where Tris (played by Shailene Woodley) comes in. Tris was raised in the selfless Abnegation faction, but her test results identify her as a “Divergent,” a red flag of a personality that defies categorization. Since folks like her are enemies of the state, Tris keeps her test results quiet and joins the Dauntless faction, the primary character trait of which has something to do with being a reckless adrenaline junkie and getting bad tattoos. Think of them as the post-apocalyptic Cobra Kai.
The first half of the film traces Tris’ training in her new faction and her blossoming (but not too blossoming) relationship with Four (Theo James), the aforementioned brooding loner. But eventually a darker plot takes over, involving a violent political clash between two of the other factions. It’s quite a bit to handle in a first installment, and it leads to one of “Divergent’s” primary flaws — at 139 minutes, it’s just too long.
On the other hand, “Divergent” is good enough that it leaves you feeling like you wouldn’t mind seeing a second part, which should be great news for a genre that lusts after franchises like politicians lust after re-election. It features some great visuals, and it’s one of the more unique interpretations of the Chicago skyline ever put to film — or CGI, rather. If you ever wondered what it would be like to zip line from the top of the 1,000-foot Hancock tower, this may be your best chance.
None of the characters or actors in the film appear ready for superstardom (Woodley is solid as Tris, but she won’t be poaching any diehard Katniss Everdeen fans, and Kate Winslet’s presence in the supporting cast has more to do with credibility than performance), but they get the job done, and no one’s dialogue ever really dips too far into traditional young adult eye-roll territory.
If you focus too much on character development or the odd rationale behind the faction concept, you’re bound to be disappointed. Better to accept the idea as a metaphor for cultural oppression and sit back for the ride. “Divergent” may not be the most popular thrill in the theme park, but it could have been a lot worse, and you’ll probably be up for a second spin.
“Divergent” is rated PG-13 for some dark violent content, as well as some sexuality and profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.