Its tempting to just go with Divergent. Lead Shailene Woodley is a natural, and the movie contains some riveting sci-fi moments.
Things are fine at the start, when director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) and the effects team create a dystopian Chicago (the film was shot on location) where every other building is missing and the art deco touches are offset by lots of antennae and the big fence that rings the city.
Inside that fence are five factions to which the citizens have been assigned based on personality traits: Abnegation (selfless), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), Candor (honesty) and Dauntless (bravery). The government (ostensibly) set up these categories to better maintain order. A person is born into their parents faction, but at 16 takes an aptitude test to determine permanent placement.
So far, so contrived. But were used to it. In The Hunger Games and its sequel, a dystopian government pitted teenagers against each other in a fight to the death. And both those movies were good.
And Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now), like Jennifer Lawrence, is an actress before she is an action star. She can be effective in any cinematic world because she is so open and emotionally accessible to the viewer.
Though the lean, rangy Woodley makes Lawrence look like a WWE wrestler by comparison and does not look strong enough for the physical challenges her character, Beatrice, faces, she always lets us see how much the girl is trying, and the struggles can be as interesting as the successes.
Beatrice was born in Abnegation, the faction that governs and feeds the factionless, this films version of untouchables. Like her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn, both soulful like Woodley), Beatrice wears plain gray and tan clothing, eats mostly turnips and avoids mirrors and all hints of vanity.
The faction test is no fill-in-the-bubble exam. Beatrice is given a serum that evokes a hallucination involving mirrors and a scary force that pursues her. At this point, the film appears to enter the girls mind, immersing us in a mental challenge that seems very real. How Beatrice gets out of this bind determines her faction.
But she qualifies for three instead of one: Abnegation, Erudite and Dauntless, the latter of whose members run through the streets, climb trestles up to the El train tracks, hop on trains and then jump onto rooftops. They make other factions look like suckers.
The government, or at least the frosty Erudite honcho (Kate Winslet) who seems to lead it, does not applaud versatility, however. People like Beatrice who fit in more than one faction are considered divergent and therefore harder to control.
Beatrice, who shortens her name to Tris, picks Dauntless and is off and literally running to its headquarters in a big warehouse full of ledges and ladders and other dangerous architectural features.
Things should get even more exciting from here. They do not.
Tris and her fellow Dauntless newcomers, including a diminutive one played by Zoe Kravitz and a smart aleck played by Woodleys Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller, seem up for anything. What they get is the same I-will-break-you-down-soldier-dont-you-dare-look-me-in-the-eye drill instructor every recruit in every movie has had since An Officer and A Gentleman. Here he is played by Jai Courtney.
Theres another bit that echoes Officer as well, but this films target audience of teens will not recall it. And originality and this film are strangers to each other.
Based on Veronica Roths 2011 novel oh, who are we kidding? This film exists because of Hunger Games success. Roths book and this movie touch on the same ideas of self-determination and finding ones self through extenuating circumstances that Games does. Then it adds a dash of Twilight with a brooding, mysterious figure (Theo James, as Dauntless instructor Four) who takes a shine to the heroine.
But Twilight offered a one-of-a-kind moony romanticism impossible to re-create in a dystopian setting, and Games brings a sociopolitical resonance (1-percenters pitting the other 99 percent against each other for sport) that Divergent lacks.
Yet even knowing all this, it still would be possible to buy into this movie. Lots of stories are derivative yet still exciting to watch. Divergent, though, contains a middle stretch, during which Tris undergoes her training and falls for Four, that does not generate enough audience interest. The nearly 2 ½-hour movie never recovers that interest.
As all evil governments know, idle minds lead to discontent. As Tris keeps getting pounded in the training ring by bigger girls and boys (gender-blind progress, maybe, but its still hard to watch a boy beat a girl), your mind wanders.
You start to resist this film. That spark becomes a fire, and all those other dopey-dystopian clichés. You become less likely to accept the movies hokey dialogue or Tris and Four as a couple.
British actor James, who played the guy who died in Lady Marys bed on Downton Abbey and is attractive when not granite-faced, looks too old for Woodley.
In real life, James is 29 and Woodley is 22. Reasonable. But although the stats say yes, the visuals say no. It does not help that their romantic scenes hold the films cheesiest dialogue.
Divergent picks up when it moves more into the recruits minds, through more serum-induced hallucinatory images, this time images that force them to face their worst fears. These scenes are trippy and filled with tension.
Also, Winslet appears more often in the movies final hour. According to the Hollywood government (i.e., the Academy, which has nominated her six times and made her a winner once), this should add to Divergents value. But Winslet breezes into scenes, looks smart and in charge, then breezes out.
Worse, her characters motivations are wobbly, as is the whole systems. Is it really easier to control people by putting them in factions when you then have to police them to ensure they toe the line?
The film never explains why and how this system was put in place, referring only vaguely to the war that came before. With crucial answers denied us, moviegoing citizens must reject Divergent. Or at least resist until it comes out on streaming video.
Call The Bees Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.