Jaap Buitendijk

Shailene Woodley stars as Tris in “Divergent,” based on the young adult best-seller.

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  • 'Divergent' showtimes

    * * 

    Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Kate Winslet

    Director: Neil Burger

    143 minutes

    Rated PG-13 (intense violence and action, thematic elements, some sensuality)

Movie review: Derivative 'Divergent' brings little new to YA dystopia

Published: Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014 - 10:06 am
Last Modified: Monday, Mar. 24, 2014 - 11:31 am

It’s 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 we’re 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 film’s 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 girl’s 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 Woodley’s “Spectacular Now” co-star Miles Teller, seem up for anything. What they get is the same I-will-break-you-down-soldier-don’t-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.

There’s another bit that echoes “Officer” as well, but this film’s target audience of teens will not recall it. And originality and this film are strangers to each other.

Based on Veronica Roth’s 2011 novel … oh, who are we kidding? This film exists because of “Hunger Games’ ” success. Roth’s book and this movie touch on the same ideas of self-determination and finding one’s 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 it’s 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 movie’s hokey dialogue or Tris and Four as a couple.

British actor James, who played the guy who died in Lady Mary’s 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 film’s 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 movie’s 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 “Divergent’s” value. But Winslet breezes into scenes, looks smart and in charge, then breezes out.

Worse, her character’s motivations are wobbly, as is the whole system’s. 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 Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer

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