Thursday, March 20, 2014
Stop me if this sounds familiar:
A spunky teen girl has grown up uncertain in a post-apocalyptic future America of meager resources and carefully controlled factions that do not intermix freely. While things seem orderly, it's only a mask for the totalitarianism that pervades their segmented society. She is drafted into a gladiator-like contest of physical and mental combat, where despite her apparent weakness she quickly demonstrates a killer instinct she didn't even know was there.
Also, hunky boys abound, both helpful and not.
Yes, "Divergent" is close enough to "The Hunger Games" in basic plot and tone to make you wonder if the novelists on whose books these respective movies were based, Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins, did not share some kind of harmonic psychic tap while composing their YA tomes. It also begs the question of how this new dystopian thriller/drama can possibly still seem fresh.
Short answer: it doesn't.
But "Divergent," despite frequent bouts of tremendous silliness, manages to engage and entertain in a way that those turgid "Games" have not.
Shailene Woodley, who impressed so well in "The Descendants" awhile back, plays Beatrice, a member of the Abnegation tribe, which professes selflessness. Dubbed "Stiffs" by the others for their Amish-like reserve, they act as ruling party.
While close to her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Beatrice has never felt like she belonged, more attracted to the Dauntless, the fearless warrior class who act as military for the remnants of Chicago, which they've protected from untold horrors out in the wasteland by a massive wall.
Other factions are the Amity, peaceful farmers; Candor, the forthright speakers of law; and Erudite, the scientists and intellectuals. (Though for some reason everyone pronounces it "air-ee-uh-dite," including the Erudites themselves, which makes one ponder how smart they really are.)
Every youngster is given a test to determine which faction best suits them, in the public Sorting Hat-like ceremony that brings in shades of Harry Potter. While they're still free to choose, most children stay in the faction to which they were born.
Beatrice tests as being equally strong in three factions (Erudite, Abnegation and Dauntless), which brands her as Divergent, who are generally killed upon discovery. She is warned never to reveal this to anyone, and follows her heart to the Dauntless clan, leaving disappointed parents behind.
The bulk of the story (screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor) is consumed by the indoctrination of Tris -- as she renames herself -- into the martial world of the Dauntless. She's spurred on by Four (Theo James), her instructor-slash-love-interest. Friends are made, foes are too, and it's one (over)long Lord of the Flies tale.
After a series of dream-like simulations designed to make Tris face her deepest fears, things finally build up to the brink of war, with the maddeningly serene leader of the Erudites (Kate Winslet) at the center of the conflict.
Directed by Neil Burger ("Limitless"), "Divergent" is a bit bloated at 139 minutes, with several extraneous characters in need of trimming.
But there's a giddy mix of fun and danger here missing from "The Hunger Games." Several sequences exist simply for the sheer thrill of it, such as a zipline ride down from the top of a skyscraper.
"Divergent" might better be titled "Derivative," but by besting is predecessors in sheer entertainment quotient, it stands atop the heap of young adult fiction-turned-movies.