The consensus on Divergent, the latest piece of young adult literature to be rendered onto the big screen, is that it’s a watered-down Hunger Games ripoff (often accompanied by an uninspired pun on the title and the film’s lack of originality, and an underlying assumption that art directed at teenage girls is inherently inferior). I’m not convinced that’s a fair criticism. Whatever you think about Divergent’s similarity to the blockbuster Jennifer Lawrence series, the film is a failure, polluting what could’ve been an engaging metaphor for coming-of-age with drab execution and ill-advised subtext.
Divergent’s post-war setting concerns a society where people are categorized into separate “factions” because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that putting people in uniform and ideologically opposed groups is the best way to avoid conflict. The setting has similarity to that of Hunger Games, admittedly, but despite that, it has very different goals; Hunger Games indirectly examined the influence of the media and publicity, from reality television to mainstream news, while Divergent uses its setting as a specific representation of the challenges of the teenage years.
Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) discovers that she is a “divergent,” not fitting into any one faction. She’s told that she’s dangerous – because she doesn’t conform, “they can’t control her.” A familiar sentiment to any teenager who knows that they’re special, while everyone else is compliant, conformist. Boring. This introduction is promising, swiftly powering through exposition in a fascinating, devastated Chicago, grey streets filled with colourfully-uniformed faction members. Unfortunately, that promise is soon squandered.
When Beatrice elects to join faction Dauntless – the soldier faction, who do parkour and sport red mohawks – at her choosing ceremony, abandoning her parents, it’s a realisation of the teenage desire to escape the nest and seek danger. She even adopts a new name: “Tris.” It should come as no surprise when joining Dauntless proves less “fun,” more “gruelling and dangerous,” with Tris simultaneously struggling to succeed in challenging physical trials all the while trying to fit in and conceal how special – divergent – she is.
Narrative momentum is stalled by an interminable Dauntless training sequence that’s lacking in tension or, most egregiously, any sense of humour. While Tris’ experience is intended to be difficult, the mood is too grim. She befriends a handful of fellow Dauntless converts, but aside from Tris’ burgeoning romance with gruff trainer Four (Theo James), the attempts at character development are perfunctory and unconvincing. That fascinating Chicago setting is largely abandoned for the murky underground of Dauntless headquarters or the Apple-store-futurism of Erudite.
The last act shifts into action, which should be a welcome change … except the action sequences are invariably poorly constructed. They consist mostly of actors shooting prop guns at one another, director Neil Burger contributing neither a sense of space nor tension. You get the sense that Burger is going through the motions, directing but never contributing actual direction. The cast – Woodley aside – are similar underwhelming. James, in particular, adds little to the film but a pretty face, a chiselled chest and the ability to learn fight choreography.
Divergent’s coming of age allegory has universal appeal on the surface, but digging a little deeper reveals a more insidious subtext. Laurence Barber pointed out on Twitter that conservative Christian ideals have bled into the narrative in some discomfiting ways. Tris’s parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) belong to the Abnegation faction; defined by selflessness and charity, they’re unsubtle analogues for Christians. This isn’t problematic in of itself, but gradually the plot opens up into a conspiracy led by Erudite (the stuffy intellectual faction) to usurp Abnegation’s power through brainwashing the masses with chemicals. The Christian paranoiac undertones – intellectuals are going to wrench power from religions! – are disturbing; especially in light of Erudite’s early attempts to compromise Abnegation’s credibility by accusing them of child abuse.
If you disregard Divergent’s worrying subtext and its vanilla direction, there are elements that hint at the film it could have been. The score – from Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer – is genuinely great, though occasionally overbearing. Woodley, one of the finest young actresses working today, continues to impress. There’s one moment that truly resonated for me, largely thanks to her performance. When Tris first enters the Dauntless headquarters, she surveys the scope of life there, a crowd of attractive youngsters training and socialising. A half-smile plays across her face for a split-second, a combination of nervousness and anticipation and excitement. It’s subtle, thrilling and, sadly, an outlier, diverging from the film’s uninspired, monotonous approach.
This review was originally published at This is Film.