Divergent: Overhyped, Underwhelming?

divergent_posterVery few films can live up to their over-hyped expectations, and Divergent, the most-eagerly awaited film this season, is one of the recent victims of ultra-size expectations.

First we heard that “Divergent” likely would become the same phenomenon that “Hunger Games” is.  Then we read in magazine and saw TV programs predicting that the movie’s star, Shailene Woodley, 22, would become Hollywood’s new megastar, following in the footsteps of Jennifer Lawrence (who’s only one year older).

Based on viewing “Divergent,” I regret to report that this adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Young Adult (YA) novel is something of a disappointment, or underwhelming achievement.  Though the storytelling takes its time (the film is two hours and 20 minutes), “Divergent” doesn’t satisfy as a stand-alone feature; it feels more like the first installment of a franchise (whch we know is in the works, with already established release dates of the future segments).

DIVERGENTSeveral characters are introduced but then remain underdeveloped, or altogether disappear.  Too many situations and potential conflicts are established but mot referred to later in the proceedings.  Add to it a last chapter that is an extended and excessive gun fight and you have a movie that tries to do too much to little effect.

Even so, benefiting from an expensive marketing campaign, this Lionsgate release should score big when it opens this weekend at your local multiplex due to the overkill publicity and the fact that the books’ millions of fans will see the movie out of curiosity, no matter how good it is and what the critical consensus is.

DIVERGENTLionsgate has given “Divergent” the same commercially lucrative treatment that it has accorded “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” both heavily targeted at and effectively reaching teen viewers, which comprise the most reliable public for American movies these days.

Neil Burger may not have been the best choice of a director for such a demanding and ambitious project. As for the two leads, the gifted Shailene Woodley and the handsome Theo James, neither gives a truly commanding or fully compelling

DIVERGENTThe tale is set in yet another dystopian society, in which a single chosen heroine and prominent time given over to a moony, chaste romance, “Divergent” certainly fits that bill.

This time around the decaying city is Chicago, but based on the film’s uncertain visual style, it could have taken place in any other big metropolitan city.

Once again, the newly organized social order is divided into five distinct factions based on personality types, named (in alphabetical order) Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, though no convincing or specific explanation is provided as to the origins or the names, or why some titles are adjectives, while others are nouns.

DIVERGENTWe soon learn that at the crucial age of 16, the youngsters must choose the faction where they will live, based on a strange test aims to determine their skills and suitability to a particular place and lifestyle. The results remain secret so that the exam-takers can choose the faction they like. In fact, some opt to stay where they were born and raised.

The intelligent and appealing actress Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior, the daughter of an Abnegation official (Tony Goldwyn, well cast), lives with her mother (Ashley Judd, not so well cast) and twin brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort).  It’s quickly established that Beatrice is not at ease with her faction’s lifestyle.  For better or worse, her test result suggest that she’s versatile enough at three different skillsets.

Maggie Q, her examiner, rushes the girl out of the building, explaining that she is a rare species of “Divergent,” and must keep this information secret or else she will become the subject (or rather victim) of some bad actions. Should Beatrice listen t her and accept the verdict? It’s a tough call as she is given different kinds of signals and warnings from various, somehow mysterious, individuals.

SHAILENE WOODLEY stars in DIVERGENTAt the crucial date, the Prior twins shockingly opt for new factions. Caleb chooses the snobbish Erudite, a faction led by the powerful Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), whereas Beatrice selects the warrior class Dauntless, a bizarre aerially detraining bunch.

Given the new, cooler name of Tris during the initiation process, Beatrice learns how to take skyscraper trust falls and participate in brutal matches with her mates. To her chagrin, she also finds out that those who fail are quickly cast out to join the factionless caste on the streets.

DIVERGENTAdding color to the proceeding are a couple of bickering instructors: Four (Theo James, bound to become a star), the sexy muscular guy who’s attracted to Tris, and Eric (Jai Courtney).

Unfortunately, the induction sequences (which are repetitious and no so interesting form a dramatic standpoint) take too much screen time, at the expense of delineating the details of a power struggle between Erudite and Abnegation, which bears fatally and fatefully dangerous consequences.

Director Burger may have felt pressure to introduce too many narrative strands, failing to invest depth and specific focus in any of them, a recurrent problem of first chapters of many franchises burdened with the need for exposition of all kinds of background information.

DIVERGENTMain problems here are the undetermined  look of the film, the failure to ground the place and time in distinctive and recognizable reality, and the lack of dramatic focus.  The helmer seems unable to distinguish important matters in the plot from trivial and inconsequential ones (though I am sure that in the longer version, prior to determining the final cut, some of these problems are taken care of.

 

Considering the nature of the tests and their significant results, there is not enough tension in the potentially thrilling narrative.  Perhaps by necessity, the scribes, Evan Daugherty and Vanessa, have omitted major sequences from Roth’s book, which would have made the movie more dramatically urgent and emotionally involving.

For a militarized, technologically conditioned dystopian society on the verge of perpetual conflicts and brutal battles, the prevalent ambience in the city seem too calm, and the characters a tad too relaxed, not worried or nervous enough to convey the strong tensions and tough challenges facing them.

Roth’s bestseller was captivating because it was a provocative chronicle of a serious dilemma concerning identity, career, and lifestyle at a crucial age. But the film doesn’t succeed in conveying effectively the urgency or resonance of that irreversible decision, namely staying at home, or leaving the safety of family behind.

The vision of the “new” Chicago in “Divergent” is not sufficiently specific to separate it from the look of other post-apocalyptic films.  In other words, unlike “Hunger Games,” the visual style here is too generic and familiar, too much of an artifice, especially given the fact that the tale was actually shot on location.

You can’t fault the actors, lead or supporting, for the shortcomings of the film, which seems stiched together by drector Burger, who had previously made the unimpressive “Limitless,” and his two writers Evan Daugherty, whose credits inclide ” Snow White and the Huntsman,” and Vanessa Taylor, the scrivbe of TV’s “Game of Thrones.”

To be fair, “Divergent” also suffers from the misfortune of being released after “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” “Hunger Games,” and countless other dystopian sci-fi-adventures.