Film review: DIVERGENT, from Built For Speed

Fitting somewhere between Twilight and The Hunger Games in terms of subject matter, scenario, characters and quality, Divergent is the latest cinematic adaptation to emerge from the lucrative teen lit genre.

Based on the series of novels by Veronica Roth, the film sees the very Katniss-like heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) battling for survival and attempting to discover her identity in the old post-apocalyptic dystopia, this time a devastated and walled-off Chicago.  The identity crisis element in this film is more explicit than in other teen lit adaptations as this futuristic society is divided into factions characterised by specific personal qualities: there’s the spacey and compassionate new age Abnegation or selfless ones who rule the world, Amity (the peaceniks), Candor (the truthful ones), Erudite (the intelligentsia) and Dauntless (the brave warrior class).  At 16 years of age everyone has the opportunity to choose a faction.  In this supposedly stable society, inhabitants are fine if they slot into a faction but if they’re a divergent – one who doesn’t fit any of these classifications – they’re relegated to a ghetto or worse.  Triss, who comes from an Abnegation family, surprisingly decides to join Dauntless but fears she may not fit any of the factions.  The concept of this stratified and labelled society is very obviously designed to connect with teens’ competing concerns about being independent but also belonging and to tap into their sense of identity confusion. 

Tris, like The Hunger Games’ Katniss, is meant to be the avatar of every teenage girl in the audience: attractive, feisty, humane and endearingly vulnerable.  In the early part of the film it’s very difficult to ignore the feeling that Shailene Woodley is simply a Jennifer Lawrence wannabe.  As the film progresses, though, she proves to be a sympathetic and convincingly physical heroine in her own right.  The rest of the cast are, however, a collection of teen lit stereotypes including the mandatory love-interest, the oddly named Four (Theo James), who looks like he should be on a Milan runway and who flings off his shirt at every opportunity.  An American-accented Kate Winslett does a reasonable job as the corporatised ruler of this new Chicago.  Ashley Judd also briefly appears as Triss’s mother although an underwritten role gives her little chance to register a memorable performance.

With most of the film focusing on the Dauntless induction process and training regime there’s a plethora of boot camp clichés with arrogant bully drill sergeants, bastardisation scenes and slime ball rival recruits.  There’s also James Cameron-approved military fetishism with Dauntless members decked out in flashy looking fatigues and conveying their sexual prowess through their skill with weaponry.

Importantly, for this genre, the film moves at a reasonable gallop with consistent action that is for the most part inventively filmed even if some of the fight sequences are pretty clunky.  The film also contains some tense and nightmarish scenes depicting an Inception-like technique used to explore the candidates’ psyches and particularly their most potent fears. 

In a film market less crowded with heroic warrior teens and grim vistas of a violent future, Divergent would have seemed like an impressive piece of sci-fi action but in the cinema of 2014 there’s an unfortunate odour of production line about it.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Sci fi/ action.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Neil Burger.

Release date: 10th April 2014

Running time: 139 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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