There are times while watching DIVERGENT where I felt like I needed a flow chart to keep track of all of the various factions that exist in this tiny corner of the earth that looks a lot like a run-down, grown-over Chicago, where Lake Michigan and the Chicago River have all but dried up, and apparently it's possible to zip line from the top of the Hancock Building to somewhere in the Loop. That part of the film is actually pretty cool. But basically all you need to know (and accept) about this caste system is that this existence is divided into five groups, including ones made up of the intelligentsia, warriors, truth tellers, hippies and the selfless, who are for whatever reason deemed the most worthy to be the leaders of this weirdly utopian society formed after some vague war. At the age of 16, all youngsters much choose what group they want to be a part of, and if they are rejected by their chosen group, they are cast out of society.
Most kids pick the faction that their parents are in, and then there are those who are divergent, meaning they seem to show qualities of various factions, thus making them dangerous because that's what author Veronica Roth tells us and not for any logical reason. But I'll play along with the gameboard I'm given. After being diagnosed as divergent, young Tris (Shailene Woodley) chooses to become a part of the brawny group known as Dauntless, while her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) selects the brainy group (Erudite), much to the dismay of their selfless (Abnegation) parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn). While divergents are always under the gun, the leader of the Erudite group, Jeannine (Kate Winslet) is also gunning for the Abnegation followers, who she says are stealing resources, believing her clan would make better leaders.
And all of this is basically prologue to the actual story of Tris trying to prove she's worthy of being a part of the Dauntless group, fighting off naysayers and those who would sabotage her testing, including Peter, played by Woodley's THE SPECTACULAR NOW co-star Miles Teller, as well as Jai Courtney's Eric and the mysterious, watchful Four (Theo James). Needless to say, there's a whole lot of plot and backstory to get caught up on in DIVERGENT, which has a 2.5-hour running time and still feels like we're barely scratching the surface of this version of the world. Granted, there are two more films to come, but at some point we have to start getting into the real battles.
What I liked about DIVERGENT are the bold messages put forth in a sci-fi shell about identity, freedom, free will, even genocide and class war. The film is getting unfairly compared to THE HUNGER GAMES, but using Roth's template, director Neil Burger (Limitless) has put together a relatively cerebral exercise in societal criticism and commentary. Sure, he's done so with a group of attractive actors and the promise of a love story to come between Tris and Four, but even that is sidelined in this film so that the participants can figure out who they are before figuring out what sparks between them. That's something the TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES films wouldn't have dared do.
Woodley possesses just the right balance of anxiety and excitement about her new life path, while James, despite his almost ridiculous good looks, also does a credible job of keeping a little mystery behind what Four's motives are with tracking Tris' progress and giving her a boost only when her life depends on it. I would be remiss if I didn't mention just how creepy, cold and nasty Winslet is. She barely raises her voice, even at her most angry, but she conveys such a sense of evil, even though we know she likely thinks that eliminating certain factions is for the betterment of civilization. Sometimes just hiring the right actor for the job is enough to push what could be a run-of-the-mill character into something special.
While the science fiction of DIVERGENT works well, the action sequences and character development are more hit and miss. The motivation for a lot of what happens in many scenes seems to boil down to "just because" in far too many cases. And while I understand that much of that detail is left by the wayside when adapting a book into a film, it's annoyingly noticeable here. Having quality actors helps fill in some of the blanks with non-verbal cues, but there are just as many instances where that isn't the case. Still, DIVERGENT ends up working more often than not, and with all of the characters and circumstances under which they lives finally laid out for us, hopefully the next film will give us something a little meatier to bit into with its characters and plot.