Maybe Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games had it right all along. The adaptations of those three young adult series were difficult to enter for non-fans. The minutia of those universes, the psychology of their characters and the storylines in general relied heavily on knowledge of the text. People criticized them for it. But here we are, looking at another major young adult adaptation in Divergent and I was begging to be confused. At least then, I would have been busy trying to grasp at something instead of being bored.
Neil Burger’s big screen treatment of Veronica Roth’s uber-popular book series is as flat as a movie can be without simply being background noise. There’s no urgency. No drama. It’s like waiting for the mailman to deliver a bundle of credit card offers.
The dullness of it all stems from a story so hopelessly simple that the filmmakers seem desperate to make it something it’s not: Interesting.
Like so many YA titles these days, Divergent is set in a dystopian future. This time, we’re in a post-war Chicago that has blocked itself off from what we assume is a wasteland of a world, and created harmony through an institutionalized caste system with five separate factions.
Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) belongs to the selfless Abnegation faction, but she knows she’s meant for more than her current world allows. Lucky for her, she’s about to have a choice forced on her because of the traditional ceremony that lets a teenager pick which faction best suits her or him. But the teens have a little help from a psychological test that gets inside a young person’s head to find out where they truly belong.
When Beatrice takes the test to find out what faction fits here best, the technician (Maggie Q) rushes her out the back door because Beatrice is what is known as divergent, a person who doesn’t fit into any one faction. Divergents are a treat to the system that maintains order in society. So Beatrice has to hide her true nature once again, even when she picks a new faction, the brave Dauntless crew.
At about this point in the movie, we’re treated to what is basically the longest, most badly edited training montage in the history of cinema. As a Dauntless initiate, Beatrice, now just Tris, must go through a series of challenges, each less interesting than the last, right up to the point where we watch a capture the flag game that even lacks the drama of gym class.
This goes on for a good long while, until we finally get to the actual plot of the film: The intelligent Erudite faction is working with Dauntless to take control of the government from the Abnegation faction.
By the time this happens, we’ve sat through such a snoozer of a movie that there’s no point in caring about what’s playing out in front of us. Even the filmmakers, who can’t create an exciting moment even when excitement is thrust upon them, seem bored.
The only thing that could make the film worse at this point is if they try wedge a tepid romance in with the monotony. And try they do. There’s the Four character played by Theo James who is training the initiates, including Tris. He’s a hunk if there ever was one. More so than Twilight’s Robert Pattinson and The Hunger Games’s Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. But all the model good looks in the world can’t overcome the fact that his character is as shallow as a desert stream.
Four and Tris are also supposed to have chemistry, something that Woodley and James can’t seem to achieve no matter how hard they try. There’s no help from to hamfisted editing that treats the slip of a hand for a romantic moment without lingering there to makes us feel it.
Both James and Woodley are better actors than this, as Downton Abbey and The Descendents have illustrated, respectively. Yet, they too can’t seem to overcome the fact that this movie, this story and this universe are as dull and pointless as standardized testing. In fact, I’d rather take the SATs again then have to watch this movie one more time.