Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: Divergent (2014)

A really late review, but it's here...

Divergent (2014)

I'll be frank: I did not expect Divergent to be this good. In fact, going in, I had virtualy no expectations for Divergent. Having admittedly never read the book trilogy that this film is based on, everything just came off as a poor man's Hunger Games, an attempt to cash in on the runaway success of that series. The action and the post-apocalyptic Chicago setting looked cool, and the casting of Shailene Woodley (fresh off of The Spectacular Now and The Descendents proving she wasn't just an ABC Family central-casting starlet), Ashley Judd, and Kate Winslet was a sign that this wasn't going to be a cheap film at the very least, but going by the trailers alone, the story came across as a mess of cliches. A teenage girl finds out that she doesn't belong in any of the five cliques (this is a teen-lit adaptation, I'm calling them cliques) that society is organized into, and that this gives her special powers of some kind that The Man wants to suppress, so she joins the underground resistance... it came off like Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (pretty much the primer on "epic" storytelling) mixed with some fanfic-y Mary Sue writing and nods to what's popular in "young adult" fiction today. Again, I've never read the books, but that was the first impression that the trailers gave me for this, which was a sign of, at the very least, poor marketing, and worse, a derivative plot. Furthermore, knowing that this film was to be the first in a trilogy left me with little hope for a solid resolution at the end, expecting it to wrap up instead on an act-two cliffhanger meant to lead into the sequel.

Really, the only reason I saw this in the first place was because the theater was located in the same mall as the GameStop where I had preordered InFamous: Second Son, and I thought that they were holding a midnight release. The theater likewise premieres all new movies on Thursday night, so I figured that I could catch the movie and then wait around for the midnight release afterwards. (Turns out they weren't holding a midnight release, but I was still able to sell some old games to put down for store credit.) I grabbed my ticket early, walked around for a bit to pass the time, and returned about 20 minutes before showtime to find the first sign of how much I had underestimated Divergent's popularity -- the line to see it stretched out of the theater into the mall's hallway, and when they finally started letting people in, it was a packed house. The second sign was when I had my ticket checked and they were handing out posters, which my fellow moviegoers were eagerly gobbling up.

I grabbed a poster for myself (because hey, free swag), and as of today, it is going on my bedroom wall. I am not ashamed to say that I was wrong about Divergent, because, while it didn't blow me away, it had more than enough good going for it for me to give it a firm recommendation for sci-fi fans, teenagers, and even action buffs. Furthermore, it made me reconsider having written off the book as a Hunger Games clone; indeed, when I finally pick up InFamous: Second Son, I'll also be stopping into Books-a-Million and grabbing a copy of Divergent the book.

Given that the aforementioned plot description was a grotesque oversimplification, I'll restate it a bit more accurately: a hundred years after a nuclear war, Chicago, walled off from the rest of the world, is the last bastion of human civilization as far as its inhabitants know it. There, society has been divided into five factions for the purpose of maintaining a stable, orderly society: Abnegation, which values selflessness and whose members work as civil servants while living sparse, frugal lives (even keeping their mirrors locked in closets so as to keep from becoming vain); Amity, composed of kind, peaceful types who mostly work as farmers, nurses, and artists; Candor, which cherishes honesty and whose members therefore find work as judges and lawyers (so it appears Chicago has fixed an age-old problem, then); Erudite, the scholars, scientists, and teachers who value intelligence; and Dauntless, the fearless daredevils who serve as the city's military and law enforcement, living a lifestyle that is equal parts ancient Sparta and the X Games. Our protagonist is Beatrice Prior (Woodley), a teenage girl raised by Abnegation parents who, upon her testing to determine what faction she fits best in, finds that she is, in fact, Divergent, i.e. someone who combines elements of different factions (in her case, Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless) and won't fit into the existing faction system. The test-taker (Maggie Q) forces Beatrice to cover this up, and so she settles on joining Dauntless, where she abbreviates her name to Tris and tries to keep her secret from the city's leadership, represented by Kate Winslet as Erudite head Jeanine Matthews. Jeanine is leading a witch-hunt against Divergents while accusing Abnegation of harboring them, as part of a ploy to launch a coup.

<exhales> Whew, that was a lot of ground to cover. After all, Divergent is the first in a trilogy, so some of that needed to be set up beforehand. And I didn't even get to Beatrice's romance with Tobias, aka Four (Theo James), a fellow member of Dauntless (and a Divergent himself) and instructor for new members of the faction... okay, I'll stop now. It's one of those things where, when you stop to explain it, you kind of get a sense of how ridiculous it all sounds. Fortunately, Divergent treats its subject matter with a modicum of respect without turning into Twilight-grade soapy melodrama, and even when it stumbles in its slow second act, it managed to regain my attention by the end.

Shailene Woodley and Theo James are both quite good as the leads. Woodley manages to not only look cute, but genuinely be cute for much of the movie, making her look that much more out of place among the hardcore badasses of Dauntless at the beginning. And during the third act, Woodley has little problem transitioning into badass mode herself, even channeling Buffy Summers with some of her smart-assed lines. James also manages to pull off being both tough and emotional. On their own, they're both solid. Where the problems come in, however, is when Woodley and James share the screen. Put simply, they have no chemistry whatsoever, to the point where I wasn't even convinced they were meant to be a romantic couple.

The fact that said relationship forms a solid chunk of the second act of this film was partly responsible for why the middle of Divergent seemed to move so slow. Divergent is a long film at two and a half hours, and at times, I was starting to feel it. After a very good first act that established the world and the basic conflict, the next hour meanders, with a lot of pointless digressions concerning the rivalries within Dauntless and Beatrice's acclimation to the faction. When Ashley Judd as Beatrice's mom and Kate Winslet as the ostensible villain finally showed up, I practically said "about time this movie's going somewhere!" At times, the central plot of Beatrice covering up her Divergent status seemed to be forgotten, the film spending too much time on her training and her "relationship" with Four.

When it does finally get going again, though, the fun picks up dramatically. The action in the third act is well-shot and exciting, but more importantly, we finally get some stakes back, plot developments that actually move the story forward. I was caring once more about the events on screen, reminding me that my wholehearted enjoyment of the beginning of this movie was not a fluke. Most importantly, this film can claim a leg-up on the otherwise far-superior Catching Fire in at least one respect: it has a real ending. This film has made mountains of cash, but even if it had been a flop, it would still be a complete story. It leaves enough loose threads dangling to guarantee a sequel, but when this one film is over, it's over. No cliffhangers, just a great finish.

Score: 3 out of 5

The story sounded ridiculous the first time I heard about it, and to be honest, I don't quite know if I've changed my mind on that subject yet. What I do know is that, in spite of a slow-moving second act and a lack of chemistry between the leads, this is a fun ride at the movies. Older viewers will likely roll their eyes, but if you're among the teenage set, you're bound to have a good time. It's no Hunger Games, but it's still a whole lot better than Twilight.

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