Riddled with holes and drowned with countless unanswered questions. Divergent is the latest heady Young Adult science-fiction pedigree of book to screen, except it’s less than heady. Director Neil Burger (“Limitless”) does an exceptional job of making up a post-apocalyptic ruined city of Chicago, blocked off by a wall that’s supposed to keep anybody from leaving or anybody else coming in. What he doesn’t, nor the writers do, is give us any intelligent background as to why the city is sealed off from a sketchily discussed post-war.
Society has been divided up into five factions, and good luck trying to keep the names and purposes of each faction straight. The one you will undoubtedly know is Dauntless, which police and patrol the communities. Teen Shailene Woodley (from “The Spectacular Now,” and nothing wrong here with her performance) joins the Dauntless class sect of young soldiers in training, as much as one would choose a college major. But if you fail the program, you’re spit out as Factionless, a social undesirable that leaves many homeless. Consequently, the young soldiers of Dauntless are being used by one of the other factions, the arrogant one, operated under by Kate Winslet who acts as if she’s running a law firm.
As a recruit of The Dauntless, Tris must scale up steel construction beams, jump off moving trains, fall into big black holes with an unseen safety net, fight others brutally in a ring, and shoot to kill. It’s a basic-training film, but it has no thrusting dramatic momentum – we’re just waiting for a half hour and then another half hour for the script to introduce a substantial plot. One of the drill instructors is cruel (that would be Jai Courtney, I’m already tired of him after “A Good Day to Die Hard”). And the other is chick-bait Theo James, who is like a more sculpted, handsome and sensitive version of Moritz Bleibtrue (I expect none of the young “Divergent” audience to get that reference). In terms of Young Adult Casting Chemistry, Woodley and James have an enticing “taboo” rigor to their suppressed love subplot, their eventual kiss is very hot, with clothes off the film would have been rated R and not PG-13. But I digress.
The central business is wielding these young kids to commit atrocities against the tree-huggers faction for the benefit of the corrupt arrogant faction: the Erudites, I’m reminded by press notes. Woodley’s character Tris will adapt a killer instinct, will learn to not hesitate in her kill shots, except not kill the one villain at the end in the one moment she hesitates. Haven’t we seen that one before! The kill would be point blank, but there’s not enough time! Run! Tris is different from her peers in that she is hiding her “divergent” personality trait, in that she has the power of avoiding conformist thinking, alas, has the mental wiring and DNA to not be susceptible to hypnosis or manipulated by corrupt rule. The last thing the Erudites want is for citizens to have is independent thought.
We have all these embedded anti-conformist and foiling fascist government themes, but “Divergent” is simply not as interesting as “The Hunger Games.” And when it comes to young adults exploited for military purposes, it’s not as compelling or vital as the under-appreciated “Ender’s Game” from last year, which also benefitted from cool space station sets. Here we get post-apocalyptic shambles for sets, and the plot is a shamble of itself. Sure, we get kids shooting defenseless adults and some martial arts, although the coolest scene is a vertiginous zip-line across the city. But the Young Adult conceived “Divergent” is a jaded commercial property, designed to set up endless sequels, refusing to give us a complete story that will answer for us, for instance, what’s beyond Chicago – which is the most interesting question unanswered in a movie bogged down with trivial detours.
With Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Phifer, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, and a very moody Maggie Q who seems committed not to tell our heroine what “divergent” means until three-quarters of the movie has passed.
138 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / TEENS FOR HEARTTHROBS / WEEKEND THRILLS