Friday, March 21, 2014

Divergent: Solid sci-fi teen melodrama

Divergent (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action, violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Veronica Roth’s fans should be pleased.

Scripters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor have done an impressive job, condensing the author’s debut novel for its big-screen adaptation; it’s not easy fitting 487 pages into a 139-minute film. Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist) also deserves credit for guiding a solid cast through a deft blend of character angst and action set-pieces.

As a night of capture-the-flag war games commences, Tris (Shailene Woodley) climbs
an abandoned Ferris wheel in order to secure a superior vantage point, while Four
(Theo James) trails behind. Tris has a lot to prove, having disobeyed orders to join
this late-evening exercise.
Divergent is a polished, well-executed sci-fi melodrama that should have no trouble tapping into the fan base that has devoured the adventures of Harry Potter, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen.

Indeed, I deem this first cinematic installment of Roth’s trilogy noticeably superior to the first big-screen chapters of the Twilight and Hunger Games series; Daugherty and Taylor are far better at establishing back-story, and laying the groundwork for the gradually building suspense. By the same token, Roth’s cynical, cautionary take on human nature seems more probable than the gladiatorial nonsense at the heart of Hunger Games, which I’ve always found a rather unlikely pill to swallow.

But the dissolution of a so-called utopian society, due to the greed of one faction? Goodness, we know that to be psychologically sound, and it’s even happening today, in this country; we need look no further than the unchecked avarice of our current one percent.

Casting also plays a significant role, of course, and Divergent also satisfies in that respect. The core young actors are well suited to their respective roles, with star-on-the-rise Shailene Woodley admirably anchoring the narrative.

The story is set in an unspecified future, following some sort of war or cataclysm that has rendered much of the United States uninhabitable (so we’re told). What’s left of the city of Chicago has been re-built into a working civilization that is divided into five factions: Abnegation, for kind, selfless souls who place society above their own interests; Amity, for the peaceful farmers who work the land; Candor, occupied by those who value honesty above all else; Dauntless, the warrior caste that maintains peace and defends the city’s perimeter; and Erudite, for the intelligent researchers who develop and maintain all technological advances.

Upon reaching their 16th birthday, all children take an unusual “aptitude” test, to determine which faction best suits them. Those results aside, they’re allowed to select any faction during the subsequent “Choosing Day.” While most children adhere to the faction of their birth, Choosing Day always delivers a few surprises.

And, once having made this decision, it’s irrevocable. Even if young adults decide that they’re unsuited to their enclave of choice, they cannot change; at best, they can become “factionless” (i.e. homeless street-dwellers).

If this sounds a bit like Harry Potter’s sorting hat and Hogwarts’ four houses ... well, yes, that’s obvious. But Roth’s take on this process is far more intriguing from a psychological standpoint, since it revolves around the struggle between aptitude and free will.

Beatrice Prior (Woodley), raised in an Abnegation family, lacks the dedicated instincts of that caste. Her uncertainty is validated by her test, which unexpectedly reveals equal talents for Dauntless and Erudite, in addition to a soupçon of her birth faction. This outcome frightens the test monitor, Tori (Maggie Q), who warns Beatrice never to reveal these results, lest she be branded as “divergent.”

For some reason, divergents are deemed a threat to society; rumors abound of their being clandestinely killed.

On Choosing Day, Beatrice bravely selects Dauntless — despite her diminutive stature, and an absence of athletic skills — having long admired that faction’s physically fit young men and women. Re-christening herself as Tris, she thus begins to live and train with similar initiates, most of them far larger and fiercer. She makes friends, notably Christina (Zoë Kravitz), Al (Christian Madsen) and Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes).

She also makes an enemy: the arrogant Peter (Miles Teller, at his condescending best), who never misses an opportunity to belittle her.

The group is trained by a pair of Dauntless veterans: the oddly named Four (Theo James), who despite his authoritative bearing has a compassionate streak; and the much sterner Eric (Jai Courtney), who thinks nothing of risking lives in order to weed out the unfit.

Burger, Daugherty and Taylor take their time with this extended middle act, allowing us to get a strong sense of various character dynamics. We also experience the reality of the odds against Tris, and the narrative doesn’t shy from the repeated beat-downs she suffers. This puts us firmly in her corner, and Woodley delivers a persuasive blend of vulnerability and foolish determination: an underdog we can’t help admiring.

This makes her a far more interesting protagonist than Katniss, from the Hunger Games series, who enters the story with superior physical capabilities that leave little doubt about her eventual success. We’re not nearly as sure about Tris, and therefore more emotionally invested in her fate.

The greater city outside the Dauntless compound abounds with mysteries, starting with the massive fence that surrounds Chicago: What, precisely, is it intended to keep out? And what lies beyond the farmlands immediately outside this perimeter?

Perhaps more crucially, why does the Erudite leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), have such contempt for the entire Abnegation faction? Could it be jealousy, over the fact that — long ago, when this society’s rules were established — the selfless Abnegations were selected to govern, rather than the smarter Erudites?

Wheels within wheels ... within wheels. Roth spins a complicated yarn, and this film admirably hits all the high points. But don’t expect answers to all those questions; this is, after all, the first installment of a trilogy, and much will be left for subsequent chapters.

Woodley is a compelling heroine, her pluck nicely balanced by uncertainties arising from self-doubt and a growing awareness that not everything in the Dauntless faction should be taken at face value. Tris endures considerable physical and psychological torment, and Woodley projects the necessary doubt and even terror; she’s also not afraid to cry at an appropriate moment, but this never weakens our opinion of Tris’ grit.

In short, Woodley makes Tris a protagonist who earns our respect ... unlike Kristen Stewart, whose vapid, emotionless “acting” made Bella Swan a thoroughly unlikable and undeserving heroine.

The British-born James is just right as Four: crisp and commanding as required, with the charismatic presence to back up his leadership role, but also revealing a gentler side via half-smiles and mildly amused expressions. James is, in short, a solid leading man who further imbues his character with a note of mystery: We know that Four is hiding something, and we hope it isn’t something bad.

The fact that James is a hunk certainly doesn’t hurt, either; I’m sure this film’s female audience will find him suitably swoonable.

Winslet radiates lethal charm as Jeanine, a character we instinctively sense has nothing good planned for Tris ... although we really can’t nail down why Jeanine makes us uncomfortable. Winslet shades her role quite skillfully, giving us subtle reasons to dislike her, without resorting to blatantly obvious menace. She’s just creepy, somehow.

Teller and Woodley worked together in last year’s The Spectacular Now, and his character here once again is bad news for her. Peter isn’t powerful enough to be an out-and-out villain, but he certainly isn’t to be trusted. The same can be said of Courtney’s Eric, who’s just plain dangerous.

Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn have notable supporting roles as Tris’ parents, but Ansel Elgort gets short-shrifted as her brother, Caleb. We never get a solid bead on him, and a third-act revelation comes completely out of the blue: one of the few times this script fails one of its core characters.

Mekhi Phifer remains mysterious as Max, an upper-echelon Dauntless; Kravitz gets plenty of good screen time as the unwisely candid Christina (who can’t help herself, being a Candor).

Daugherty and Taylor faithfully adhere to all the essential plot points from Roth’s novel, which fans will appreciate; at the same time, the need to compress details for this film make the third act quite brutal. Dire events don’t seem quite as callous when separated by several chapters in a lengthy novel, but the accelerated pace here makes at least one trauma seem contrived and pointless.

But the events themselves are Roth’s decisions, so she’s the one being hard on her central character. No doubt she’d argue in favor of boosting Tris’ desire for payback.

The techno score comes from Netherlander Tom Holkenborg, working under his performance name of Junkie XL ... and, frankly, that rather sums up my opinion of his “music.” The soundtrack is unremarkable and even intrusive at times, notably during an early montage sequence behind a vocal song. (Harry Potter didn’t need no songs, fercryinoutloud!)

Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler and production designer Andy Nicholson have a lot of fun with this futuristic, partly devastated Chicago; the latter also concocts an imaginative subterranean lair for the Dauntless faction, which Küchler lights and films for maximum moodiness.

Divergent has all the earmarks of a hit, a destiny it certainly deserves. But viewers haven’t been kind to recent, book-based fantasy properties with young female leads; we need look no further than the wreckage of last year’s Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. The former, at least, should have drawn a larger audience.

Let’s hope Tris, and Woodley, are better able to earn viewer respect.

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