Though it has enormous weaknesses, it also will strongly appeal to teenage girls looking for a heroine instead of a hero.
First the good news. Shailene Woodley, here playing the rebellious heroine known as Tris, is a talented, rising star as reflected in her prior films The Descendants (2011) and The Spectacular Now (2013). One of her great attributes is that she looks like the normal girl living next door, something abnormal by Hollywood standards.
There is nothing weak or needy about her, and if a man will walk down a dark, dangerous alley, so will she. Additionally, the special effects consistently catch your attention, so be prepared to hold your breath. That is particularly true if you have difficulty watching young people climb high towers, leaping from speeding, elevated trains on to adjoining roofs and walking over thin rails that span deep chasms. It is a movie that will captivate you visually even as the plot spins out of control.
Which leaves us with the bad news. First and foremost, Divergent is a shameless ripoff of far better Hunger Games films. Ms. Woodley is a recreation of Katniss Everdeen without a bow and arrow.
Let me be clear that I am not knocking films starring young women. Not only would it be incredibly sexist to do so, but it would further ignore similar roles played by male stars in Superman, Spiderman, Thor and Captain America.
More to the point, the real problem with Divergent can be found from a comparison to last year’s Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Though these films had two different male stars, Gerard Butler and Channing Tatum, they repeated the same story from beginning to end. Though both films had strengths, they died in the shadow of each other.
Fortunately, Director Neil Burger’s Divergent chose a superior film to replicate. Sure, Ms. Woodley may be the movie equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence’s younger sister, but at least she comes from a talented cinematic family.
Taking place in the future following a global war, the plot of Divergent occurs entirely within the city of a destroyed Chicago. Society has now been divided into five identifiable groups, and young people must leave their family and join one of those organizations to pursue their future.
One of those groups, Erudite, is led by the accomplished Kate Winslet. Unfortunately, they are a highly educated bunch that is secretly attempting to take over the government. It seems that they want to replicate the old plot last seen in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), only here turning civilization into a group of thoughtless human robots.
The film’s title, for reasons better left unrevealed, describes Ms. Woodley’s conflicting attachment to multiple groups. She elects to join a macho division known as Dauntless, in the end consistently getting the living crap kicked out of her during training sessions. And while Ms. Woodley displays many talents in this film, one of the most useful is being an extraordinarily quick healer.
And then there is Theo James, a British actor who suddenly has been canonized as this year’s Hollywood hunk. He’s actually a pretty good actor in his role as Tris’ instructor in Dauntless.
While this movie is far better than the perpetually whiny Twilight series, it collapses in the end on two fronts. First of all, the romantic relationship between Ms. Woodley and Mr. James looks like something out of a junior high school. As they are seen repeatedly kissing, you reach the point where you want to scream, “Will you guys please stop and just take each other’s clothes off.”;
However, even if you end up rooting for them, as is very likely, it is impossible to grasp how the two of them could defeat an army of armed opponents. Imagine that there was a scene at the end of Jaws where Roy Scheider dove into the water with a pocket knife, jabbing the giant shark in to submission, and you will know what I mean.
In any event, I can only repeat that Divergent far exceeds the mindlessness of the Twilight movies, so it is far from a waste of time. You should also keep in mind that Ashley Judd makes a brief appearance as Tris’ mother, and she also holds her own while being immersed in the ongoing battle.
It made me wish that she had pursued her political ambitions and run as a challenger in Kentucky for the Senate seat held by Mitch McConnell. Ms. Woodley could have used her Dauntless comrades to help her win.