Based on the best-selling series of novels by Veronica Roth, Divergent is poised to take on the mantle of dystopian-teen franchise of the year from The Hunger Games – and it looks like it has all the necessary credentials to do so. While the young female lead against the odds in a not-too-distant alternate future is familiar territory, Divergent establishes its style early. Opening shots of the crumbling masonry of a post-apocalyptic Chicago slowly being reclaimed by nature set a scene that is closer to 2007’s I Am Legend than anything more recent.
As set up for a coming of age story go, this one is almost perfect. In the wake of a war that that happened some time before the lifetimes of most of the lead characters, society splits into a faction-based system. (Sociologically not exactly a load-bearing idea, but the factions work wonders in metaphorically labelling groups of people, so it is probably for the best that the precise details of the societal shift remain conveniently secure in the realms of tight-lipped historical mystery). Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is our hero – born into Abnegation – the mirror-shunning faction that focuses on simplicity, and dedicates itself to working with the poor and destitute in society. Imagine the Amish, but a little less colourful and without the hedonistic joys of Rumspringa and you’ll soon be empathically stropping against the dreary, grey future that Beatrice’s parents dream for her.
Thankfully things don’t go as planned. Part of every teenager’s initiation into adulthood involves consciously choosing one of the five factions in a public ritual. Alongside Abnegation, the options include Amity, who focus on friendship and peaceful harmony; Erudite, who devote themselves to learning; Candor who aspire towards honesty and fairness; and Dauntless, who embody courage and fearlessness. It’s hardly a tough call for the rebellious Beatrice – who watches the factions shuffle civilly into their seats at the ceremony, while Dauntless arrive like a hyperactive martial arts circus, back-flipping down buildings and diving head-first from moving trains. Choosing to join with Dauntless means cutting contact with her Abnegation parents, and sets the newly christened ‘Tris’ on a quest to discover her true calling.
While the story is slick and compelling, the transition to screen is not as smooth. Shailene Woodley, familiar from 2011’s The Descendents manages to carry the film but at 139 minutes, it is overdrawn, allowing the momentum falter at times. Tris’s training with the Dauntless – and the quest to be top of the trainee leader board – hogs an inordinate amount of screen time, overshadowing the more interesting, conspiratorial elements that begin to emerge. By the time the story develops you’ll be so jaded by the repeated sparring scenes, inconsequential trials, and epic music that you’ll need the focus of an Erudite to stay engaged. Undoubtedly the film will be massively appealing to a young adult audience, who themselves are going through the struggle of adapting to a new society, whether through work, college, or otherwise. For all its flaws as a film, Divergent can be applauded as an exploration of change, and the transition from childhood to adulthood. We can only hope the inevitable sequel learns some lessons from it earlier mistakes.