Divergent is flawed and occasionally troubling but also shows promise

Divergent rests very heavily on the construction of its fictional world, its ‘worldbuilding.’

We’re being introduced to a futuristic world, with a title card telling us that the walled city we’re looking at is actually Chicago. In this future, a great upheaval has spurred an attempt to form a utopia, but this then led to a dystopian, oppressive regime. Isn’t that always the way?

The residents of future, walled Chicago are split into five factions based on the results of a personality test, their genealogy and a modicum of free will. The five Factions are Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (the intellectual). Novelist Veronica Roth and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor appear to have the most disdain for the latter group, who are painted from the outset as rather villainous and only reveal themselves to be more so as the film goes on.

We meet our plucky heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) when she’s about to decide which faction to join. She’s been living with her Abnegation family and going by her birth name, Beatrice, but that’s all about to change.

The rules regarding the selection of a faction seem oddly loose. Each youngster takes a personality test that’s supposed to put them in one particular box, generally the same one that their parents are in. They then attend a ceremony in which they pledge to a faction based on the test results but also what they believe in their heart to be their essential nature.

There’s lots of talk of trusting in the test but ultimately, the selection does come down to the choice of the teenager in question. It’s shown that the teens can easily ignore the test results and then pick whichever Faction they want. This doesn’t really drive home the danger or drama of an oppressive or totalitarian regime.

There is, admittedly, a degree of risk involved in taking the least obvious route. If a teenager chooses the ‘wrong’ Faction and therefore fails their initiation tests then they’ll become ‘Factionless’, left to live on the streets and rely on handouts from the Abnegates.

When Tris is tested, the results reveal that she’s Divergent. This tells her that she belongs not just to one faction but to all of them. She doesn’t show just the one, dominant characteristic but a blend of all, and this is considered a very dangerous thing.

Divergents are frequently sniffed out and murdered by the shady side of the ruling classes, in their efforts to keep the populace on a clear path towards conformity. That’s where things get pretty oppressive, at least for the few Divergents.

Tris, wisely, decides to keep her Divergent status to herself. She’s helped by her tester Tori, a Dauntless with a convenient backstory involving a divergent family member, and chooses, contrary to her family history, to pledge to the Dauntless faction. What follows is a series of training scenarios in which Tris must prove herself worthy, fearless enough to become a fully fledged Dauntless member.

While training she makes friends, such as Christina (Zoe Kravitz), and enemies, such as the cartoonishly mean teacher Eric (Jai Courtney) and the amusingly wicked and uptight leader of Erudite, Jeanine (Kate Winslet). She also even finds love with another teacher, the rather dopey Four (Theo James).

The filmmakers do not seem at all interested in addressing the implications of Tris hooking up with Four, who is after all her older teacher but, oddly, a key scene reveals Tris’ greatest fear to be sexual assault by Four.

In addition to being more than a little unsettling, this is also a rather strange narrative turn for the film. But it does hold some dramatic weight and powerfully foreshadows a later conflict.

James’ performance is incredibly stiff and there’s a lot of him just looking off into the middle distance rather vacantly. Acting alongside to the incredibly engaging Woodley does him no favours.

Judging from how the teenage girls in my screening were screaming “Kiss!” every time that James and Woodley appeared on screen together, and the squeals of delight when James took his shirt off, what this actor lacks in nuance is compensated for in other areas. At least for a certain audience, and it’s this young audience that is, without a doubt, best served by this film.

After all, this is a film that introduces us to the central character as she looks into a mirror, struggling with who she is, and then traces her attempts to understand her place in the world and what sort of woman she wants to be. Maybe the set-up provides a blunt and rather simplistic metaphor, but for the most part it still works rather effectively. It’s certainly no more or less nuanced than the versions of Spider-Man we’ve seen on screen, most of which told a story with similar meanings and subtext.

But the film quickly unravels when you consider the implications of its allegory that don’t deal directly with Tris. To break it down to its basics, the Erudites are portrayed as the bad guys and are not to be trusted, and they’re clearly out to get the Abnegates. Even disregarding the knowledge that Roth included an acknowledgment to God in her book, one is immediately struck by a strain of religious conservatism in the film.

The Abnegates feel very much like an ideal of Christianity and the Erudites are painted as a particularly distrustful group of intellectuals. It’s not an overwhelming theme throughout the film but it does leaves a rather bad taste, and it will be interesting to see how this anti-intellectualism is either enforced or eroded by subsequent films in the series. Is this anti-intellectualism really a good goal to set for young adults? And particularly while also implying that relationships with teachers or people in positions of power are such a good idea?

The visual design of Divergent is equally muddy and also bland, with flat lighting and unremarkable set design. At times I question if the audience were really supposed to think that everything was actual concrete, wondered if parts of the walls were intended to look like imitation textures cast in plastic.

The costuming is equally uninspired with obvious and simplistic colour schemes and fabric choices that denote Faction membership but not much else. There’s a definite sense that the designs are about utilitarianism but, at the same time, little to lift them above the costumes we’re used to from cheap science-fiction television.

The make-up is certainly more effective, making the most of Woodley’s highly expressive eyes and creating effective changes to her skin tone that meaningfully convey the different turns in her life as well as their emotional impact.

Director Neil Burger has clumsily staged the film’s mediocre action sequences. There’s an obvious hesitancy in most of them to blend the action with the story, so that the film stutters constantly as beats of exposition and character are shoehorned in, rather than co-existing naturally with the action.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t really click as there are some good ideas here, particularly with regards to Tris becoming a woman.

And for the most part, despite the sci-fi concepts and allegorical ideas being weakly drawn, they are still just about strong enough to seed a franchise that could get a lot better going forwards, and after relatively minor alterations.

If the anti-intellectual ideas stop teetering on the edge of negativity and swing more towards something positive. If the technical execution improves with each film and the inevitable increase in budgets. If the actors in more minor roles are able to start playing in the same league as the star.

If, if, if…

I appreciate that that’s a lot of ifs but this could be that rare film franchise that transcends a rather shaky start. I certainly see promise here that I hope the series’ future filmmakers can build upon.

Divergent is in US and UK cinemas now. Insurgent, the sequel to Divergent should be in cinemas in 2015 and the final part in the trilogy, Allegiant, will reportedly follow one year later. I’ve got my fingers crossed.