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Review: Divergent

Brian Formo explains why Divergent is “better than The Hunger Games.”

Divergent

I assume that most people go the bottom of reviews to see the rating first.

I’m guilty of it, too. A mild recommendation doesn’t provide much of a push for reading. A masterpiece or disaster rating will garner attention. So too, will an unexpected – outta-nowhere – enthusiastic review.

I was surprised by Divergent.

It even took me more by surprise because it didn’t start well. But it recovered and planted roots; I guess that’s how I look at growing into young adulthood anyhow: recover and continue. We don’t all start like J-Law.

Divergent Shailene Woodley Theo James

Divergent I’m sure you’ve already been told if you weren’t already a reader of the books whose covers closely resemble The Hunger Games series – is the newest Young Adult franchise. Hollywood went into a frenzy following the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games. But outside of those two series, others – like Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy and The Host – were assembled in chemistry-like fashion (young girl + young boy + a hint of apocalypse/mutation x prolonged sexual tension = money mountain). Those films found no audience other than the hand-wringerers waiting for this craze to die.

The Hunger Games series seemingly gets a pass because of Jennifer Lawrence. I like those films fine – although there is something inherently odd about a huge, big budget movie built around class upheaval and revolution that also uses Subway sandwiches and other corporate magnates to inspire poorer people to purchase tickets and big sodas for these screened revolutions.

As an introduction to a series, however, I think Divergent is better than The Hunger Games. Now, The Hunger Games might end up as a better overall series – and indeed I could see subsequent Divergent films becoming sappier or less interesting after the whole future world has been revealed – but what I preferred about Divergent is that almost the entire film was a portrait of a world, and a time in a young woman’s life. The plot only starts to kick in at the 110-minute mark in order to set its sequel characters on opposing sides.

The Hunger Games introduces a setup in which children and young adults battle to the death on television in order to remind citizens of an uprising that the privileged class didn’t appreciate. You have to accept that setup and go with it.

Shailene Woodley Divergent

In Divergent there’s a setup that you have to accept: at 16 everyone takes a test to decide what role in society they will enter into, to contribute to an equal pie-chart society. And anyone who doesn’t fit into one cozy trade is considered a threat because they possibly won’t conform and might instigate revolt. However – despite the visage of a crumbling post-War Chicago, and some fancy technology – the setup is so tapped into standard youthful fears (tests determining who you are, the unknown first sexual experience, having multiple interests when you are told you should only have one strength) that Divergent is essentially a really good high school movie. It will later introduce revolution and mystery in order to have those lean franchise legs.

Some might not think that this is as exciting as watching children slaughter children but I credit director Neil Burger for spending more time with the heroine as she grows and makes decisions on personhood.

Despite all the running, shouting, jumping on trains and zip-lining, we mostly follow Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) as she makes friends (including a lovely feminine friendship with Zoe Kravitz), begins to crush hard (on the charismatic Theo James) and debates family members (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as the paternal units; Ansel Elgort as the brother) in the same settings of all good young adult scenarios: cafeterias, dinner tables and at any empty carnival ground. (There are dual shout-outs here to Chicago history on display in both the Ferris wheel and the heterogeneous construction of a John Hughes’ film.)

Divergent Train Jump

When Beatrice chose the paramilitaristic faction (called “Dauntless”) I was prepared for a film to go brawn, and go dumb. The Dauntless are introduced as always hooting and sprinting and are defined by their penchant for jumping on trains and climbing objects. Their introduction is a combination of the highly trained and favored banshees of Hunger Games’ District 2 and the fast zombies that crawl on each other to scale walls in World War Z. So, while I was prepared for the worst, I was pleasantly surprised when Burger settled into a nice little coming of age flick that felt bigger because it featured some expansive nightmares and Kate Winslet as a baddie.

It’s essential for serial films to either have an engaging world or for it to understand its characters. If it does both, well, some sort of hole in the world opens up. Divergent’s strength is its non-hurried intent to focus on characters and choices. Because Divergent takes its time with the set-up there are numerous payoffs. None of them involve big action set pieces.

Divergent Shailene Woodley

There’s a pleasing nervousness about sexuality that takes the nightmare of realizing you’re in school in your underpants to an even worse public embarrassment. There’s an underlying oh-fuck-what-if-I-made-the-wrong-choice-and-my-life-is-over-just-as-it-was-beginning that enhances the teenage awkwardness. Refreshingly, bullying is never used for sake of plot points, but for showing opposing strengths. All told here there is more personal choice and agency in Divergent, so in that regard, the first film gets a little more personal with its characters.

Whether or not that continues in the next film doesn’t really concern me – although the likelihood of more booms and swoon is probably strong since the enemies are the intellectuals and the heroes are the brawn that ditched their social service upbringing. But, perhaps I’ll continue to be pleasantly surprised.

I already was once. 

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Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.

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