I thought I’d post a double reviews as we have different perspectives coming into the film. Ashley has read the book by Veronica Roth, but I haven’t. Did we end up with the same or very different conclusions? Read on.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, society has been divided into five factions based on virtues: Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Someone is considered divergent when the results of their required aptitude test show that they don’t fit neatly into one faction, which is considered a threat by the leaders who want to maintain a perfectly controlled society. When Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Shailene Woodley) finds out she is divergent, she’s warned by the test administrator (Maggie Q) to keep it a secret. On Choosing Day, where every 16-year-old must choose which faction to belong to, Tris chooses to be in Dauntless. The film pretty much focuses on how Tris and fellow new faction members undergo the extreme physical and psychological training in Dauntless, the military-like group that’s assigned to defend threats from outside the city walls.
It’s a lot to take in but somehow director Neil Burger makes it quite easy to follow. It also helps to that right away I can identify with Tris, thanks to Woodley‘s engaging portrayal. Though in the promo materials she’s shown like this tough, bad ass heroine in skin-tight outfit, she actually appears far more human and therefore relatable in the film. The long exposition does a sufficient job developing the main characters, that is Tris and her mysterious faction trainer called Four (Theo James).
I like the fact that Tris is realistically shown as being vulnerable and out of her element, as one would imagine if you’re thrown into a faction like Dauntless. There’s an interesting dynamics between Tris and fellow Dauntless members, most notably the bully (Miles Teller, who interestingly played her love interest in The Spectacular Now), and the best friend (Zoë Kravitz). Thankfully the romance didn’t become the main focus in the film, and I’m glad Tris wasn’t made out to be this clingy, lovelorn ingenue. There’s enough chemistry between Woodley and James, and if the romance feels unconvincing at times, I think it’s intentional as the characters are still trying to trust each other.
As the male lead, 29-year-old Theo James proves to be another fetching, crush-worthy Brit who projects a ‘manly tough guy with a heart’ persona. I’ve only seen him as the indelible Mr. Pamuk who seduced Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, but I certainly would like to see more of him in Hollywood. Ansel Elgort is quite effective in his brief scene as Woodley’s brother Caleb who chooses to be in Erudite. The ‘faction over blood’ revelation is handled quite nicely here in their brief but important scene together. The supporting cast are pretty good overall. The casting of Ashley Judd as Woodley’s mother is so spot on as they have such a strong resemblance, and their scene together toward the end is perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching in the film.
The third act is the most action-packed, involving hostile coup d’etat by drugged-up troops, as well as hand-to-hand fight sequences. A lot of it reminds me of the futuristic actioner Equilibrium in which independent will/thought is forbidden under an authoritarian government, but without the over-the-top Gun Kata martial arts that ended up taking over the story. The filmmaker seems to care and respect Roth’s vision of a flawed dystopian society, instead of just setting out to make a cool action adventure. The cinematography is quite beautiful, especially the scenes from above the Ferris Wheel. Plus, as I’ve visited Chicago often, it’s nice to see it being prominently featured on a film as the city itself, instead of as a sub for something else, i.e. Gotham.
Now, the main issue I have with the film is the pacing. It starts rather too slow for my liking and it didn’t quite pick up until the third act. The script by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor spends most of the film expounding the idea of what these factions is all about and Tris’ struggle to find her identity. I don’t know if the book is the same way, but the film barely explains the bigger picture of the society we’re dealing with and what’s outside the city walls. We’re only told briefly that wars have destroyed most of the world, but how and what really happened was never mentioned. Another weak aspect is the main villain Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), an Erudite leader who adamantly believes Divergents must be eradicated. Now, I’m a fan of Winslet as an actress, and granted she has the presence to elevate the material, yet I don’t find her to be menacing nor sinister enough to be effective. In a story like this, I think a strong adversary would help convey what’s really at stake for these characters.
In the end, it’s the earthy and affable Woodley that keeps the film afloat because I’m invested in her story and her journey. It’s inevitable that given the young adult target audience, the dystopian setting and the fact that it also features a young female protagonist, Divergent will always be compared to The Hunger Games. But having seen the film, I think it has enough distinguishing features to set itself apart and stand on its own two feet. It’s by no means perfect, but despite the flaws, I quite enjoyed it. The ending explicitly sets up a sequel and you know what, I’m actually curious to see what happens next for Tris and Four.
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Just a fair warning, I tried my best to keep my indifferent feelings about the novel separate from my feelings about the film adaptation. While the film followed the novel fairly closely, I wasn’t blown away by their interpretation. When I saw Catching Fire I felt so engrossed in the world and drama, it felt like I was actually right there with Katniss and Peeta; however, in Divergent I truly felt more like a spectator rather than a participant. I’ve decided to break my review into three points: casting, score and cinematography.
This was my first encounter with Shailene Woodley (Beatrice Prior) and I have to say I was really impressed. Divergent explores the limits of a person’s mental and physical toughness, so needless to say they needed someone who could portray Tris’ struggles as she begins her training. In the novel Tris is described as being physically weaker than her other initiates and, according to her, plain. While I wouldn’t call Woodley plain, I think she fit the bill perfectly. I was continually surprised by Woodley’s range of emotions. She proved she can handle comedy by delivering perfect biting one-liners, we see raw and tender moments as it becomes clear she’s not the ultimate warrior (quite the opposite from Hunger Games) and her struggles to separate herself from the connection to her previous faction (Abnegation). However, I wasn’t convinced by her romantic portrayal with Four/Tobias (Theo James).
As much as I enjoyed James for the eye candy (you’ll know when you see it), I honestly felt like he was too old. Especially since they tried to make Woodley look very frail and innocent, their pairing just seemed creepy. Here’s where the novel and film have a major difference. We’re given more scenes, stolen looks and inner dialogue to see a romantic relationship start to bud, but in the film everything felt forced, awkward and rushed.
I agree with Ruth about Kate Winslet’s performance (Jeanine). In the novel she’s supposed to be a threatening and controlling totalitarian leader, but instead Jeanine comes across as arrogant. I didn’t have the same fear instilled in me like I did with Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of President Snow.
Another big miss was the tension between Eric (Jai Courtney) and Four. In the film Eric is portrayed as this meathead, where in the novel he’s much lankier and values brains over brawns. We learn the rules for Dauntless initiation are changing and are more cut-throat, leaving the unsuccessful factionless. Four is a big proponent of the traditional ways, but in the film we only see glimpses of their discord. Not enough to justify Eric’s attempted murder towards the end of the film.
Score vs. soundtrack
I thought the techno-vibe score (composed by Junkie XL) was well done. It really seemed to match a futuristic setting and the sometimes abrasive mannerisms of the Dauntless. However, I had some qualms about the soundtrack. I’m a big fan of Ellie Goulding and realize she was selected to help produce the soundtrack, but it was Goulding overload. I enjoy her music but after featuring three or four songs, it felt like I was listening to her on repeat. It was enough to pull me out of the film. This might not matter so much to you, but I’m a big believer in a score or soundtrack’s ability to intensify a film’s emotions. To me it’s just as important as acting.
While there aren’t as many fantastical scenes as The Hunger Games trilogy, I think it could’ve been very easy to create the action scenes in CG, and I’m glad they refrained. There are still some elements, but I felt like they relied upon unique camera angles and amazing props instead. And it paid off. However, the film’s pacing felt rather slow. I can understand they were trying to adhere to the novel as much as possible, but I didn’t start to feel engrossed until 2/3 of the way in.
One particular scene that comes to mind is when Tris takes her aptitude test. She awakes in a room made entirely of floor length mirrors. I thought this was brilliantly done because each time Tris turned, multiple versions of herself would appear, slowly, which really added to the panic, claustrophobia and confusion this scene was trying to convey. I was really impressed by how the film handled the fear landscape simulations. Again, this could’ve been very cheesy, but it definitely lived up to my imagination. I think fans of the novel will appreciate it as well.
As far as young adult dystopian film adaptations go, I felt like the Divergent did a really nice job of incorporating the big elements from the novel. I was really excited to see how they handled Tris begin her training in Dauntless, the Ferris wheel war games scene and finally the fear landscape simulations. To be fair, I think this is one of those films where it’s better upon second review (as was my first impression with The Hunger Games). Overall, I think this captured the tone of the novel and leaves you with anticipation with what’s to come.
Well, that’s our thoughts on Divergent. Let us know what YOU think of the movie.