The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"DIVERGENT"

Divergent

Divergent, based on a wildly popular series of young adult novels by Veronica Roth, is clearly being positioned as the next cinematic YA phenomenon, along the same lines as Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. Of course, for each of those series, there have been several that have stalled at the box office. Just ask the makers of The Golden Compass, Beautiful Creatures, Eragon, Vampire Academy or Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. The lesson here is that what works on the page doesn't necessarily work on the screen. And, in fact, the uninitiated will need to read Roth's book to understand what's so great about Divergent, because the movie is aggressively mediocre.

The story takes place in Chicago during a dystopian future. You know, one of those “after the war” things. Everyone has been placed into one of five “factions” according to their personality type. There's Amity (for peaceful people), Candor (honest folk), Erudite (those with high intelligence), Dauntless (brave risk-takers who also keep everyone safe), and Abnegation (those who care for others, particularly the poor and sick). Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice “Tris” Prior, a young woman in the Abnegation faction. During a ceremony meant to solidify her place permanently, she decides to switch over to the Dauntless, much to the shock of her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd). At first, it seems like fun and thrills, but the training is tough, and Tris eventually discovers that there's a conspiracy to kill “Divergents” - people who don't easily fit into any one faction. No one knows that she is one of them. Kate Winslet plays Jeanine, the leader of the Erudite, who is leading the conspiracy and is therefore a serious threat to Tris.

Divergent starts off very intriguingly, as it sets up the rules of the factions and finds Tris discovering that she is a special – and rare – case. The movie begins to go astray, however, after she switches groups. There's a potentially compelling subplot related to how her parents feel about her switching and running off with the Dauntless. That idea is abandoned in favor of 45 minutes of repetitive scenes in which Tris goes through one training exercise after another. Such moments are meant to show how she toughens up, but we get the point long before the film stops making it. After the training, Tris has to endure a series of tests designed to make her confront her darkest fears. She does this about four times, which again is overkill. When the tests are done, Divergent launches into a ton of exposition about one faction trying to eliminate another, as well as a half-baked, completely obligatory romance between Tris and one of the Dauntless leaders, Four (Theo James). Because this is setting up things that will happen in the sequels rather than in this movie, it's all rather tedious.

As such, Divergent is really more Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace than The Hunger Games. So much of it is doing prep work for future installments that this installment feels sort of like homework. Both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire had stand-alone stories that will eventually connect to a larger whole. Although they are pieces of a much bigger puzzle, one can easily get invested in whether Katniss survives the set of games into which she is thrust. There is no such individual investment with Divergent. The film is thinking long-term, at the expense of the short-term.

To its credit, Divergent is a showcase for strong female characters. Shailene Woodley is excellent as Tris, projecting a combination of fierceness and sensitivity that makes her a likeable heroine, even when the plot is just marking time. Kate Winslet is good, as well. Her subtle, controlled performance as Jeanine makes me wish she'd play more evil characters. She is effectively menacing without ever overdoing it. Ashley Judd gets in a few strong moments as a woman with secrets of her own, as does Zoe Kravitz, who plays a fellow Dauntless recruit with a streak of subversiveness. The woman fare nicely in Divergent. The male characters, for a change, are the ones who are bland and underwritten.

To be fair, the potential is here for any Divergent sequels to be an improvement over the original. Now that the groundwork has been laid, it's possible this series will go to thrilling places. But make no mistake: this movie is nothing but groundwork, which makes it a less-than-satisfying 140 minutes spent in a theater seat.

( out of four)


Divergent is rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.


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