Review: Divergent (2014)

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Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriter: Vanessa Taylor & Evan Daugherty
Based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Miles Teller, Maggie Q, Zoë Kravitz, Ashley Judd & Jai Courtney
Runtime: 139 min // Certificate: 12a

“What makes you different makes you dangerous” proclaims the poster for Divergent, Neil Burger’s adaptation of the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth. Well, if that’s the case, Divergent must be one of the safest films of all time…

With not one single thought, value or idea to call its own, Divergent is – on all conceivable levels – a calamitous failure that is at once boring, insulting and brain-frazzlingly stupid. It is a preposterous, tedious enterprise that has been cynically thrown together without a hint of originality or creativity to capitalise on the booming youth fiction adaptation market that has been on a roll since Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson were thrown into an arena to fight to the death a little over two years ago. Though the cast have recently attempted to play down comparisons with The Hunger Games, one can’t help but dismiss Divergent as little more than a shameless, subpar version of Suzanne Collins’ work (which is a shameless, subpar version of Rollerball as it is), so obvious are the latter’s influences on Burger’s film.

However, it’s not just The Hunger Games that endures such brazen misappropriation of its wares. Set in a post-war future yadda yadda yadda, Divergent plunders material from every dystopian film, novel, comic-book, cartoon, lithograph and hieroglyph known to man. It is a composite movie, made up of lots of different parts of lots of different stories with no attempt whatsoever made to conceal the theft. Worse still, it isn’t even made up of the best parts of different stories but instead from random, inconsistently chosen, seen-it-all-a-million-times-before ones. None of it is remotely fresh; we have the post-war fascist state seen through via the medium of insufferable teen angst, the districts (known here as factions), the corrupt leaders, the breakup of a family and a love story so dull it makes Mills & Boon seem like Shakespeare… not to mention one that fails to even exploit the best assets of the male lead!

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Now, as someone who has never read Veronica Roth’s novels, it’s tough for me to know whether some of the source material’s more intricate ideas were lost in the transition from page to screen. Nevertheless, based on the tat I sat through, it strikes me that Divergent is the absolute epitome of “absurdity without creativity”. For a dystopian novel or film to work the premise has to be grounded in some sort of conceivable reality so that it can at least feel relevant to the real-life experiences of the audience. If your premise is so ludicrous that no-one can believe in it, the whole charade fails at the first hurdle. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of Divergent’s greatest flaw; it’s just too ridiculous for words.

Let me explain. The incongruous foundations upon which the plot has been built are neither satirical enough nor believably dystopian, which means that it is nigh on impossible to invest in the ideals that it claims to represent. Liberties are taken with the very crux of human nature, so much so that vast complex ideas are quite literally reduced to five words, which represent the five factions into which people are placed. The fanciful language used to describe each faction – Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (courage) & Erudite (intelligence) – can’t hide the fact that the concept is insultingly underdeveloped. Don’t get me wrong, I get the point of it; it’s an extreme, almost metaphorical, form of dystopia. Alas, the film is so faceless that it can never square the extremities of its premise with the facelessness of its execution and, as such, I didn’t believe in it one little bit.

Alas, even if you can accept the premise, Divergent is still a colossal clusterfuck of a film because not once is an attempt made to make you feel, or even care about, the peril that the characters are supposedly enduring. To an extent this is because half of the action takes place in a simulator but, on a more critical level, it’s also because the film is so insufferably bland. Everything, from the costumes to the set design to the characters and general tone of the action, is agonizingly insipid. It doesn’t help that the film rumbles on for well in excess of two hours when there’s barely enough material to cover 90 minutes as it is, nor that the single interesting idea in the entire enterprise – that we experience fear in different ways – is done and dusted with in about two minutes, though these are minor problems compared to the film’s final, straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back problem; its characters.

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Allow me to explain… so, spoiler alert, there’s a scene towards the film’s finale in which leading man Four, played by Theo James, attempts to kill the “divergent” female Tris, played by Shailene Woodley (incidentally, you might wish to note that when put together their names make “FourTris” or “Fortress”… that’s right, these characters have literally been written for the sole purpose of being “shipped”). However, he is unfortunately prevented from doing so because love saves the day or something. Now, that’s a pathetic cop-out at the best of times but it’s even worse than usual here because the two main characters have NO chemistry; zilch, zero, nada, not a fucking dicky bird.

Now, I actually happen to think that – irrespective of all of the poor decisions they’ve made in their careers thus far – Theo James and Shailene Woodley show a lot of potential as actors, but there’s really no denying just how lifeless their performances are here. Nonetheless, the film’s failure to make you care about the characters doesn’t lie with them anywhere near as much as it lies with Burger’s sterile direction and Taylor and Daugherty’s flaccid screenplay. The entire film feels like a reductionist fable about absolutely nothing of any worth. None of the ideas work, it’s impossible to relate to – or even like – any of the characters (indeed Tris is a wholly unsympathetic protagonist for much of the film’s runtime) and not even Kate Winslet, who camps it up to the Nth degree as the primary antagonist – who appears to be a laughable cross between Michelle Bachmann and Cruella de Vil – can rescue it from the mire.

Poorly acted, atrociously written, shoddily paced and utterly devoid of personality, Divergent is another nail in the coffin of a youth fiction market that is already struggling along on life-support. It is a barren, dreary, overlong monstrosity which has not one single redeeming quality to call its own. I mean for fuck’s sake, it might as well have been directed by a hamburger for all the mark Neil Burger leaves on it. A relentless dredge through a rotten swamp of mediocrity, Divergent is best left well alone, lest it happens to be successful enough that the studio decides to inflict a sequel on us, God forbid…