Friday, March 28, 2014

DIVERGENT Review- Jonesy's Take

Directed by Neil Burger
Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson, and Miles Teller
Synopsis: A girl must hide the fact she's a 'divergent' in a world where such information can get you killed.

We've hit a trend in movie making: the YA novel adaptation. The stories are all similar. A young hero is put out of his/her comfort zone to change the establishment of some sort. Rinse and repeat each year for same result. What sets the films apart from each other are the characters and world building. DIVERGENT is the latest entry into this genre, and though it has some promising aspects, it ultimately falls short of being a truly memorable film.

In a futuristic Chicago, the city is divided into five factions based on virtues: bravery (Dauntless), intelligence (Erudite), honesty (Candor), kindness (Abnegation), and peaceful (Amity). At age 16, you take a test to figure out where you fit into this world. Tris (Woodley), a young Abnegation, ends up getting an inconclusive result, thus making her a divergent, which is very dangerous in this society according to Erudite leader, Jeannine (Winslet). Tris ends up picking the faction the most opposite of hers, Dauntless, where she begins her intense training under the watchful eye of Four (James).

In the genre of dystopian worlds, it's very important there is solid world building. Each dystopia has its own set of rules, and it's difficult to efficiently establish set rules without lengthy exposition read by a voice over or a needless scene. DIVERGENT is full of tedious and repetitive voice overs by Tris where she explains the rules and describes aspects of this world. The film makers assume the audience hasn't read the books, so they're afraid this world might be too confusing. So instead of trusting us to figure things out, some scenes feel tedious, and the dialogue feels unnatural.  For example, the term and importance of a 'divergent' is spelled out in almost every act within the film. It's almost as if the writers were worried the audience would forget within the span of 30 minutes.

The plot is very predictable, even if you haven't read the series. Tris is 'unique', and therefore a threat to the establishment, and she must lay low or be killed. Whatever will she do? That's not a slam against the film because you can make up for a simple plot with strong characters. But the story doesn't give much time or decent arcs to most of the secondary characters. Tris's friends end up being one note characters, so there's almost no tension when any of them are in trouble. One change the film made from the book which worked was giving more screen time to the antagonist, Jeannine. She is sprinkled throughout the first book and has a lot more face-time in the second, but in the spirit of creating a evil presence, they give her more to do.

Thankfully, this series has Shailene Woodley as the star. She is, as always, fantastic. She's limited by the script, but does well with what she's given. The story didn't find the balance of conveying the emotions Tris feels from the page to the screen. She's in her mind a lot in the book, and it's a difficult task to portray that on film. Woodley is a strong enough actress that she could easily show Tris's emotional journey without spoon feeding the audience. With better writers, this series could be one of the better YA films.

DIVERGENT does a decent job adapting the story to the big screen, though the intensity of the book is lost in translation. It's not a bad film by any stretch, but it's unfortunately forgettable. By the time the next one, INSURGENT, comes down the pipeline, many people will not even remember the first even came out. If you have any interest, wait for it to pop up on Netflix.

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