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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Shailene Woodley and Theo James star in "Divergent," now playing.

"Divergent" is not all that different from the rest


Even with two more movies still left in the "The Hunger Games" saga, Lionsgate and its various media allies have wasted no time primping and preening "Divergent" into Katniss' successor.

The studio seems convinced they have a hit – the budget was doubled to $80 million, and a sequel is already on the schedule for next year – even if it's hard to tell where the self-generated hype ends and the actual audience excitement begins.

With so much seemingly riding on "Divergent," it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the much ballyhooed Veronica Roth YA adaptation feels so carefully … managed. The film feels very much like the nervous first step of a wannabe franchise, exactingly crafted to keep built-in fans appeased and potential new fans moderately engaged without any edge, creativity or personality offending or scaring anyone off.

Considering the story is already a Frankenstein of familiar parts, some personality is just what the doctor ordered. Without that, there's little to separate "Divergent" from the rest of the recent fledgling YA movie knock-offs other than a loud vote of confidence from the studio and an even louder marketing department.

Shailene Woodley stars as 16-year-old Katniss Tris (we're not even being subtle about this, are we "Divergent"?), a young anxious teenager growing up in a dystopian Chicago, fenced in after a vaguely referenced war left the city in shambles. In order to maintain peace, society has been separated into five districts factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor and Amity (selfless, brave, smart, honest and peaceful in case you haven't read a thesaurus lately). Right on the brink of adulthood, Tris and the rest of the city's teens must decide which faction they will choose.

Most select the faction they were born into, but Tris – born into an Abnegation family – doesn't feel the strong pull toward a life of modesty and service. Making matters worse is her results on her aptitude test, a futuristic mental SAT that is supposed to help clarify one's fate (though choosing to follow the results is optional, so what's the point?). In Tris' case, however, the results point to three different factions, making her Divergent and a danger to the carefully organized society. She's told by her test giver (Maggie Q) to keep her results a secret for her own safety.

When the sorting hat (nope) Reaping (try again) Choosing Day rolls around, Tris picks the energetic soldier daredevils of Dauntless, much to the shock of her parents. She's soon whisked away to train for the city's military under the vicious eye of her teacher – and Macklemore clone – Eric (Jai Courtney) and the swooning eye of studly Four (Theo James).

It's not enough that she must battle her own personal problems, like literally fighting up the ranks of her fellow trainees, battling a bully (Woodley's "The Spectacular Now" co-star Miles Teller, wasted in an one-dimensional role) and keeping her Divergent-ness a secret. Soon, she finds herself, her friends and her family embroiled in a coup organized by Erudite and their cold, calculated leader (Kate Winslet).

"Divergent" gets off to a strong start, with director Neil Burger (who directed the Bradley Cooper Adderall thriller "Limitless") quietly bringing the audience into the futuristic dystopia with impressive swooping shots through the overgrown ruins of Chicago and the society in action. It's a promising start, building a world through solid visuals and immersion.

It's a short-lived rush, though. Seemingly afraid of losing any newcomers in the crowd, moody voiceover from Tris soon chimes in to explain the world, its origins and its castes.

And what a profoundly silly concept this caste/faction system is. Apparently inspired by President Business from "The Lego Movie" and his desire for everything to be neat, tidy and organized, citizens can only be, or at least focus on, one of the five faction traits. You are only capable of being brave or selfless or smart or kind or honest, and they are represented in the most dopily obvious ways on screen.

Candor say harshly honest things, then say, "I'm a Candor; what do you expect?" Dauntless can only seem to run everywhere, and when they're not running, they're jumping on and off of moving trains, hooting and hollering like banshees. They call it brave; I call it dumb. I suppose that's what happens when you don't allow people to be smart and brave.

"I want to be brave and selfless and smart and kind and honest," Four laments near the middle of "Divergent." What society wouldn't want that? What society would see fully rounded people not as a benefit to society and something to be embraced, but something to be feared? And isn't there significant overlap between being selfless and being kind? Or being selfless and brave? And aren't there more character traits than merely five?

It's an incredibly clumsy conceptual stumbling block for any viewer trying to get into the story, and it only gets more goofy as the convoluted "Hunger Games"-lite political drama slowly becomes the plot's focus. It's meant to be a social allegory, most glaringly about the dangers of conformity, college fears and just a dash of discussion about human nature. But it really serves as a delivery device for bland teenage angst, something the script from Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor is far too happy to oblige.

Blunt, flavorless lines like "Don't try and define me," or "I don't know where I belong" (complete with dramatic hair cutting) might've rung better if there were some interesting characters attached to them, but most of the cast is stuck playing generic types, making it hard to care when some of them start getting the ax.

It's not for lack of effort in the performances. Woodley is a fine lead, convincingly both strong and insecure; it's too bad she's stuck playing dull B-grade Katniss. James surprisingly makes the biggest impact. He actually has the most interesting character, coping with a dark family secret that, with just a couple of steely glances, becomes more interesting than the entire big dramatic battle plot. Winslet makes for an amusingly icy villain too – less, once again, because of the script and more because it's Kate Winslet in rare non-prestige mode.

Burger does his best too to bring some color to "Divergent" as well. The film moves, and it's exciting to watch his camera breathlessly explore post-war Chicago. Even if the mental test sequences feel like a creative step-down from his manic work in "Limitless," his tilting, seemingly spiraling lens keeps things interesting. Overall, he snags more tension than you'd expect from fairly typical material, and it's to his credit that the movie never becomes a chore.

There have certainly been worse YA adaptations – even just this year – but the film constantly feels like the kind of project where you imagine "entertain," "tell an interesting story" and "develop compelling characters" were right below "avoid complaints" on its list of priorities (though I think they'd have to rework the whole faction/trait system to pull that off). "Divergent" gets the job done, but that's about all it does.



Theaters and showtimes for Divergent
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