Lions Gate and Summit Entertainment aren’t hiding the fact that Divergent has been groomed as the next Hunger Games. The new film opens on the same late-March weekend that the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ juggernaut trilogy debuted two years ago. After The Hunger Games became a box-office success, Divergent’s budget doubled, and production on the subsequent two installments has already begun. There’s an off-putting overconfidence to such a franchise strategy, reflected in the dystopian regimes of these stories: Just as the overlords of Divergent’s fictional world claim to know what’s best for the citizens they control, the producers of the series have lined up sequels that audiences haven’t asked for yet. Though director Neil Burger lends some much-needed flair, fleeting moments of excitement can’t prevent Divergent from feeling like a paint-by-numbers YA dystopian novel adaptation.
Based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling series, Divergent depicts a future Chicago after a catastrophic global war. Lake Michigan has dried into a vast marsh, an electrified wall encircles the heart of the city to protect it from outside influences, and society is divided into five factions: Amity, Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, and Abnegation. Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are children of Abnegation, the governing faction that rejects vanity, feeds the Factionless, and lives humbly in bare quarters. Society replenishes itself by submitting children of all factions to a test that determines where they are best suited, then allowing them to pick their place for life in a Choosing Ceremony. But Erudite leader Jeannine Matthews (Kate Winslet) insists that everyone should simply know their place, and that those who deviate from a thoughtless routine threaten to undermine the fragile fabric of rebuilding society.
Tris discovers during her test that she’s Divergent—special and dangerous to the powers-that-be, because she has more than one dominant personality trait and thus cannot be easily sorted into one of five categories that encompass every duty within society. Uninspired by the drab humility of her parents (Ashley Judd and Scandal’s Tony Goldwyn), Tris falls in with the Dauntless, the tattooed soldiers who run everywhere, climb everything, and show no fear. Within this new faction, she bonds with fellow transfer Christina (Zoë Kravitz), spars with Peter (Miles Teller, gleefully indulgent as a smartass bully), and begrudgingly obeys commands from Eric (Jai Courtney, sporting an ill-advised punk-rock Macklemore look). Then there’s Four (Theo James), Tris’ instructor and genre-mandated chiseled love interest. The middle third of Divergent is a series of training montages mixed with hints that not all is well in a world with rigid social divisions. Winslet’s icy Erudite leader insists that Abnegation’s uncontested reign should end, though she never presents anything more than conjecture and rumor as evidence.
Aside from a few extended voiceover sequences, the film largely gets out of Tris’ head, meaning the meandering, syntactically dull introspection of Roth’s books has been replaced by Burger’s active camerawork. The action sequences divide into two categories: mercilessly bleak fight sequences and exhilarating Dauntless bonding activities. A knife-throwing training exercise and a high-stakes game of Capture The Flag are thrilling in equal measure. And the film gets a boost from the (at times unintentional) humor of James and Woodley sharing cold stares and pregnant pauses—an element almost entirely absent from Roth’s books.
But the problem with eschewing the guiding perspective of Tris’ narration is that the backstory gets condensed too much, lowering the dramatic stakes of a final act determined to trump The Hunger Games for sheer body count. Without anecdotes and family history to make the audience care sufficiently about the minor characters, the significance of certain deaths hangs entirely on Woodley’s performance. She’s mostly up to the task: Unlike The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, which cast the young actress in more understated roles, Divergent requires Woodley to express a very Jennifer Lawrence-esque blend of sympathetic generosity and steely determination.
In the rush to a conclusion, Divergent shifts gears rapidly from world-building to training to all-out war. Anything the film has to say about dystopian regimes or the harm in squelching individual expression gets lost in the rote romantic entanglements and inter-governmental conspiracies, all of which have been borrowed from other sources. The ultimate irony is that a series predicated on diverse individuals rising up against totalitarian regiment falls so completely in lock step with all other post-apocalyptic young-adult franchises.