“Divergent” review: Imperfect start for the new kid on the block

Photo courtesy of Summit

Jeanita Lyman, TSV Staff Writer

Meet the newest heroine to grace the silver screen.

A new kind of action hero was born this weekend in “Divergent’s” Beatrice “Tris” Prior, played by Shailene Woodley. Rather than fitting into the typical Hollywood action hero trope, Tris is a fairly average, yet strong and intelligent character who is easy to relate to and will hopefully pave the way for more realistic action heroes in big budget movies. The movie is set in dystopian Chicago, where young adults are tested and forced to choose a faction to devote their lives to. Each faction has its own virtues, but its own weaknesses as well. Things get rocky for Tris when her test reveals that she is “divergent,” meaning she has several strengths and does not fit into any particular faction, something which is feared and unaccepted in her society.

“Divergent” has received mixed signals and endless comparisons to other recent movies, not all of which are completely warranted. Due to the fact that it came out in the midst of so many other movies attempting to be the next big teen franchise, it was almost inevitable that it would be picked apart and compared to them. Had it been released at a different time and allowed to stand alone without so many comparisons, its virtues would probably be recognized more. The plot is not a shining example of cohesiveness and believability, but the fact that it is an action movie with a plot that is possible to follow makes it a rarity. The characters are not particularly interesting or exceptionally written, but they are realistic and likable rather than complex literary heroes, which is refreshing in its way. “Divergent” is no masterpiece, but it’s coherent, entertaining, basically inoffensive and Tris is a much-needed break from the standard buff, cocky action hero.

The movie, directed by Neil Burger, co-stars Theo James as Tobias Eaton (Four) and includes a cast full of well-known actors. Woodley and James were excellent choices and shine in their starring roles. However, with the exception of Kate Winslet’s unsettlingly believable performance as a mad-genius villain and Ashley Judd’s brief but memorable performance as Tris’ mother, Natalie Prior, Burger’s effort to streamline the story and focus on the main characters leaves the supporting actors with little to work with and some untapped potential. Maggie Q and Mekhi Pfifer, both strong actors, play characters that are completely forgettable in the movie. Their characters and other supporting characters, while playing an important role in the book, are almost irrelevant in the movie and are clearly there for support only. Christina, Tris’s best friend, is played to perfection by Zoe Kravitz, but hardly has any screen time and isn’t given the chance to develop as a character. Other characters who were important in the book barely appear in the movie or get left out completely.

To his credit, however, Burger does a good job cutting out some of the cheesy teen romance and banter that would turn adults off and manages to turn a novel about an ordinary teenage girl immersed in a storyline full of coming-of-age metaphors into a Hollywood action film, which is not easy or common. The movie mostly remains true to the book, despite simplifying many of the characters, while leaving out most of the “fluff” in the book.

The movie, despite portraying a harsh dystopian future, is visually engaging yet gritty enough to be in keeping with the story. The soundtrack is timely and appropriate, featuring music from popular electronica artists such as Ellie Goulding and Skrillex. The choice of electronica music for the soundtrack adds to the ambience of the movie without distracting from it.

Veronica Roth, author of the movie’s namesake book, said she came up with the idea for the story while in college. When you take that into account, some of the movie’s metaphors become instantly obvious. Feeling pressured to have just one specialty, yet desiring to develop in as many ways as possible is something most students can relate to, especially those who are undecided on their majors or have multiple majors. One of the primary morals in “Divergent’s” story is the classic “be true to yourself and fight for what you know is right,” which is an almost universal lesson that young adults learn.

Despite its relative blandness, the movie is still poignant and disturbing at times but less of a rollercoaster ride than most dystopian stories and with a more hopeful and innocent tone. Tris is basically a normal girl, and her divergence is the only thing exceptional about her. While some action movies have average Joes as heroes, the bar is usually set higher for heroines, who tend to have something to prove, exceptional intelligence, luck, fighting skills and perpetually perfect hair and makeup. Tris, while not a particularly exciting character, pretty much embodies everything about typical young girls, which is a welcome alternative to Hollywood stereotypes. Her uncertainty and naiveté make her an atypical action hero but, due in part to Woodley’s performance, she comes across as charming and believable rather than silly or annoying.

Overall, “Divergent” is a perfectly entertaining and well-made movie, despite its lack of originality. While Burger could have done more to spice it up and make it stand out, it’s extremely well cast, visually appealing enough and manages to stay mostly true to the book, which movies rarely do.