Movie Review: 'Divergent' (2014)

According to recent films, the future is looking bleaker than ever. As they persistently claim we are headed to a dystopian aftermath, following civilization’s imagined fall. In case you were trying to be optimistic, it is commonly explained that this fall is more than a mere stumble. It is this collapse that will eventually lead to a full blown apocalypse.

It’s a dreary prediction that does not make for the most ideal escapism. So imagine the surprise when "Divergent," yet another film in this vein, is not only uplifting but truly entertaining.

“Divergent” is based off of the first in a best-selling book trilogy by Veronica Roth. In the future she writes of, people are separated into 5 classes based on their personality characteristics. There are the selfless (Abnegation), the kind (Amity), the honest (Candor), the intelligent (Erudite) and the brave (Dauntless).

When adolescents come of age they take a sort of aptitude test that determines which sector they are best suited for. Even if the results show they belong to another, they can then choose to remain in their birth sector. Should they pick outside of their origin sector, they may never return home. The choice is theirs. 

Hailing from Abnegation is Beatrice later “Tris” (Shailene Woodley), who learns she is “divergent”, a person equally adept at 3 of the 5 characteristics. Knowing this, she must decide if she will leave her family behind to pursue her dream or stay behind where she can theoretically never risk losing them.

The visual world that director Neil Burger provides for “Divergent” is in stark contrast to most post-apocalyptic films. The conceptual art and cinematography is bright, appealing to the eye by providing an array of colors. Despite the dismantled buildings, this world is vibrant and full of life which is further complemented by a stirring score.

The script similarly reflects the graphics by offering dramatic moments that are contrasted with effective humor. It’s an approach that pays off by never beating viewers over the head with despair. There are joyous and angst-riddled characters. Most of them are easy to root for and they earn it with a relatable sensibility.

The social commentary that is obvious in any sci-fi remains a core ideal of Roth’s vision and while it seems a world beyond the scope of our current existence, it can be argued it is a metaphor for everyday life’s lingering queries.

The major professions that young adults “must” choose between and by extension the education they will pursue in order to obtain it; fits into the realm of possibilities. Whether they will follow in their parents' footsteps or choose a college away from home, leaving them for the first substantial stretch of time in their lives. These are all anxieties that make it easy to identify with the plight of its heroine, Tris.

The collegiate metaphor of her chosen sector (Dauntless) is pretty apparent, as is its association to Greek life. Explored is the key human factor that motivates people to prove themselves to outsiders and the growing desire to step outside of society’s constraints. This is where the fantasy of “Divergent” begets a great truth.

Tris is an incredibly likable heroine who embodies those struggles. She’s also upbeat and brave in the face of clear danger. The story does well to remind us that bravery cannot be possible without first confronting fear and that overcoming it is what makes Tris, courageous.

Shailene Woodley gives a powerful performance as the film's lead, combining compassionate warmth with internal fortitude. As she did in "The Spectacular Now", she demonstrates her impressive ability to convey a change of heart with a single expression. She ups the ante with a genuine characterization that positively stands out among the multitude of other dystopian heroines who bore with their depressed demeanor.

While Woodley is deservedly the movie's star, Theo James bursts onto the scene in his own right as Tris’ love interest Four. James makes a strong impression with a tough masculinity, and tenderness that makes Four; a compellingly three-dimensional character. Presenting with raw star quality, it’s a performance that secures his already rapidly rising career.

The supporting cast does a tremendous job rounding out the film. Ashley Judd is perfectly cast as Tris’ mother, portraying maternal affection and ferocity with equal vigor. Miles Teller brings his deft comedic timing as Peter and Zoe Kravitz (Christian) livens up her sharp dialogue quips with moxie.

Another breakout among the cast is Christian Madsen (Al) who seizes major notability with an exceptional performance that runs a gamut of emotions. Elsewhere, Kate Winslet is intense as the film’s villainess.

“Divergent” is well assembled, an energetic origin story that packs a punch by savoring its character driven moments and quenching the desire for action. This is a rare popcorn movie that elicits thematic introspection.

It’s a commendable beginning to a promising franchise that actually warrants anticipation for future installments and as someone who’s never read one of the books that’s a telling sign. Rating: 8.3/10