Let me open with, no I haven’t read the books. Remember that post on the personal facebook page about having an addiction? That was me dropping nearly $100 ON the Books (and a few others, like a hard cover of Frankenstein, but I digress). Now that I’ve seen the movie I can read them comfortably and know that this review is written from pure objectivity as a film. The girl at the coffee bar told me there was mad crowds for the earlier showings tonight and I find that interesting since my showing (the last of the night) only had about thirty or so in it.
what I truly find interesting is the range of material and world building that occurs within the Young Adult (YA) genre. I am twice the age, or more, of it’s target demographic yet I find the books in many of these series compelling. I suppose it’s ironic that a girl who read The Stand when she was eleven reads Vampire Academy, Hunger Games, and Divergent nearly three decades later. Back to the worlds though, when I was in high school it was the start of an interesting age in YA novels I think. I read Vampire Diaries (and still have my first prints) and the Secret Circle and they were sort of avant garde to my perception at the time. Now such works cover entire rows at the bookstores. They cover the supernatural romance, alternative history, alternative modernism, and dystopian futures.
They also show us who we are as a people and who we can be potentially when done properly. The dystopian futures do this best of all. Hunger Games being one of the stronger examples and now Divergent following close by. Where Hunger Games (movies) has actually kind meandered in showing what the best of us can do in adversity and a world that wants to devour of us; Divergent takes a different tact. They introduce a fascinating caste system (classism?) and promptly throw it out the window with the main character. Yes my review is still spoiler free, if you didn’t know she was different, then you haven’t watched a trailer of this yet and its been nearly a year since the first one. Statue of limitations is past. Deal.
Evan Daughtry (Snow White and the Huntsman, Bay’s TMNT) and Vanessa Taylor (three episodes of Game of Thrones as a writer and 20 episodes of producer credits) have the task of converting twenty five year old Veronica Roths novels to film. As discussed before it is not an easy task. To be honest, I am not 100% sure they were up to it. Let me explain. Vampire Academy is an abomination of adaptation. It fails on more levels than it succeeds in taking the heart, soul and characters and bringing them to screen. It lacks subtlety in any way shape or form and you may feel dumber (or insulted) for watching it. Hunger Games (book 1) is a near perfect adaptation in terms of book to script to screen. There is very little actually cut from the story and the essence of what was trying to be told was brought to the screen.
In Divergent, we have the story of Tris a girl born to at once the lowest caste and the highest. When being tested and eventually choosing her caste for herself, she goes against the grain and adopts a new family forsaking her life and family before. In the course of training to become one with her new caste she truly comes to understand herself and her true nature. It helps to have a mentor along the way and she finds that in Four. While the discovery of self develops, there are machinations of the castes and politics of a different nature occurring that she is caught up in.
At the end of the movie I had an overwhelming sense of…meh. I wanted to care what happened next. I wanted to care and see more, but I didn’t. That is why I think the writers failed. when I read the book, I hope I can say they did what they could with what they had; but I have a feeling this isn’t the strongest adaptation out there. It’s still a magnitude better than Vampire Academy or the movie that shares a title with the Max Brooks classic. Even not reading the books I know it is a better adaptation than those two repugnant pieces of cinema.
So if the script wasn’t to blame, then perhaps the directing? Neil Burger, best known for Limitless and the Illusionist (the less glitzy version of The Prestige), is the man to blame I think. He got some things right, but his sense of pacing is way off. The movie runs two hours and twenty minutes and it feels it. The best movies can run that long without the audience noticing. I noticed somewhere around the half way point that they were in no way even close to tying up this story. Its true in keeping with the amount of information in a novel it can increase running time, but a clever or skilled director knows how to mask that. Burger isn’t quite up to the task either. The shots are pretty, the direction of the actors is actually very well done, but the overall pacing allowed me to disengage from the story too often. A real problem towards the climax of the film. There are also some editing, continuity and logic fails that left me wondering.
The acting though. well…what to say there?
FINALLY. Finally a movie that isn’t starring Jennifer Lawrence or Chloe Grace Moretz where the younger (not teen) actors are not card board cut outs. actually in some films the cut outs might have more range. Divergent is not that film. All of the actors do their part and make it work. Shailene Woodley (Tris) who is relatively unknown unless you watched The Descendants or Secret Life of the American Teenager is able to carry the film. She brings the right emotions at the right times. Little body language ticks, eye movements, tears brimming, even posture and walk are spot on. She is engaging. She is believable. Her doubts and the fears she does have are played out beautifully as the character transitions due to her acting. She is also one of the strongest female characters I’ve seen of late that isn’t named Katniss. Theo James (Four) who really only has Underworld Awakening (yummy vampire…bad Jess) to his credit also has an amazing range displayed for someone trying to be stoic. While not as refined as Woodley he is just as engaging and worth watching in the time he is on camera. I have to admit, he’s not bad to just watch either. His acting though lets him bring both a certain physicality his role seems to call for and vulnerability in the right moments.
The remainder of the cast left me a little surprised in the opening credits. Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney (Reacher, I Frankenstein), Ray Stevenson (Thor, the Punisher was almost unrecognizable), Zoe Kravitz (X-Men First Class), Miles Teller (Footloose, That Awkward Moment), Tony Goldwyn (Scandal, Last Samurai, Ghost), Maggie Q (Nikita, Preist) and Kate Winslet (her heart did not go on) cover the majority of the other roles. Most of them are playing their stereotypes well. To say they were anything other than stereotypes would be disingenous. I like and hate the characters accordingly and find that their performances are everything that they SHOULD be, and I really cannot ask for more than that; and I shouldn’t.
From an technical standpoint, seeing a post apocalyptic chicago was interesting. They did a good job crafting that and setting the stage for the world without going into too much exposition to explain it. The visuals tell a story all their own and thats what they should do. Wardrobe and make up were solid and I have to admit it was nice to see people in NOT black leather jackets at all times. The zip line scene was quite fun and might even be interesting in 3D. It’s something I would do.
That’s my final point before I get near the end (oh hush, I know this is a long one). Movies are about escapism to a point. While I don’t escape into this world as easily as I do others like City of Bones or Beautiful Creatures; I found myself wondering where I would be in this world. Dead probably. That said, it created enough of a world that while I wouldn’t want to go there, I could imagine it well enough to find myself there for two and a half hours. No mean feat really. I didn’t find myself wanting to beat the main character senseless for bad decisions, also a plus. In these facets the movie actually succeeds. It both comments on the class-ism of modern american society, gives an escape and entertains while it potentially informs. It does what a good movie should do.
TL;DR? (finally right?)
Divergent is a good movie. As I just said above, it does what a good movie should. It has the potential to inform you if you look beyond the cover, it can entertain you and can give you an escape from your own world for just a bit. It’s a nice place to visit, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. If you do, I am concerned for your well being.
Can I recommend it for everyone? No. It has problems in it’s execution that are enough that I wouldn’t highly recommend it. This isn’t Frozen or Avengers. This isn’t quite Hunger Games either and again thats to its benefit.
If you were already interested, you can breathe a sigh of relief.It is absolutely family friendly, but I saw someone’s face melt (Raiders) when I was five and was ok with it.
If you were curious, I can say give it a shot. You can even pay full price and not feel bad for it.
If you were not interested to begin with, you won’t be still and will likely find more flaws in it than I did.
After 300, Need for Speed (still surprised there) and now Divergent March has turned out to be a really good month. Here’s hoping the trend continues!