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ReThink Review: Divergent -- Just Be Yourself, Even in Dystopia

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Divergent is based on the best-selling first book of a popular teen sci-fi trilogy, though the reasons for its popularity will probably be lost on those (like myself) who haven't read them. That's because Divergent mostly seems like a knockoff of The Hunger Games, with both films sharing similar dystopian visions of a postwar America, plotlines about teens training to fight each other, and a plucky girl learning to find her inner badass with potential to take down an oppressive system. Maybe there's enough dystopian teen book/movie money to go around, but not for a movie as nonsensical, poorly written, and dull as Divergent, which clocks in at a punishing, baffling 140 minutes. Watch my ReThink Review of Divergent below (transcript following).

Transcript:

With the resurgence of young adult book series like The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter, it's natural to assume that others would want to jump on such a lucrative bandwagon. The problem is that some of these titles seem laughably derivative, like Vampire Academy, which flopped in theaters earlier this year and seems like the most unoriginal concept imaginable to cash in on the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises. And now we have Divergent, a poor man's The Hunger Games whose most distinguishing characteristic is dialogue and a rambling story that seem to have been written by an ambitious though untalented seventh-grader.

Like The Hunger Games, Divergent takes place in a post-war dystopian America where those who remain have been separated into groups in order to maintain order and control. Known as Factions, they seem to have been named by someone a little too excited about their thesaurus -- the Amity faction is made of earth-loving farmers; smart people are members of Erudite; Dauntless is a high-spirited warrior class; and the Abnegation faction are selfless public servants. When a child turns sixteen, they're given a test to determine which faction they belong in, which is usually that of their parents, though the teens are still allowed to join whichever faction they want.

Beatrice Prior (played by Shailene Woodley) is a member of Abnegation, but isn't really feeling it, and her test reveals that she has the traits of multiple factions, placing her in the extremely rare category of Divergent, which could lead to her being killed and must be kept secret since, "If you don't fit into a category, they can't control you" -- which is a good example of how flowing and natural the film's dialogue definitely isn't. So Beatrice decides to join the Dauntless gang, even if it means severing ties with her family and taking the risk of becoming factionless if she can't handle the Dauntless training. Her decision is painted as a crazy, subversive anomaly -- after all, 16-year-olds always do what their parents say -- which begs the question of why 16 year olds are allowed to make such a big decision in the first place.

So, as in The Hunger Games, Beatrice (now called Tris) begins training in the deadly arts, confronting her fears, and navigating the politics of her fellow Dauntless candidates with futuristic names like Peter, Molly, and Al. But one of her trainers, the ridiculously named Four (as in the number) takes a liking to her that predictably turns romantic, which is creepy since this is technically a student/teacher relationship, the actor who plays Four (Theo James) is 30 and seems like he was designed in a lab to be a hunkier/douchier James Franco, and Tris has just turned sixteen but could pass for younger.

And that's just one of the major problems in Divergent, which is punishingly long and grindingly boring through most of its two and a half hour runtime. The dialogue is beyond wooden and always right on the nose, like Four telling Tris, "Fear doesn't shut you down, it wakes you up," as well as lots of statements about the dangers of being an individual and defying conformity that no one seems to believe, particularly the leader of the Erudite, played by an uninterested Kate Winslet.

We're constantly told that Tris has amazing abilities to think outside the box because she's a Divergent, but she never does anything particularly clever or imaginative, or really seems special in any way despite the amazement over her performances in various simulations that seem utterly unimpressive and ripped off from The Matrix. There are repeated warnings about the dire consequences of failing challenges in Dauntless training, but they never materialize. And when an evil conspiracy is revealed, the film gets disturbingly, inappropriately violent, though in that bloodless PG-13 way that supposedly makes dozens of people being shot to death more palatable for kids.

I've never read the Divergent books, but I was optimistic about this film because of its potentially interesting sociopolitical themes. But now I mostly hope that Divergent bombs, punishing the hubris of planning a trilogy without making sure that the first installment was any good.

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