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Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:01 am

Woodley shines in familiar Divergent

Theo James as Four and Shailene Woodley as Beatrice Prior/Tris in Divergent.
PHOTO COURTESY SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT

 

Better than Twilight but not quite as good as The Hunger Games, Neil Burger’s Divergent is the latest foray into the arena of ’tween lit adaptations that’s seen far more wannabe franchises vanquished than successful launches. Film series based on teen fiction sensations have proven to be a hit or miss proposition – either they go through the roof or crash and burn under the weight of unrealized expectations and a sense of exaggerated quality. While I don’t think Divergent will go the way of the big budget misfires Beautiful Creatures or I Am Number Four, it should do well enough to warrant the two or three features that will come in its wake. Credit a plucky lead actress and a story that has a more powerful subtext than you might expect for giving this film the opportunity to separate itself from the pack.

Set in Chicago in the near future, we’re treated yet again to a dystopian society that’s looked destruction in the face, having survived yet another cataclysmic war that’s taken the world to the brink. This time out, the powers that be in the Windy City have walled off the metropolis and separated its citizens into five factions. The offspring of the adults in these groups are required to choose one of the groups to live in, once they’ve gone through an aptitude test while in their teens. Our heroine Beatrice (Shailene Woodley, all peaches-and-cream with a streak of mean) is unsure which faction she will choose but having been born into the Abnegation tribe, who are a modest group dedicated to helping others and running the government, her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) expect her to follow in their footsteps.

Imagine their surprise when Beatrice, soon to go by the name of Tris, chooses Dauntless, the bloc charged with policing the city. At first this seems like a dubious choice. They appear to do nothing more than run about the streets and jump off moving trains and look like a bunch of hooligans. However, when you consider the alternative for our heroine is to feed stinky hobos, you can see the appeal. These Dauntless are a rough group and Tris is required to show she has the spine to hang with them by going through a grueling training camp in which she needs to show her mettle. This trial is hard enough, however, she soon hears that there’s trouble a brewin’ and that a coup is being planned to oust the Abnegation group from power, which could mean bad news for her folks. However, Tris knows she’s different – she’s Divergent, a rebel who cannot adhere to the norm. Her and her kind are hunted down and exterminated at the bequest of the head elder Jeanine (Kate Winslet, looking utterly bored) as their existence is a threat to the system. It’s up to Tris to find others like her in order to stop this coup before innocents are killed.

The story from Veronica Roth’s best-selling novel is a pastiche of elements we’ve been beaten over the head with since Twilight and its numerous imitators have assailed bookshelves and movie theaters across America. The strong, misunderstood heroine goes through a trial of fire that transforms her into a woman to be reckoned with and a symbol of inspiration and all the while her love life ends up being more complicated than it should be. Thankfully Woodley is on hand. She has a feistiness about her that’s appealing and her transformation from wallflower to butt-kicker is not only convincing but also compelling. That she and Theo James as her love interest Four have chemistry and generate a bit of a spark means they’re one up on the couples from Twilight and The Hunger Games.

The production design of the film is noteworthy. Chicago is transformed into a city with one foot in the wasteland, struggling to maintain its urban identity. Its distinctive skyscrapers are festooned with wind turbines to generate energy, its river beds are dry and overrun with moss while the barrens along Lake Michigan have been transformed into farmland vital to the survival of her citizens. It’s an effective amalgam of real landmarks and computer wizardry that makes it distinctive amidst the cinema’s cluttered futuristic landscape.

In the end, its lack of originality prevents Divergent from putting a distinctive stamp on the science fiction genre. Still, a surprising plot twist where Four’s identity is concerned, an effective warning concerning the vagaries of ethnic cleansing and a winning turn from Woodley has me, while not necessarily anxious for, at least not dreading the next entry in the series.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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