Someone please remind me to die before we get too far into the future– if the movies are any indicator. (Of course, if movies really were an indicator, we’d only be only 18 months away from a hoverboard and Jaws 19, and I’m pretty sure neither of those are happening.) But seriously, why does every future-based movie have to take place in a bleak, dystopian wasteland?
The latest entry comes courtesy of Veronica Roth’s bestselling YA novel Divergent. We’re told it’s been 100 years since ‘the war’, and that all that remains of Chicago are a dozen or so burned-out shells of skyscrapers. And, oh yes, the entire population has been tested and split into five factions: Abnegation (selfless people), Dauntless (fearless people), Erudite (smart people), Amity (nice people), and Candor (honest people). But we’re not really sure why. And we then learn that even though you may be born into one faction, you can switch to another when you hit 16. But you can’t ever switch back. And that people that show traits of more than one faction (oddly enough, that’s extremely rare– apparently complex personalities go the way of in-tact buildings in the future) are called Divergent. And they’re dangerous. But not dangerous enough to kill on the spot; no, they’re released to maybe be hunted down later. Or something.
Beyond the hideously-flawed premise of the source story, the movie version of Divergent has even more problems of its own. The Hunger Games, this ain’t.
Shailene Woodley (TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) stars as Tris, an Abnegation-by-birth who, when tested, is revealed to by one of those pesky Divergents. Since she can’t admit it, though, she heads over to Dauntless, because she’s kind of a badass.
Once there, she meets Four (Theo James), one of the Dauntless leaders. Long story short (too late!), they eventually work to try to overthrow the bad guys who are trying to overthrow the Abnegation-led government. But we’re never told why Abnegation is good, or why an alternative would be bad.
Director Neil Burger (Limitless) seems to be as stuck-in-a-rut as Roth was when she came up with this rote story. His direction is full of cliches (askew camera angles! sunset dappled moments!), and the pacing for Divergent is as uneven as a back country road. Just when the plot finally gets moving (as Tris plunges headfirst into her Dauntless training), things slow right back down again, only to try to get back up to speed with a big final confrontation. But then that moment’s energy fizzles before it even gets going.
Woodley, who was so brilliant in 2011’s The Descendants, shows none of that brilliance here. She’s just too sweet and shy with a dimpled smile and Clairol-perfect hair to make her action hero moments believable. There’s just no edge to Tris.
The screenplay by Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) and Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) is even more watered down than the book was (presumably to keep the PG-13 rating), and it ends up feeling like nothing more than “The Hunger Games lite” (really lite). In fact, it’s actually closer to the Twilight series than anything else– a lot of handsome people looking handsome, occasionally fighting, with a little falling-in-love sprinkled in for kicks.
Pretty bleak, indeed.