In a post-apocalyptic future humanity has been segregated into five factions as a means to promote peace: Abnegation, Candour, Amity, Dauntless and Erudite. Having grown up admiring the athletic warrior caste Dauntless, teenager Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) never felt she fit in with the plain-living, altruistic Abnegation clan the way her mother (Ashley Judd) and father (Tony Goldwyn) do. Come the day Tris undergoes the state-sanctioned blood test to determine which faction she is best suited, the results reveal she does not conform to any known type and is therefore: Divergent, a social aberration government forces including sinister politico Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) are determined to stamp out. Keeping her secret, Tris enlists with Dauntless whereupon she endures an arduous physical and psychological training regime at the hands of handsome, uncompromising but sensitive combat veteran Four (Theo James). Although Tris struggles in training with dark forces at work she might be the saviour the world needs.
Based on the first in a trilogy of young adult novels written by Veronica Roth, Divergent holds the two key ingredients important to any studio looking to latch onto the next teen lit phenomenon in a post-Hunger Games landscape: a kick-ass young heroine and a post-apocalyptic setting rife with allegorical overtones. It is not too much of a sweeping statement to say all teen fantasies function as allegories for the high school experience. They stress the truism that those qualities that make kids feel awkward in school are the same things that enable them to excel as grownups. It basically boils down to reinforcing the healthy notion that being different is not only okay but part of being human. Of all the teen sci-fi fantasy franchises thus far Divergent is the most explicitly fixated on this aspect to the point where it forms the very basis of its futuristic backdrop and plot.
Unfolding in an impressively realized post-apocalyptic Chicago the high concept of a segregated society requires an even bigger suspension of disbelief from the viewer than the idea of a state-sanctioned reality TV death match. Yet the plot is persuasively mounted and played with conviction by a fine ensemble cast. As with The Hunger Games a seasoned supporting cast take on the roles of special guest mentors (Ashley Judd, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson) and adversaries (Mekhi Phifer and Kate Winslet in a clever bit of casting given only a few-decades ago she would be a shoe-in for Tris). Hunger Games had Lenny Kravitz, Divergent has daughter Zoë Kravitz as Tris' smart-alecky friend Christina. There is always a handsome guy involved somewhere in these movies and he is usually a Brit but Theo James acquits himself admirably in this stock role as does Ansel Elgort, Woodley's love interest in her other, even more popular teen lit adaptation of 2014, The Fault in Our Stars (2014), as Tris deluded brother Caleb.
Rising star Shailene Woodley is an undeniable talent and invests her gently resilient heroine with grit, guts and gravitas beyond her years. Tris is no superheroine. Hers is a hard fought struggle through put-downs and beat-downs at the Dauntless training camp. Director Neil Burger, whose previous science fiction film Limitless (2011) was also a story about a character unlocking their inner potential, fashions yet another future world that is a battleground for young people. "Human nature is the enemy", argues Jeanine Matthews while the plot plays like a paranoid fantasy for alienated youngsters everywhere. If you don't fit into a category, society can't control you. Which makes you their enemy. Divergent certainly crystalizes and expands this universal fear but does not necessarily subvert or critique it which keeps it a somewhat one-dimensional adventure story. It also very much an origin story for Tris and is as constrained as origin stories tend to be. A meandering first half confines us to the fight-or-die values of the almost comically athletic Dauntless. We learn little about the other factions save for a faintly unsettling blanket condemnation of all intellectuals as closet fascists. However, as the second half heads into conspiracy thriller territory, the pace picks up and packs a weightier emotional punch.
Burger has a more fluid and compelling visual style than other filmmakers working in the teen fantasy genre. His inventive direction does not sit back and let the special effects do the talking. Instead he conjures vivid nightmare sequences and an unexpectedly charming set-piece with Tris gliding through the desolate Chicago ruins that functions as a metaphor for her blossoming consequence. However the film's key metaphorical image of characters chasing a moving train proves equally heartening as does its devotion to the benefits of a multifaceted society.