MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE MOVIE DIVERGENT:
There was once an episode of All in the Family where Edith was recounting the story of how she hit a car with a can of cling peaches (in heavy syrup). Archie got so sick of hearing her say cling peaches, Edith began replacing the words with “Mmm-Mmm.”
I am so darn sick of reading reviews about Divergent comparing it to The Hunger Games (and alleged “think pieces,” like this especially jerky one by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman) that any time I feel compelled to do the same, I’m going use “Mmm-Mmm” instead.
Divergent is based on the first book in the YA dystopian series by Veronica Roth. I have to mention up front that I loved the first book, was disappointed by the second, and was so unhappy with the final installment I wrote a very detailed and spoiler-filled article about why it didn’t work for me.
However, this is a review of the MOVIE, and I’m happy to report that it’s a very good one. In fact, considering how many poor reviews it received, as well as its less-than-stellar marketing campaign, I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is.
Divergent takes place in an unspecified time in the future after a devastating war. The city of Chicago is crumbling, but still has what seems to be a thriving, if much smaller, society. The society is divided up into “factions”–Erudite, Candor, Amity, Dauntless and Abnegation. Every faction has their function in the society (Amity grows food, Dauntless protects the society, Abnegation runs the government, etc.).
On the day Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) takes the aptitude test that’s supposed to tell her what her faction should be, she is told that she is “divergent” (belongs in more than one faction). She is warned by Tori, the person who tests her (Maggie Q) that she should never tell anyone because there are those who want to eradicate divergents. At the choosing ceremony, she picks Dauntless.
Now separated from her family for good, Beatrice changes her name to Tris and must prove that she belongs in Dauntless so no one will guess she is divergent. Those who don’t make the cut are called “factionless” and become homeless outcasts.
While Tris is training, it seems that Erudite, led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is out to overtake the society, which would mean the displacement of Tris’ original faction, Abnegation. The danger for Tris increases. Instead of exile, she may face execution instead.
There’s quite a bit of time devoted to the training period of the new initiates in Dauntless, which has been both a criticism of the movie and one way some claim it’s superior to “Mmm-Mmm.” I liked it. First of all, it would have been ridiculous to believe Tris could become a kick-ass heroine in a heartbeat. The fact that she may fail makes this section of the movie suspenseful. Along with initiates from other factions, including Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Peter (Miles Teller), Tris undergoes both grueling physical and sometimes terrifying psychological training.
Yes, there’s a romance in the story, but it’s handled with tremendous restraint. The relationship is never sappy and never overtakes the main story. Tris’ trainer Four (Theo James) is only business-like with her at first. What I liked the most here was that it wasn’t “they hate each other but really love each other”–blah-blah kind of cliché storytelling. They start out as strangers who simply don’t know each other. As Four begins to admire Tris’ determination and bravery, he also catches on that she may be divergent.
On what must be the most unique first date of all time, Four takes Tris into a simulation inside his mind so she can learn to fool the leaders of the factions that she is not divergent.
While this story has a slower build-up than “Mmm-Mmm,” there are some terrific action scenes. One of my favorites was Tris ziplining over the ruined city of Chicago. In fact, director Neil Burger does a great job of using the futuristic Chicago setting. It’s both ominous and familiar. The simulation scenes are also well done.
Casting is mostly excellent. Woodley hits just the right note with Tris. My only complaint about James is he seems a tad too old for the role, but he’s perfect in every other respect as Four. Winslet is icy as Jeanine yet manages to convey a bit more depth with a character who seemed very one-note on the page. Of the supporting players, Jai Courtney was the stand-out to me. He gave Eric, Tris’ other Dauntless trainer, the exact combination of menace and douchiness the character needed.
There is one issue in the movie that I also had with the first book–the Erudite faction is pretty much uniformly villainous. I’m not comfortable with the notion that an entire group is bad. This is a major weakness of the story.
Other than that, I found the movie thoroughly compelling. I have some trepidation about the follow-up movies (already greenlit, apparently) but I’m hoping that they find a way to stay true to Roth’s vision while fixing some of the flaws.
And there’s Tris. No, she’s is not the same as the heroine from “Mmm-Mmm”–she doesn’t need to be. She’s fabulous in her own way. Divergent isn’t the same kind of story as “Mmm-Mmm”–which is neither a compliment nor a criticism.
When Tris flew over the ruined remains of Chicago, I couldn’t stop grinning. We need to see more heroines in movies take flight. Of all kinds, all ages, in all sorts of stories. This and “Mmm-Mmm” are a great start.
Divergent Debuts In Top Spot – (miami.cbslocal.com)
[Movie Review] Divergent (2014) – (thegrandshuckett.com)