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———– You are Divergent ————

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Ah – Utopia – I’ve long been obsessed with the idea that we can create a perfect society, most likely on another planet and definitely full of beautiful people (if modern sci-fi cinema is any gauge).

Creating Utopia is a theme of the three-part saga based on the novels of Veronica Roth –Divergent being part 1. Alas, as with many first films utilising a complex three-picture story, this film is almost entirely scene-setting window dressing.

Star Shailene Woodley (notably of The Descendants) and the producers are confident that their audience wants another dystopic future-of-America-as-world movie, so who are we to deny them? Perhaps I have fatigue, having recently reviewed Catching Fire and Ender’s Game, but I found Divergent the poorer companion to these better outings. It’s not without merits. Here’s the science…

Abnegation. Erudite. Amity. Dauntless. Candor.

Divergent is set in Chicago ‘after the war’. To keep utopian order and happiness, all people live and work in one of  five possible factions. Tris, her brother Caleb (Ansel Egort) and their parents (Ashley Judd andScandal’s Tony Goldwyn) live in Abnegation – the current ruling faction – where all inhabitants dress in Starwarsian grey tunics and hand out alms to the poor.

As Tris and Caleb come of age they can choose to stay in Abnegation or move to one of the other four factions (Amity, Erudite, Candor, and Dauntless, or the peaceful, brainy, truthful or brave gangs). Tris is first subjected to a drug injection which maps out which faction she is biologically determined for based on her DNA. But Tris doesn’t have clear results, she’s a little erudite, dauntless and abnegated, and that is BAD as she cannot be controlled by the system or by Erudite’s leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) who wants control of the entire city. Tris is thus Divergent. Divergents are either killed or roam homeless.  Tris hides her test results and chooses Dauntless, where she is trained in combat by the mysterious Four (Theo James), while Caleb heads to Erudite who are starting to think that Abnegation are not the right leaders…

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The Good

It’s unusual for me to praise an abundance of hand-to-hand combat in any movie, but I have never seen this scenario in such a big picture before. There’s much to celebrate in well-directed proper beatings between boys and girls. Being female is no excuse in this world, in Dauntless Tris must be tough, daring and no sissy, which leads to stress-inducing scenes between recruits and their trainers. Divergentas proto-feminist movement movie is a-ok with me.

And this is very much a gender-equality movie at all levels, with Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet taking on strong female roles. Although these do not have the richness and depth that their counterparts in The Hunger Games (RIP PSH) are offered, both do very well with the little meat on the bone – the generation of an almost instantaneous dislike in Jeanine is all Winslet’s own work.

To be clear, this isn’t a feminist movie, the male characters are given plenty to do physically and mentally, from Four’s secrets, Caleb’s swinging allegiances and Dauntless trainer Eric’s sadistic behaviour – cleverly lining things up for part 2 (Insurgent – due out in 2015). Mirroring Ender’s Game, all the teens in Divergent are surprisingly adult, dealing with life-threatening risks with whipsmart humour, especially Christina (Zoe Kravitz) as the poster-child of Candor, motto: “…politeness is deception in pretty packaging.” 

Finally, there is a nice dream sequence where Tris must fight her way out of a scenario that involves a potential rape. She manages it with strength and dignity – a short well-choreographed scene that is pivotal to Tris’ confidence and should set a good example to the tween viewers.

The Bad

With a budget this size, Divergent shamefully just doesn’t have the weight it should to deliver a first class spectacle. All the elements are there except, you know, the plot, and er, the dialogue. This makes little sense as the books are deliberately written in a brisk, exciting style that lends itself well to cinema. It just feels like a holding film for the first hour and a half. Once the later action sets in, I bonded with Tris, but this film asks a lot of the uninformed viewer. This is nothing against Woodley, who is in almost every scene, and is breathtaking to watch.

I felt mildly embarrassed by the Tris and Four love scenes, although James is 29 and Woodley is 22, Tris feels so much younger. Perhaps again the failing is in their dialogue, which is clunky and patronising. This was a squandered opportunity to improve on the melodrama of the Twilight series. Parents may also go barmy at tattoos given the ‘cool’ factor, including a memorable scene where Four gratuitously take his shirt off (that’s one for the tweens and their mothers).

Sometimes Divergent is downright trite in its depiction of a fragile world that’s to be saved by teens. The kids watching this are so much cleverer than the adult producers are willing to credit.

In the end, Divergent will make money and entertain – it’s a non-stopping scrappy juggernaut of a film. Yes I want to see how Tris’ story moves on – I just wish I could feel better about the delivery.

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