Movie Review #743
Directed by Neil Burger. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor. (Novel: Veronica Roth.) Produced by Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian, and Douglas Wick for Red Wagon Entertainment, presented by Summit Entertainment. Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen, and Ben Lamb. Premiered in Los Angeles, California on March 18, 2014. Distributed by Summit Entertainment in wide release on March 21, 2014. Rated PG-13: intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality. Runs 139 minutes.
“She’s not gonna shoot me.”
“Think you might be overestimating my character.”
– dialogue from “Divergent”
Relax. I’m not gonna be one of those folks who complains this and that about how “Divergent” is just a “Hunger Games” copycat and so it’s not worth your time. Truthfully, that’s not the only reason it’s not worth your time. This movie is, in fact, even more derivative than you might have heard. There’s numerous hints of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” here, and mind you, those were manna from heaven for much of the young-adult audience in their time. So if “Divergent” isn’t a lazy movie for tearing formula from the recent past, I’m not sure what else there is to call it.
But “Divergent” isn’t just derivative of teen movies. Maybe some would see past director Neil Burger’s carbon-copy “style”–an array of training scenes that function like “Fight Club” and dream sequences (sometimes, dream-within-a-dream sequences) that mimic “Inception”. But these are mainstream movies, the former earning a cult following over time, and the latter becoming an international box office hit as soon as it came to theaters. A sophisticated director would at least have the decency to steal from movies that typically aren’t heard of by the young-adult demographic.
There’s probably even more that I didn’t notice, and it’s because “Divergent” is a film capable of evoking two kinds of emotional responses: laughter and boredom. The first half of the movie was, in a stupid way, entertaining, and I feel absolutely no shame admitting that. It was thankfully as if I could forget the beaten-to-death uses of slow-motion, the terribly familiar plot, and the shoddy dialogue. Screenwriters Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) delivered fine pacing, and that was enough to have me interested. Again, it’s unintentionally funny. I’m sure that if the makers knew there was a film critic sitting in the very back row, the last thing they’d want (aside from a walkout) is for the film critic to snicker and make Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary.
The best offering from “Divergent” is the visual effects. Even in that blah second half, I’ll admit that the movie looked pretty nice. But what kind of director thinks special effects can cover up for actors choosing not to act? (Can this truly be the same Neil Burger who directed “Limitless”, a great movie with great visuals and great acting?) Notice I didn’t say “bad acting,” because these are not bad actors. They’re doing what they can for a project in which they’re all miscast, and unfortunately, that means they’re just going through the motions. Must I repeat myself, the cast is solid. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley were spectacular in last year’s “The Spectacular Now”. Now they’re thoroughly unconvincing. That there’s actually someone in film business who believes Shailene Woodley can take a walk in the great shoes of Jennifer Lawrence, albeit with a completely flat-note performance, is tragic. Even the Oscar-winning Kate Winslet doesn’t really deliver. Why? Because she’s playing a villain. My problem isn’t that I’ve never seen her in anything but the role of a hero or an antihero. My problem is that you don’t just cast Kate Winslet as any random villain. You have to actually typecast her as a Kate Winslet-esque villain, and that certainly was not the case here.
“Divergent” started in 2011 as the debut novel of young-adult author Veronica Roth. Let me just say that I have not read the book, and in truth, I should not have to read the book in order to understand the movie. Oddly I feel that if I did read the book, “Divergent” would still be a rather confusing experience. About a third of “Divergent” is made up of dream sequences. It’s quite nearly impossible, therefore, to determine how much of the movie is actually happening. This idea was all too obviously stolen from “Inception”, except that movie actually works, because by the end of that movie, things actually start to make sense. “Divergent” isn’t trash, but it isn’t as entertaining as many of us were certainly hoping. It has its moments, for sure, but once it turns into a convoluted mess of pop music and lens flares, our eyes pull away from the screen and down toward our watches. ✴
– Alexander Diminiano