The YA multi-pic dystopia movie series based on a YA multi-book dystopia bestseller reaches a nadir of sorts with “Divergent,” the kick-off film for yet another such series. Yes, the movie could’ve been worse, nevertheless it does look like a meal that’s been left out in the sun for a day or so.
One simply can’t help comparing it to an already crowded field, most especially “The Hunger Games” movies, which contains the same DNA of this divergent genetic offshoot. So the new movie not only comes in a distant second to the “Hunger” series, but more crucially its science-fiction landscape and tropes are now clichés.
Which is too bad since some good people, actors and behind-the-camera folks, do good jobs. But not good enough.
Again a teenage female warrior is plucked from an underclass to train for service to society. She will ultimately lead an uprising (that comes, of course, in the next film) to right all wrongs and put that society back together again.
The trouble is the moment you enter this brave new world, you can instantly see what’s wrong with it and how open to abuse the entire structure is. Why can no one else — other than the heroine? The young female novelists who dream up these things write as if Orwell or Huxley or Philip K. Dick never existed.
So nothing new about a future dystopia is on view but rather the same old same old. Plus director Neil Burger takes a grim, prodding approaching to both the romance and sci-fi material that fails to give it the magical touch of — okay, they asked for it — “The Hunger Games” or for that matter “Ender’s Game.”
Again the movie takes you to a post-apocalyptic world, in this instance Chicago with its corroded, broken tall buildings and skyscrapers looking as if they’ll fall down in a good breeze off Lake Michigan. Whoops, there are no bodies of water anywhere either.
Walls circling the city “protect” the populace from whatever is out there. Meanwhile at age16, everyone must choose which of society’s absolutely defined Factions they’ll join.
Heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) flames out spectacularly at her aptitude test, a personality quiz administered by drugs from a tester (a very good Maggie Q) that predicts her correct Faction. In a pathetic bow to free will though the Chicago federation allows a youngster to choose any category he/she wants despite the test.
But the test shows Beatrice to be a Divergent, someone who doesn’t fit into any particular category and is therefore a huge threat to social order. Her tester tells her she will keep quiet about these results. Otherwise she will be targeted for death.
The screen adaptation by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from Veronica Roth’s first of three novels shoots past the expository background regarding the heroine’s family and political situation to get at the “good stuff.”
But this shortchanges those who haven’t read the novels in understanding the implications of her abandoning the Abnegation, the faction of the selfless to which her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) belong. Our Beatrice decides to strike out with the Dauntless, black-dressing punks who “defend” the city but are in fact is its totalitarian police force.
This brings the movie into about an hour’s worth of training and character set-ups in a subterranean Pit that serves as the Dauntless HQ. Tris, as she now calls herself, attracts the mentorship if not intimate friendship of Instructor Four (Theo James of “Underworld: Awakening”) but the amenity of sneering leader Eric (Jai Countney).
The movie introduces characters no doubt intended for future movies — two sequels are planned — including Zoë Kravitz as a female comrade in arms and Woodley’s co-star in “The Spectacular Now,” Miles Teller, two initiates from the Candor Faction (the truth tellers).
The movie indulges in teen eroticism — Four shows Tris his tattoo, then she takes part in a chemically induced nightmare with him to prepare for her final test.
Woodley looks like she’s on her way to becoming a major film star and to the degree being in a blockbuster helps her toward this goal all is well. But this role scarcely gives her a chance to show off what she can do.
It’s entirely too reactive: At times it feels like she’s running as fast as she can to keep up with the melodrama. And, frankly, she is too slight a woman to play a warrior. She almost convinces you though, which speaks well of her on-camera presence.
Meanwhile James gives her love interest the kind of sulky sensuality that connects with young female viewers. But, again, the part is lightweight without much substance beyond the athletic prowess a Dauntless instructor must possess.
The third act feels rushed with Kate Winslet, playing Jeanine, the ice-blonde bitch who seemingly runs everything, launching a stealth attack on the Faction order. Seemingly the staunchest defender of this society’s social engineering, she nonetheless seeks to undermine everything with thought-control devices that will ensure the new Dauntless cadets will mind her ruthless orders.
Perhaps the filmmaker are slavishly following a poorly constructed and immature piece of writing but the villain doesn’t make much sense, the uprising is politically vague, its background never established — and why the hell don’t the good guys kill Jeanine when they have the chance rather than let her live to torment them in future movies?
Teen and YA’s will flock to “Divergent” so why bring up questions of logic? As Spock would insist — that’s not logical.
Opens: March 21, 2014 (Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment)
Production company: Red Wagon Entertainment
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet
Director: Neil Burger
Screenwriters: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor
Based on the novel by: Veronica Roth
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian
Executive producers: John J. Kelly, Rachel Shane
Director of photography: Alwin Kuchler
Production designer: Andy Nicholson
Music: Junkie XL
Executive score producer: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editors: Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson
PG-13 rating, 139 minutes