Another franchise hopeful from a young adult book series that’s likely to wind up in the scrap heap along with “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and “Ender’s Game,” “Divergent” is obviously after the “Hunger Games” crowd, but it’s likely to be the studio executives who are famished when the boxoffice receipts trickle in. As dreary as it is silly, Neil Burger’s adaptation of the first volume of Veronica Roth’s trilogy is an oddly drab and unexciting portrait of a conspicuously nonsensical dystopian society.
The set-up is as follows. After some unspecified war, the city fathers of Chicago build a protective fence around their partially-destroyed urban center and construct a division among the remaining population designed to maintain internal stability and defense. They categorize everybody as belonging to one of five groups according to their dominant personality trait—Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. The first are kindly servants, the second hard-working farmers, the third harsh truth-tellers, the fourth courageous (or reckless) police-soldiers, and the last snooty scholars. At age 16, all adolescents in the families of the five factions take a test to determine in which of them their natural talents indicate they belong. But in one of the major oddities of the system (alongside the notion that these five goofy groupings are sufficient to encompass everyone), the test seems pretty moot, because after it each youngster can choose to remain in his parents’ group or switch to another without reference to the result.
The test does serve another function, though: it identifies those youngsters who don’t fall comfortably into any of the five categories. These “divergents,” as they’re called, are deemed dangerous to this well-ordered system because by their very nature they’re non-conformists who think for themselves. So they must, if they can, keep their status secret if they hope to survive. That’s the situation in which plucky heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), the daughter of Abnegation parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd), finds herself when she’s quietly told by her tester (Maggie Q) that she falls into three possible factions. She chooses Dauntless (apparently because the somber, cautious girl likes the thought of running about wild and carefree) while her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), whose test results aren’t revealed, for some reason chooses Erudite, which is headed by ultra-snobbish Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).
The remainder of the picture consists of two plot threads. One involves Beatrice—who changes her name to the spiffier Tris—going through the training regimen of the Dauntless faction, trying to score high enough to keep from being thrown onto the streets as a “factionless” and thus homeless person. She and the other recruits who become her pals—Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Al (Christian Madsen) and Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes)—undergo nasty punishment directed by sadistic Eric (Jai Courtney) while enduring constant insults from fellow initiate Peter (Miles Teller), a transfer from Candor. But Tris gets an unlikely champion in the form of hunky, sensitive trainer Four (Theo James), who helps her get through the trials. Romance blossoms in the process.
The other story thread has to do with a plot by Matthews’ Erudite faction to destroy the Abnegation crowd, which has hitherto served some undefined governing function, using the Dauntless soldiers as their pawns. Naturally Tris—and Four, who it turns out is a Divergent too—work to foil the scheme, in the process getting help from her parents and brother, as well as Marcus (Ray Stevenson), the head of their faction who happens to have a connection to Four. These self-sacrificing Abnegation folk, it turns out, prove extraordinarily adept with physical stunts and firearms—which further undermines the entire rickety foundation of Roth’s yarn. Naturally at the close the conspiracy is only partially defanged, leaving room for the anticipated sequels.
Even under the best cinematic circumstances, it’s hard to see how “Divergent,” with its nutty scenario, could have succeeded. But the circumstances here are hardly optimal. Woodley makes a rather simpering heroine, and she strikes no sparks with the stiff, generically handsome James. Among the supporting cast, Judd gets to exhibit both her sympathetic and athletic muscles, but otherwise the pickings are rather slim, with only Teller and Courtney sticking out because both are tiresomely obnoxious. By far the worst, though, is Winslet, who brings absolutely nothing beyond a genteelly villainous mien to the wicked Jeanine. The performance is reminiscent of Jodi Foster’s similarly banal turn in “Elysium”—equally humorless in another picture about a not-so-beautiful future that desperately needed some light moments.
But the cast can’t be blamed overmuch, given the fact that they’re given so little to work with, not only by the exposition-heavy, by-the-numbers script credited to Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor but by Burger’s pedestrian direction, which brings only modest energy to a story that needs a lot more of it to paper over the narrative weaknesses. (The editing by Richard Francis-Bruce and Nancy Richardson accentuates the problem by allowing the picture to drag on for nearly two-and-a-half hours.) Nor do the visuals offer a great deal of compensation. The backgrounds of a partially-devastated Chicago are pretty impressive, but interiors are surprisingly unimaginative, with the underground Dauntless lair where the newcomers undergo their training a particularly dank and dismal place, resembling nothing more than a gloomy basement. The combination of an inane premise and uninspired execution dooms the movie.
The initiates are introduced to that dreary training space, incidentally, by Four, who calls it the center of the Dauntless experience with the words, “This is the Pit.” One hesitates to correct screenwriters at their work, but as a member of the Candor faction this reviewer must suggest an emendation to read “the Pits.”