It has always been a fact: Hollywood is unable to see a formula without trying to milk it for all it's worth before disposing of it as yesterday's news. The latest examples - and particularly egregious since they're pretty much soaking up most of the big-studio money available - are the neverending super-hero tales that are now approaching saturation, and the young-adult-fantasy feeding frenzy kickstarted by J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. In this latest trend, two other bona fide hits have surfaced in mid-tier studios: Summit's five-film take on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, and Lionsgate's four-film approach to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.
Of all the blink-and-you'll-miss-it failed attempts to ride the coat-tails of these phenomenon, Divergent, based on the first of Veronica Roth's dystopian-future trilogy, is the one that has resonated best at the box-office - though, to be honest, it merely comes across as another cookie-cutter coming-of-age metaphor that mixes and matches liberally from previous, better titles, despite the presence of up-and-coming young actress Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) in the lead. The adult world in which Ms. Woodley's Beatrice Prior has to make way is a futuristic Chicago sealed off from the outside world after an unnamed catastrophy, surviving by dividing itself into five "factions", five tribes embodying five basic "virtues" of human experience to which everyone is assigned at puberty.
Divergent starts when Beatrice, raised in the pious, selfless Abnegation "tribe", finds she does not have one dominant trait and, as such, is a "Divergent", and a threat to the status quo if she ever reveals she does not conform to the standard. What follows, as she switches allegiance to the athletic, security-oriented Dauntless, is a combination of Harry Potter-ish public-school drama (learning to fit in your new surroundings and navigating the school cliques), Hunger Games self-empowerment (taking charge of your own life for the greater good) and breathtaking romance (finding the right man for you right there where you are, here Beatrice's training supervisor Four, played by Theo James). There's a bit of conspiracy-theory, paranoid-thriller thrown in for good measure, as she discovers a high-tech, genocidal plot to discredit and eliminate the Abnegation, led by the resident governing villainess in disguise (a cold-as-ice Kate Winslet).
Divergent may brim with thoughtful, thought-provoking ideas, but the truth is it's not really interested in exploring them. The potential for political and satirical comment in the plot, the look at the birth of political consciousness and the fight against conformity for starters, are barely skimmed in Neil Burger's handsome but workmanlike take on the material. The irony of a picture whose central theme is self-determination and self-empowerment fitting so strictly into a pre-ordained formula is shattering; it's essentially a bloated B-movie designed under precise assembly-line specifications, where no "deviations" (or "divergences"...) from the agreed overall design can take place, fitting quietly into its own self-allotted box. The cast and the elegant visuals put together by DP Alwin Küchler and production designer Andy Nicholson certainly deserved more than this unexciting, overlong, teenage-oriented product: they deserved a proper dystopian science-fiction film.
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 and Vanessa Taylor; based on the novel Divergent by Veronica Roth; cinematographer Alwin Küchler (colour, widescreen); composer Junkie XL; designer Andy Nicholson; costumes Carlo Poggioli; editors Richard Francis-Bruce and Nancy Richardson; effects supervisor Jim Berney; producers Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher and Pouya Shahbazian, Summit Entertainment and Red Wagon Entertainment
Screened March 28th 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon)