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REVIEW: Divergent (Neil Burger – 2014)

It’s the only female-led YA adult series to succeed at the box-office since the first Hunger Games, and while most of the others *cough The Mortal Instruments, The Host, Beastly, Beautiful Creatures cough* haven’t deserved the right to ignite a cinematic franchise, Divergent most certainly does.

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Set in a dystopian future where humans have done fucked up the world (again), the citizens of what was formerly Chicago have been divided into five different factions. Much like the Spice Girls, teens of a certain age have to decide whether they’re Sporty, Baby, Posh, Ginger  or Scary. Er, or something… The only way society can function in this reality is by dividing people into the qualities that are key to existence: Dauntless (brave above all), Amity (the peaceful, not an island plagued by a killer shark), Abnegation (selfless members of society), Candor (the honest lawmakers) and Erudite (who honour intelligence). Everyone’s favourite woodland creature Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice, who has been confined to the 50 Shades Of Grey portion of civilisation – Abnegation – and come the day she’s forced to face the Sorting Hat, sorry, determining test on Choosing Day she learns that she’s Divergent. Basically she can’t be categorised by any one sect and she has the power and initiative to go against the flow. Of course Erudite – who you know are evil thanks to their minimalist architecture – don’t want these anomalies popping up. Leaving behind her faction and her old name, Tris now joins Dauntless as she battles to survive in the toughest faction and avoid exposing her Divergent nature. Cue Ellie Goulding song.

When you have an acclaimed young actress fronting a big budget adaptation of a popular YA dystopian novel, the comparisons between Divergent and The Hunger Games are inevitable. So let’s get this out of the way: Divergent is not as good as The Hunger Games, which is purely because the source material isn’t as good. Suzanne Collins created a whole new universe with The Hunger Games that was rich and detailed and full of nuance. It had something important to say about society and was a fitting social commentary on our obsession with reality TV culture and opulence. Divergent is just a good story. There’s a little 1984-esque message in there about controlling individual freedoms, but for the most part it’s a rollicking adventure heavily influenced by Harry Potter – all which is fine.  The author Veronica Roth is one of those ladies who makes you feel inferior about your own life accomplishments. She wrote Divergent when she was 2-freakin-2 and had a book deal that same year. Translation: she had penned the first in a best-selling trilogy at the same age I was when I moved out of home *sobs*. It’s a tale that’s improved upon in cinematic form, largely thanks to some carefully crafted creative choices.

Director Neil Burger is the perfect fit here, as he understands those grandiose action scenes – train jumping, ferris wheel climbing, fatal shoot outs – are just as integral as the more intricate dramatic moments, like those between mother and daughter. It avoids some of the dangerous YA tropes like a sickeningly sappy love story by letting the romance between Tris and Four (Theo James) manifest organically and slowly over the course of the movie. It’s not the most important element to the story: it’s a subplot among a much greater and more complicated adventure (as it should be).  Part of the genius here is that although Divergent is very much an action film, it’s not necessarily treated like one. To become Dauntless new initiates have to go through two stages of training: physical and mental.  To the filmmakers credit they depict the brutality of the physical portion with unflinching realism, ever conscious of the fact that this could ostracise pre-teens. There are men beating female characters to unconsciousness and the gender reverse, with the camera not shying away from the bone-cracking severity of it all. Divergent gets next level when it reaches the mental portion of the tests. Cinematically less exciting than fights and sweaty montages – on paper – Burger understands the complexities of the human mind are endlessly interesting. The way Tris and Four’s fear landscapes are created and the way the audience are led through them help the us bond and relate to the leads. It’s a slow burn, with just as many dialogue scenes as there are action ones, but it all helps to slowly increase the drama, excitement and dread over the course of the two hour running time.

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The producers learned a lot from The Hunger Games and like its successful predecessor, they’ve packed the cast with talent. They’ve understood the need to have essential ingredients that include acclaimed veteran actors (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Kate Winslet), verified actions stars (Maggie Q, Jai Courntey, Ray Stevenson), token hot young things (Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ansel Elgort) and an awards season worthy female lead (Woodley). They’ve made a nice discovery in James who besides being the required pretty – and he is very pretty – is really, genuinely good. He has a serious, simmering movie star quality to him. Courtney and Teller also deserve props for impressive villain turns. But honestly, Divergent is Woodley’s movie and girlfriend owns it. She’s tough, vulnerable, fearless, intelligent, naïve and bad ass all at the same time, offering up a performance so raw in parts that it feels strange to be witnessing it in a blockbuster. With the follow up films Insurgent and  Allegiant already slated for a 2015 and 2016 release respectively, it’s going to be fascinating to see what Woodley and her band of merry thespians have left to offer up with the next installments.

More The Hunger Games than it is The Mortal Instruments, the YA-tag is about as relevant to Divergent as carbs are to Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s thrilling, it’s tense, it’s action-packed and it’s the start of a promising cinematic franchise that leaves you wanting more instead of running for the door. Divergent is an exhilarating ride.

[rating=4]

Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

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