Set in a dystopian future and featuring a strong female protagonist, Divergent is the latest young adult sci-fi adaptation to hit the big screen. Based on the popular bestseller by Veronica Roth, the film centers on a society in which all citizens are required to choose and then live in one of five factions--Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite--each of which emphasizes one particular virtue. Once you choose your faction there is no going back, so the Choosing Ceremony at which all sixteen year olds make their decision is kind of a big deal. Thankfully, to make things a little easier there’s an aptitude test that will tell you exactly where you belong.
Unless you’re Beatrice Prior, that is.
Shailene Woodley is outstanding as our heroine, whose test results reveal that she is “Divergent” and cannot be categorized into any one faction. This is extremely rare, and in a government system that thrives on oppression and conformity, very dangerous. The confused Beatrice is left to her own devices at the Choosing Ceremony, where she decides to leave her family and join Dauntless, which values bravery and trains its citizens to become soldiers to protect the factions from the unknown outside world.
As Beatrice, who is renamed Tris upon joining Dauntless, struggles to keep up with the other initiates in a series of mental and physical challenges, she must also work to keep her true identity a secret. This becomes difficult as her instructor Four (Theo James), a love interest, and later government official Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), become suspicious of her. Rather than allow Four to become a standard, one-dimensional love interest, James brings substance to the character, who has a few secrets of his own. Winslet, however, hardly makes a convincing villain. The character is underwritten and underdeveloped, and fails to bring a sense of urgency even at the film’s climax.
Winslet isn’t the only one suffering from the bland script here. Ansel Elgort, as Tris’s twin brother Caleb, as well as Zoe Kravitz and Ben Lloyd-Hughes as fellow Dauntless initiates, aren’t given enough to really distinguish themselves as actors or their characters as people.
The action scenes--particularly those showcasing the fearlessness of the Dauntless--are beautifully shot, and the film is, for the most part, faithful to its source material. But it spends a little too much time setting up its premise--Tris’s transition and initiation into Dauntless--and not enough exploring the larger themes, such as the true intentions of oppressive government officials like Jeanine Matthews and what being Divergent really means for Tris.
Despite its flaws, Divergent has a solid lead in Shailene Woodley, who is more than capable of carrying the franchise. And with all the worldbuilding out of the way and the premise firmly established, there’s plenty of room for the sequels to consider more deep, thought-provoking ideas. For now, though, this first installment is likely to please its large, dedicated fan base.