For many years, there has been a tradition where there are virtually two broad age-appropriateness categories for movies: one for kids movies that are appropriate for all ages, and one for grownup movies that are appropriate for adults and late adolescents. It's as if people between the ages of 12 and 16 are in a limbo where there aren't movies targeted specifically for them. But that has changed in the last decade and a half, when sagas such as Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games were written into books that were later adapted into films. Suddenly, the teen audience can have exciting stories that are more mature than stories for young children but without being gratuitously violent or sexual. To me, there is nothing wrong with that. When you consider that adolescents do confront and think about serious issues in real-life, it wouldn't make sense to censor such matters in fiction.
The 2014 science-fiction movie [Divergent](movie:593270) is another one of those young adult stories that started out as a book before being made into a movie. When I saw the poster for this movie, at a Barnes and Noble bookstore I stopped at before going to the theater, I asked myself two questions. One, could I enjoy the movie without having read this bestselling novel by Veronica Roth? Two, is this going to be a bland movie given how several young adult movies have been released already? Thankfully, the answer to the first question was "yes," and the answer to the second question was "no."
So here's the setting of Divergent. Imagine the city of Chicago after some war has taken place. It's partly destroyed, but it's otherwise still standing, unlike many other cities elsewhere. There is, however, a wall built around the city, and the society within it is run in a much more orderly fashion than what we today are familiar with. You see, the people are grouped into five factions based on their most prominent personality traits and skills. The Erudite faction, represented by the color blue, consists of intellectuals. The Amity faction, denoted by the color orange, has people who are happy and do manual labor such as farm work. The Candor faction, whose color is white, comprises honest people who champion law and order. The Dauntless faction, coded by the color black, have fearless and strong individuals best suited for law enforcement and defense. Finally, the Abnegation faction, represented by the color gray, have people who live simple lives and do charity, even for those who are "factionless." (Yes, even this orderly society can leave certain kind of people behind.)
All young people in this society eventually take a mind test to determine their destiny. It involves inducing a hallucination and being forced to confront a scary thing. How they deal with it will help decide what faction they will go to. The test doesn't actually dictate a path, but merely recommends one. The people ultimately decide for themselves which faction they will spend the rest of their lives in, regardless of what the test says and whether the selected faction differs from the one they grew up in with their parents. But once the choice is made, there is no turning back, because changing one's mind about faction affiliation is not allowed.
The main character is a young girl named Tris (played by Shailene Woodley), the daughter of two parents in Abnegation. She takes the mind test that, astonishingly, produces inconclusive results because she exhibits traits suited for multiple factions. In this futuristic society, this is dangerous because such people, called Divergents, are considered unable to be controlled and, therefore, a threat to the society. Therefore, Tris has to keep it a secret, and in an effort to stay in hiding, she makes the surprising choice of joining the Dauntless faction.
Much of the movie centers on Tris's journey through the grueling training process for initiates of Dauntless. She must learn to develop strength, thick skin, and mental resilience through drills that could easily break anyone who is not meant to be Dauntless. There is a sense of concern as we wonder if Tris could even make the cut. For one thing, the Dauntless leader, an always tough guy named Eric (played by Jai Courtney), does not tolerate failure. On the other hand, another Dauntless leader named Four (played by Theo James) is more sympathetic and seems to understand what Tris is going through. Also, Tris makes friends with Christina (played by Zoe Kravitz), who also finds training to be a challenge because she originally grew up in the Candor faction.
Eventually, two more conflicts creep in and culminate in the film's climax. I already mentioned one, the fact that Tris is a Divergent and may be executed if she is discovered to be one. The other is the society's motto of "faction over blood." In other words, all individuals who have formally chosen a faction have a duty to their faction, no matter what personal or family matters arise. This is especially a problem for anyone who enters a faction different from the one his or her parents are in. For Tris, she soon finds herself torn between saving herself and saving her family. This dilemma is no doubt very difficult.
Divergent is the first of a series and is like the first Harry Potter movie and the first Hunger Games movie, in that the story is mostly an introduction to the setting and characters before throwing the protagonist into a life-and-death situation. This format may be different from the traditional style of briefly introducing the setting and characters before focusing on the plot the rest of the way, but it's just as fun to follow. I did not fall asleep before the climax of this movie. If anything, I enjoyed the bulk of the movie and the climax even more. Best of all, it ends in a way that definitely leaves things open for a sequel but still feels complete even if the tale were to end right there.
While it's not the most creative thing I've ever seen, Divergent is a movie that I definitely enjoyed. In fact, I enjoyed it even more than the first Hunger Games movie, because while the Hunger Games gives you a gist of the setting but is better if you read the book, Divergent clearly explains everything and leaves no unanswered questions so that it doesn't matter if you read the book or not. I also liked how the action is limited to where it makes sense, not simply added for eye candy. As for the cast, everyone did a good job. I thought it was nice to see mainly young actors driving the film, with extra support from more veteran cast members, such as Ashley Judd as Tris's mother and Kate Winslet as an Erudite leader who is a heartless idealist. So now I know why the Divergent movie poster I saw at that Barnes and Noble bookstore emphasizes that it's based on a worldwide bestseller: the story is just brilliant.
Anthony's Rating: 8/10
(Review originally published at http://www.anthonysfilmreview.com/Film/D/Divergent.htm)