March 20, 2014 by Hope W.
Going into Divergent, I had very little idea what to expect. While nothing beats Twilight for terrible story (that still inexplicably earned hundreds of millions of dollars and literally devil-spawned four equally successful movie sequels), Divergent had a convoluted-sounding plot that made me never want to read the books, so I was skeptical of how good the movie could be.
Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice Prior (“Tris”), a special person (“Divergent”) who doesn’t fit into her neatly divided dystopian world, which has been split into five factions, each of a singular trait, and therefore has to hide her difference from the authorities who seek to kill such people. (Because we just have to accept that people in power hate non-conformists, and that’s that.) Theo James (“Four”) is her trainer/mentor, who has to prepare her — and a bunch of other new “initiates” — for a series of tests that will determine if they belong to the faction that they chose (in this case, “Dauntless”, where apparently they do the stupidest, most reckless things just for the sake of it). There’s lots of training, tests, bullying, friendship building, romantic sparking, and all the things that happen when you put a bunch of teenagers together. Meanwhile, attempted genocide led by Kate Winslet’s character, a leader of one of the factions, happens for some half-baked reason or the other that I still can’t figure out.
While the critics have been giving it mixed reviews, I felt the movie wasn’t bad actually. It distilled the complicated plot into something digestible at a reasonable running length, and was interesting enough to change my mind about reading the books (though after reading the synopses for the next two books, I’ve changed my mind right back again.) Like its YA series adaptation predecessors, Divergent works because it caters to its target base — teenagers and fans of the book. For everyone else, including aforementioned teenagers and fans of the book, there’s Theo James, who plays Four. (And if you’re wondering what kind of a name is “Four”, you’ll soon find other things to distract yourself with.)
A relative newcomer whose best known role to date is probably his brief but infamous fling as “Mr Pamuk” on Downton Abbey, Theo James is naturally good-looking; but for some reason, he really shone in this movie. At the expense of sounding like a teenager with out-of-control hormones, he is *hot* (and by that I mean really, fecking HOT). I was grinning every time he came on screen, which my friend will attest to while rolling her eyes. Trumping all previous YA series love interests that have appeared so far (Robert Pattinson? Taylor Lautner? Jamie Campbell Bower? Etc. etc.? PAH. Except maybe Liam Hemsworth), he has a compact, testosterone-filled build that makes him seem virtually on the verge of action — which works great in this film, because he is constantly doing something exciting: whether it’s helping Tris fight off bad guys, throwing knives at her, or shouting commands at people.
But as enamoured as I am, I cannot help but admit that he has the expressive range of a teaspoon, being perpetually stuck in a state of brooding and intense staring that only has three modes — intense, less intense, and *intense* — heightened by a jaw practically carved out of granite. But somehow it just works; probably because the character’s default mode seems to be “grim”, plus their surroundings resemble the sort of bleak gym in boxing/wrestling movies where men go to train, fight and die. With a face like that, he really could not have picked a better role. (If he were playing, say, Finnick in The Hunger Games movies with the emotional range he displays here, he would have been terrible.) It helps that he and Shailene Woodley have great chemistry too.
Speaking of Shailene Woodley, comparisons of her to Jennifer Lawrence will be inevitable — and unfair, because you may as well compare two random girls off the street — just because they are both the anchors of their franchises, playing strong, independent female characters. However, her Tris is a relatable heroine; because while she is “Divergent” — brave, determined, smart, can’t stand for injustice; i.e. many people in the world (I hope) — she is also a perfectly normal teenager coming of age in a faux high school setting, complete with romantic sparks with previously mentioned really hot senior. (The Variety reviewer describes Four “shoot[ing] Tris the sort of pensive glances that suggest he’s struggling to decide on a font for their wedding invitations.”) When she discovers the thrill of jumping off trains, climbing up heights, or sliding down a fearsome zip-line above the city, we discover it right alongside her, not because she has the innate ability to do such things, but because she is stretching her metaphorical legs for the first time and relishing it. (Whereas I know I will never learn how to shoot like Katniss, nor will I ever win a Hunger Games if they implemented such a thing.)
The production design looks fine and appropriately grey and washed out for a dystopian landscape, and if there are any flaws in it — trains that move slower than running people? Really? — it probably came from the book itself. The music choices annoyed me though, especially the pounding beats they associated with the Dauntless doing crazy reckless things. It just heightened the fact that they are doing stupid things just to show off their bravado.
Other characters in the movie include the stereotypical Christina the friend (Zoë Kravitz), Peter the razor-tongued bully (Miles Teller), Eric the highly-ranked bully (played by Jai Courtney, an actor whose face I really dislike, just because, and it’s not helped by the bad guy roles he takes), Tori the mysterious helper who warns Tris to keep her mouth shut about her “Divergence” (Maggie Q), etc. They haven’t developed personalities yet — in the sequel, maybe? — so Tris and Four remain the focus. It’s a good thing they are more than pleasant to look at, then.