Divergent's biggest critical problem is that it's yet another teen-oriented dystopian franchise. This is, of course, also its greatest marketable strength and the reason why the series will succeed. If you read a lot, I suppose, the critical problem seems all the more weighted. The young adult market is flooded with like-minded adventure trilogies all boasting an easily adaptable prose style and near-future dystopian plots. There's little variation here, though some accomplish their goals more convincingly than others. Usually, though, there's a brave girl tasked facing societal oppression in the form of one of the following: extreme poverty, governmental brainwashing, no access to education, the inability to be with the one she loves. Our heroine fights the system, loved ones are lost, but the greater goal is freedom. I'm all for the dystopian novel as a trend, and the shift from Twilight's passive Bella to strong female characters like Katniss Everdeen certainly can't be written off as a bad thing by any means. Dystopias are always allegorical, and the YA-slanted material dealing with the subject allows for an escapist entertainment that feels richer, smarter, and more important than so many event films. Yet, when you add that weight to a repeated form, the results can tip an avid pop cultural consumer towards exhaustion. On the heels of a dystopia-heavy couple of years, Divergent feels like the start of a downward trajectory. No matter how good the results are, the story is starting to feel repeated and tiresome.
When I read Divergent a couple years back I did so in part out of curiosity. I wanted to see what a dystopian-version of my city looked like and, more so, I wanted to judge the chops of the Northwestern student (Veronica Roth) responsible for writing the series. As the trilogy unfolded, I didn't keep reading. Perhaps one day I will, but at the time it didn't seem necessary. I'd seen step one, and I could imagine exactly how the process would need to play out. I suspect those watching the movie will feel a similar creeping familiarity. The names have been changed, the organizational structure has been re-shuffled, but the goals remain the same. In Divergent we follow Tris (Shailene Woodley) in the moments leading to her induction into a faction. In her world, civilization is rooted in a post-apocalyptic Chicago surrounded, on all sides, by a large fence. The people within the city limits have been divided into five factions based, essentially, on their predisposition: abnegation, candor, erudite, dauntless, and amity. If you know your SAT words, you know the basic gist of each faction. Abnegation, as they practice a staunch self-denial, have taken up the role of governmental civil servants within their society, and this is where Tris's family has its roots. Tris, though, desperately wants to join the brave, rollicking Dauntless faction. When her aptitude tests results yield uncommon, dangerous results, she finds herself separated from her family and striving to prove herself as a Dauntless initiate. If she doesn't toughen up fast, she could wind up among the factionless; not a good place to be. Much of the first film pivots around her initial training, and it's through this lens that we begin to understand some of the larger conflicts within the novel/film's politics. Tris is understood to be 'divergent', a label that suggests she's capable of multiple types of intelligences and therefore a risk to the faction system.
Though the film seems to want to say something about the basic components of being effectively and truly human (that we should be many things and understand many things instead of pigeon-holing ourselves), in its structure there are a few confusing messages being sent. Intelligence is associated too closely with manipulation where something like reckless athleticism, for example, is often held up for admiration. More to the point, though, are the ways the cinematic form highlights the way it may be impossible for anyone not to be cast out as divergent in this social structure. When everyone starts to seem as complicated as the heroine, you have to start to wonder how a system based on dominant predisposition works in the first place. I write this even as I know that that's over-thinking the story as a whole. The book, the film, both are best enjoyed with a giant bucket of popcorn and a suspension of disbelief. In that context, Divergent gets its fair share of things perfectly right. Shailene Woodley excels at playing "real" girls, and though the world Tris exists in is anything but, Woodley allows us to imagine something like normalcy. Her fellow Dauntless recruits, too, are refreshingly normal by Hollywood standards, and there's a chemistry that comes through even in their bantering that reads as relatively authentic to a group of kids under this sort of extreme pressure. Though none of them quite stand out in the way Jennifer Lawrence does as Katniss, everything in Divergent contributes to a sense of solidity and purpose. It builds and builds and goes through the right motions in the right order. In that respect, it's a decent work of teen sci-fi and worth the watch. The question is, though, not whether or not the movie is good, but really whether or not you're up for another story of its kind.