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A lot is riding on Shailene Woodley’s portrayal of Tris Prior. Based on a best seller, two sequels for Divergent are already in the works with Insurgent scheduled for a 2015 release. So with stiff competition already on the screen in the form of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, it could spell disaster for the studio if audiences don’t identify with the young heroine. Unfortunately for Woodley, a lot of the film’s runtime is spent introducing characters and setting up the conflict that will hopefully peak in future installments. Meanwhile she is left to carry the show and convince audiences she can embody the novel’s protagonist.
The setting for the story is a futuristic Chicago, where bombed out buildings still litter the landscape a hundred years after a war destroyed them. Since the battle, a huge protective barrier has been erected around the city and the citizens have been broken into five different factions. Erudites are the intellectually elite. Amities are the peaceful farmers. Candors are the brutally honest. Dauntless are the fearlessly brave. And Abnegations are the selfless givers.
Tris, her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and their parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) belong to Abnegation. The tale begins on the eve of Choosing Day, when every 16-year-old declares which faction he or she will join. To help with the assessment, each teen is given an aptitude test that predicts the faction they are most likely to succeed in. Unfortunately, after the quiz the administrator (Maggie Q) furtively tells Tris her results are inconclusive—meaning she will have to use her own judgment. Picking any group other than Abnegation means she will have to leave her family behind.
On decision day, all the initiates participate in a ceremony where they slice open the palm of their hand and drip blood into a stone bowl representing the faction of their choice. The spirited girl finally settles on Dauntless. Immediately after the ceremony, the newcomers to the group (Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Taylor, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen, Molly Newbold) are whisked away on an adrenaline-pumping dash through the city where they have to jump from moving trains and off of buildings. They are then thrown into a rigorous training regime in the Dauntless headquarters located in the underpinnings of the city. Four (Theo James) is their handsome, brooding instructor. (No worries that young viewers won’t like him.) However his authority is often challenged by Eric, a pierced and tattooed leader of Dauntless.
The screenwriters seem to have cut back on the sexual depictions included in Veronica Roth’s novel. Still, the script contains crude sexual comments, a scene of passionate kissing, brief imagined sexual advances and some sensual moments between Four and Tris. But she wants to take things slow—a sure tease for future films. While the newcomers are forced into drug-induced hallucinations as part of their preparation, the film’s biggest content concern for parents will be the violence. During practice, Tris and the others engage in brutal fistfights with one another. Guns and knives are used as part of their education, as well as during an attempted coup. The result is an army of casualties, some with bloody injuries.
So what makes Tris Prior worth the price of a movie ticket? Like all teens, she has to find her way, separate from her parents. She is pretty handy with a gun by the end of her training, yet she has to put in long hours on her own to build her physical strength and prowess. While she meets that challenge, her real talent lies in using her head to solve problems. If Divergent fans take any messages away from their movie experience, the importance of thinking on their feet is probably a good one.
Divergent is rated PG-13: for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.
Director: Neil Burger
Cast: Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ray Stevenson
Studio: 2014 Summit Entertainment
Website: Official site for Divergent.