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Neil Burger’s Divergent, based on the novel by Veronica Roth, had a lot of potential to be free, fun, and rebellious. Shailene Woodley is an empathetic and soulful young actress, and she is allowed to perform next to a few wonderful talents like Kate Winslet and her The Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller. She plays a young woman who finds herself living a new life and finding new freedoms and generally displaying the kind of exhilaration that most movies starring young people typically need.

This movie version of Divergent, however, is not something I can really recommend. On its surface, it may play like a harmless teen sci-fi thriller about finding one’s freedom and living one’s natural rebelliousness/specialness in a future dystopia destined to be undermined, but at its heart, it fosters strangely dark fascistic overtones that celebrate violence, military might, and even a certain kind of conformity. This is a sloppy film that offers up too much story and not enough explanation. Its heroes are bullies and fighters, its villains are intellectuals, and its victims are the kind-hearted. Is the lesson here that military cults are better than intellectual double-dealing and weak-willed gentleness? I certainly hope not.


Divergent takes place in a post-war future world wherein a walled-off Chicago has been divided into six factions defined by a singular character trait, and a handy color code to match. What happened in the war is never explained, nor do we ever learn what’s on the other side of the wall, or why the wall was built. We do know that this city requires – for unstated reasons – a violent faction of military-minded youths called Dauntless, who are trained in hand-to-hand combat, weapons usage, and general wartime conditioning. There is no war on, and there doesn’t seem to be a general crime wave. Why this world needs a brainwashed cult of hooting frat boy parkour enthusiasts seems suspect. And while Divergent does brush – ever so gently – against the flaws in this caste system, it always comes down on the side of Dauntless, celebrating their capability for violence.

Other factions are Abnegation, the selfless peacekeepers who run the civil services, Erudite, the snotty intellectuals, Amity, the hippie farming community, and Candor, the legal nitpickers who can never tell a lie. Those who have no faction are essentially left to be homeless, and it’s possible to be kicked out of your faction, never to re-enter. Every youth is expected at some point in their lives to select one of these factions and spend the rest of their lives living up to its standards. They are assisted by a special hallucinogen-based test which will somehow prove which faction they are best suited for. It’s a lot like the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter movies, but trippier and even more nonsensical. Not much is explained in terms of the hallucinations, or how hallucinogens are supposed to reveal your true character. You take the drugs, have a fever dream, and Maggie Q is there to declare the test results when you wake up.

Our heroine is Beatrice, or “Tris” (Shailene Woodley), an Abnegation who takes the test and learns she possesses qualities from several factions, making her Divergent, a super-illegal caste that she must hide from the world. She leaves her family (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) to join Dauntless, and proceeds to undergo military hazing. There she meets Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, and a rainbow coalition of ooh-rah chest-thumpers with a habit of hooting and punching things.


Had Divergent bothered to tell us what the military was for, how the hallucination tests worked, why Divergents were dangerous, or anything that really pertained to the construction of this world other than its arbitrary sci-fi caste system, then perhaps this film may have been interesting, but it seems to stand in a dark place of military celebration, and freedom through violence. The only way Tris can be free is to let herself be consumed by her new physically lithe frat brothers who belittle, browbeat, and often just plain beat their charges into submission. This is a movie where men push young women off bridges, punch them in the face, and threaten them with knives, and are celebrated as teachers. Indeed, Tris ends up becoming romantically involved with one of her hunky instructors (and potentially Divergent), named Four (Theo James) who Is Number Four (Sorry. Couldn’t resist).

The late-film plot, involving mind control drugs and a military coup, is so poorly set up that it almost reads as disposable, especially after such a sketchy setup. At 139 minutes, the final explosion of story and incident feels like extra bloat in a film that is too much explanation and not enough understanding. Instead of Divergent, I recommend another film with Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller: See The Spectacular Now, a more romantic, more realistic movie that examines frailty and uniqueness with a much more sensitive eye. I wonder how Teller and Woodley talked on the set of Divergent. Did they long for the glory days, or did they joke about making fluff for a paycheck? Divergent is just pap.

Rating: 1.5 Burritos

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  1. Kiah says:

    This is a trilogy. Which means not everything is going to be explained in the first movie,as it is not in the first book. The erudite aren’t just smart, they’re mind controlling people, explain how that’s good? Plus there are FIVE factions, not six. The book explains how the tests work and yes I know it may be a little more confusing to those who haven’t read the book as I had to explain some things to my stepmum. There are many in the movie who disagree with the violent characteristics of Dauntless, including the main characters I can only think of two that promote it. I don’t know if you have paid full attention to the movie as I completely agree with a previous commnter

  2. Bucky Barnes Jr. says:

    The last review on the challenges of bringing a book to film are the ones where some goon doesn’t like the star ‘cuz she aint hot enough.’ Really dude? Those weren’t his exact words, but that’s how my brain perceives shallow people…

    I liked this movie for a few reasons. But the main reason is the fact that it makes me want to read a book. Score one for the future of humanity. One more book purchase.

  3. Paula says:

    The entire movie reminded me of a series of sadististic hazing rituals this lead character had to endure to be part of the “in” crowd. Extreme violence and twisted psychological manipulation administered by the movie’s sanctioned leaders. What makes the violence so insidious is that it occurs at the hands of one’s “comrades” and the lead character is being groomed the entire time to accept these absurd, reckless and vile acts as a legitimate means to control and “protect” the society.

  4. nova says:

    Shailene Woodley? Really… who is responsible for casting her? She looks like she’s 10 and acts like she’s 5. Her face hurts my eyes.

  5. Samantha says:

    First of all, there are five factions, not six. Second of all, if you’ve read the series then you know that the real “threat” of divergence isn’t explained fully until the last installment, nor is the military-like protection of the city. I agree that there could have been more setup for the last quarter of the movie, and I agree that this would have been more feasible if we were dealing with a miniseries. But you must have checked out at some point if you think that the violence is thematically celebrated, because the lead character spends the entire movie trying to reconcile the apparent freedom the Dauntless experience with the recklessness and violence they demonstrate. That’s the entire point regarding the factions: everyone’s supposedly being sorted according to their strengths, but that categorization and segregation also emphasizes their weaknesses and justifies them due to the fact that fellow faction members don’t care since they are the same way (Candor are tactless, Erudite are cold, Dauntless are reckless, Amity are passive, and Abnegation are judgmental).

    If you just didn’t enjoy the movie, that’s different. But these facts are faulty.

  6. Jeff says:

    The villains aren’t intellectuals. The villains are technocrats that control the populous via chemical weapons and fear. stop perpetuating the meme that this movie demonizes smart people. It demonizes egotists who try to control everything because they BELIEVE that they’re smarter than everyone.

  7. Leah says:

    Al, I’ve thought that about nearly every book movie I’ve ever seen, ESPECIALLY Stephen King ones. (Notable exception – Shawshank Redemption was WAY better than the short story)

  8. Al says:

    Leah, yeah, but MOST stories would be better as a miniseries. It’s a superior format for character development and world building.

  9. Leah says:

    I read all three books, and I’ve got to say, it probably would have been WAY better as a limited television series than a series of movies. It would have given them more time to build the curiosity you feel about the origins of all of this while reading.

    As it stands, I’d probably tell people to wait until all 3 movies are out and watch them all in a row.

  10. mous3 says:

    sounds like the book lol.