In “Divergent”—Neil Burger’s (“Limitless,” 2011) latest directorial effort—Beatrice (Shailene Woodley; “The Descendants,” 2011) lives with her parents in Abnegation, one of the five factions located in a dystopian, futuristic Chicago. She is of age to take part in a mandatory test to decide which faction they’ll adopt—except this test has a significant hitch. Her test results must show only one virtue (as per faction). If you have more than one, you’re in trouble; it shows versatility, which is a big no-no according to the set rules in its universe. Unfortunately for Tris (as Beatrice later goes on to call herself), this is precisely what happens, and she must navigate the many challenges of keeping it a secret.
Burger’s direction is probably the biggest win for “Divergent.” From the sun-soaked calmness in a few scenes to the variable mixture of freedom and terror in the movie’s many set pieces, the director is deft at handling a variety of tones. Unfortunately, he succeeds despite the screenwriting by Vanessa Taylor (“Hope Springs,” 2012) and Evan Daugherty (“Killing Season,” 2013), and not because of it. Adapted from Veronica Roth’s young-adult science fiction novel of the same name, the screenplay seems overstuffed and—as a result—scattered and half-baked in patches. That’s not to say it’s all bad; despite Tris feeling like a derivative throwback to Katniss from “The Hunger Games,” there’s much to appreciate regarding her mixture of vulnerability, agency, and willpower.
Burger and Woodley team up to extract a sincere portrayal of Tris with incredible restraint. The latter’s performance, in particular, turns into what’s essentially a been-there-done-that character on paper into someone you could relate to. She’s supported by an ensemble cast consisting of Kate Winslet (“Contagion,” 2011), Maggie Q (“Mission Impossible III,” 2016), Ashley Judd (“Dolphin Tale,” 2011), Zoë Kravitz (“X-Men: First Class,” 2011), and Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now,” 2013), all of whom deliver knockout performances despite most of their cookie-cutter roles. Jai Courtney (“Jack Reacher,” 2012) is your friendly neighborhood cocky asshole, and he’s good at it.
Alwin H. Küchler’s (“Hanna,” 2011) gorgeous cinematography and Junkie XL’s (“300: Rise of an Empire,” 2014) eclectic score are two of the most giant trump cards of “Divergent.” There’s a sense of gentleness to the sweeping shots in many of the film’s more dramatic scenes, but when the time comes for some chaos, Küchler’s dynamic visual movement kicks into high gear. XL’s score is perfect for the movie. Eclectic, high-energy, and stylish, his score—which Hans Zimmer (“Man of Steel,” 2013) executive produces—fits like a glove through and through. Thanks to music supervisor Randall Poster, the singles featured across the film are excellent and add to its overall image system. Featuring the likes of Ellie Goulding, Woodkid, ODESZA, Kendrick Lamar, and M83, the singles also work as a dynamic compilation album mixing up various genres for a three-course-meal experience.
With so many positives, it’s pretty unfortunate that when it comes to “Divergent,” the sum of its parts does not make for a consistently engaging whole. While it could please the fans of Roth’s books, it’s a possible one-time watch for the rest, if only for its cast, Burger’s assured direction, and excellent technical filmmaking. Quite a shame, considering its overstuffed writing and derivative, trope-y nature, however, act as significant deterrents to what could have been a primarily immersive filmgoing experience to rival the “Hunger Games” series.