SHAILENE WOODLEY: Elevating and elevated.
  • SHAILENE WOODLEY: Elevating and elevated.

This is one of those concepts that sounds better in the pages of a book: The dystopian city of Chicago is home to a populace that's divided by personality type. When children become adults, they take what's basically a high-tech version of a Cosmo what-kind-of-person-are-you quiz, and then they have to be that person for the rest of their lives. Worse, they have to dress like their personality types forever: Those who are identified primarily by their intelligence are referred to as Erudites, and they wear tasteful blue suits. People who are more reckless and physical join the faction called Dauntless, and they wear tight black workout clothes, always and forever. In the pages of Veronica Roth's young adult novel Divergent, the premise is presumably easier to swallow, because books are capable of that kind of engrossing magic. In the movie adaptation of Divergent, though, the premise seems overwrought and silly from the very first minute of the opening montage that explains the world.

The rest of the movie isn't very convincing, either. Divergent is the story of Tris (Shailene Woodley), a young woman from the Abnegation (selfless) faction who learns that she fits into more than one of the five factions, which is a rare condition referred to as...insert meaningful pause here...divergent. ("If you don't fit into a category," Tris is told, "they can't control you.") Does she stay with Abnegation? Go with the Erudite brainiacs? Move in with the Dauntless, who are always running, jumping, and screaming around town like an endless Mountain Dew commercial? Once she chooses a faction, she is solemnly told, she can never change her mind. (A character in the film asks why you're stuck in one faction for your entire life and is told, basically, to shut up. The obvious answer is: Because there wouldn't be a movie otherwise, ya dingus.)

Tris chooses her faction, but her divergent nature leads to trouble, and soon all of Chicago is in peril. She makes friends and enemies. (Jai Courtney is lucky enough to have the face of a total asshole; he'll be playing dicks in movies for decades to come, just because he happened to be born looking like every high school bully ever.) She finds herself attracted to a hot authority figure. (Theo James is undeniably attractive, but he's way out of his league here, acting-wise.) And Kate Winslet turns in a remarkably bland performance as Jeanine, an Erudite who may as well be wearing a t-shirt that reads "ASK ME ABOUT MY PLANS FOR GLOBAL DOMINATION." The movie is way too long and way too aimless for way too much of its running time. Shitty radio-friendly pop songs cue up montages at seemingly random points in the story, making for one of the worst soundtrack experiences I've had in a movie theater in a long time. It'd be funny, if it weren't so painfully earnest.

But it must be said that Shailene Woodley elevates every scene she's in, and she's in almost every scene. Woodley brings an unself-consciousness to Tris that works on about three different levels: Raised in a faction that considers vanity to be the worst sin of all, Tris doesn't seem to realize that people are always looking at her, and yet she also somehow chooses to use that ignorance as a strength. Woodley acts rings around everyone else in the movie—including Winslet!—and builds her character from a confused teenager into an iron-fisted folk heroine. (The fight scenes, much later on in the movie, are a wonder to behold: Fight coordinator J.J. Perry knows how to believably demonstrate that a small woman can fell a muscular man nearly twice her size, and a couple of the climactic action moments are breathtaking simply because they look like nothing you've ever seen in a movie before.)

But it's impossible to watch Divergent without thinking about how much better the Hunger Games movies are. In terms of pacing, character development, world-building, and sheer film-making competency, the Hunger Games series (especially the excellent Catching Fire, which even manages to surpass the book it adapts) absolutely destroys Divergent. It's a shame, too: The world needs more excellent action movies starring strong young women. Divergent gets the strong young woman part right, but everything else is a far cry from excellent. It's boring, it's stupid, and it's poorly made. Hell, let's just say it: Most of the time, Divergent is downright bad.