“Divergent” plays with traditional dystopian sci-fi tropes and totalitarian government riffs in rather unsurprising ways, but it holds a viewer’s attention thanks to the immensely watchable Shailene Woodley and a beautifully grim post-apocalyptic Chicago cityscape. Avoiding the clichéd helicopter shot over water, the film opens with a shot of a dried-up Lake Michigan – a wonderful example of modern computer effects and a great scene-setter.
No setting in the film represents a comfortable place to kick back and relax as Tris (Woodley) goes through her training phase with Dauntless, which is essentially Chicago’s police and armed forces. There’s a wall around the city, and at one point Tris is informed that she doesn’t want to know what’s beyond that wall – but, of course, she does want to know (and so do I). Tris is not only Divergent – meaning she possesses traits of all the governmental factions (Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Candor and Amity) rather than a single trait, which is more common (and more controllable by the powers-that-be. She also has a bit of wanderlust.
We don’t get much of a peek outside the wall in this movie, but I gotta assume if Tris ever does get out it’ll be like the end of “THX-1138.” In the meantime, we get to enjoy the kind of “other side of the wall” speculation that got cut short on TV’s canceled “Almost Human.”
Chicago’s government has found a clever new way to organize itself with communist states inside communist states, peppered with tracking devices and serums that control people’s behavior. It all adds up to a society so thoroughly oppressive it makes “The Shawshank Redemption” prison look like a day spa. Those in power give citizens the illusion of choice – in a perverse twist on the “Harry Potter” Sorting Hat, teens get to select their faction, and most choose to stick with family tradition, but “none of the above” is not a good option because you’ll be homeless and hunted by Dauntless members.
The physical landscape of “Divergent” is likewise bleak and gray and rugged and rubble-strewn and so lacking in natural beauty that the ruins end up looking gorgeous after a while. Even the Dauntless barracks appear to be old industrial tunnels of some kind.
Not everyone could make the bleak premise engaging (especially since there isn’t a strong context to the proceedings until the final act), but Woodley can, along with Theo James as one of the Dauntless taskmasters, Zoe Kravitz (Angel from “X-Men: First Class”) as Triss’ best bud, and at least two of Woodley’s love interests from other films (Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller) in other roles. While a lot of the training scenes are predictable, like the fistfights and knife-throwing, there are also intriguing twists like trying to overcome the fears of your imagination after taking a serum. Even so, we’re basically just waiting for the hero to give some seriously cathartic payback to the villains of the piece. In this case, it’s Kate Winslet who plays the top authoritarian slimeball.
Even without having read Veronica Roth’s books, I feel like I know where this saga will go in “Insurgent” and “Allegiant” – beyond the walls to a better (or at least, less-structured) world, and into all-out civil war (because those Erudites won’t be able to leave Tris and her ilk well enough alone). But it’s nice to know that young adult readers and moviegoers are getting good messages about the power and beauty of individualism and the horrors and failures of authoritarianism. And with Woodley and the gorgeous set design coming back for the sequels, I might too.