By on March 27, 2014

“Divergent” is Hollywood’s latest volley in the rush for victory in the Young Adult Olympics, and it looks like this one is actually going to stick the landing. Though at times it seems cobbled together from the parts of other YA modern-day classics like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games.” To its credit, the film does have a vibe of its own with the emphasis less on showy fantasy, a la “Potter” or reality-TV-as-game-show, a la “Games.”

Instead, this is more of a gritty, no frills Dystopian look at a not-too-hard-to-believe future in which people are broken down into groups which specialize in certain strengths, such as farmers, intellectuals and social workers. Even the rebels get their own faction. Although, those who don’t quite make the grade end up disenfranchised and factionless, which is basically the futuristic version of homeless. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same, really.

Categories or not, poor people still end up holding the short end of the stick, while the intellectuals plot to “fix” the system in their favor.

Enter Tris (Shailene Woodley), who fancies herself a rebel, aka one of the “Dauntless.” Her brother is an Erudite (intellectual), and her parents are Abnegation (selfless), and expect Tris to be the same, but the final choice is hers, so she follows her heart and goes with Dauntless. There’s just one catch: before choosing which faction to join, everyone takes a test which determines the best faction for them. Pick wrong and you could end up factionless. Tris gets an inconclusive result.

Tori (Maggie Q, of “Nikita” fame) informs her she’s “Divergent,” which means she has elements of all of the factions within her, which most consider a bad thing. Tori advises her to keep a low profile. But Tris is a rebel, dammit! So, naturally, she goes ahead with Dauntless and in no time people are onto her, leading to some unpleasant scenarios for her and her family.

I have to say, I really liked the premise and how deceptively simple it is. After all, the categories aren’t that far from the way things already are now. As such, the futuristic elements aren’t that hard to embrace and pretty easy to follow overall. This effectively sidesteps a lot of the issues more recent YA adaptations have fallen prey to. “The Mortal Instruments,” “Beautiful Creatures” and “Vampire Academy,” among others, have all tried and failed to capture the YA brass ring. What sets “Divergent” apart is how swiftly it deals with the exposition most of those films get bogged down in.

So many film adaptations make the mistake these days of trying to be almost too faithful to the source material and as a direct result, forget to be entertaining. “Divergent” deals with the expository stuff in short order and gets right to the good stuff in no time. We get a brief rundown of what I essayed above, and then it’s choosing time (think the Sorting Hat in “Potter,” only with more free will), then right into training.

Tris chooses the fun one, so there’s lots of parkour style running around and jumping and climbing, knife tossing and mental exercises using virtual reality-type scenarios meant to help one face their individual fears, i.e. drowning, animals, heights, etc. Along the way, she learns to be a leader, meets a cute guy and so on.

The film moves along at a nice clip, and the action is pretty regular. The virtual reality sequences are intense, and the romance isn’t nearly as annoying as these things can sometimes be. Woodley and love interest Theo James have a nice chemistry and I like that they pick a girl who actually not only seems like an actual teenager, but is relatively normal-looking.

That’s not a dig, just to say that she’s not crazy beautiful like J-Law or what have you, Woodley just seems like a girl that might actually live next door instead of a insanely hot Hollywood actress playing at being one. She’s pretty without being overwhelming, which is a nice quality that should serve her well, and already has in movies like “The Descendents” and “The Spectacular Now.” Woodley is undeniably a star-in-the-making, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this, where so much depends on the likeability and relatability of the lead.

The book was written by a college student in her early twenties, Veronica Roth: a pretty impressive achievement, indeed. The first book in a trilogy, “Divergent” was the recipient of the 2012 Best YA Fantasy & Science Fiction Award, so amongst those in the know, it’s pretty solid reading material, all the more impressive given the age of the author in question. I mean, how many people have a big-time publishing and movie deal before they even graduate college?

Anyway, having seen my fair share of also-rans, this is undeniably one of the better ones, and I look forward to the next installment, which, if early box office returns are any indication, should be forthcoming, which means this would-be series may just have a shot after all. For once, it’s a well earned achievement, and well-worth seeing, if the subject matter piques your interest. Though there’s some room for improvement, pacing-wise, I’m going to give this one a solid B+. Here’s hoping the next one is even better.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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