If you have a kid of a certain age — especially a girl, preteen or thereabouts — then you know the young-adult entertainment message of choice these days:
You’re you, and nobody else. Don’t let them define you. Don’t let them put you into one of their neat little slots. You’re unique. And you’re gonna show the world. You go, girl!
So it’s no surprise that this is the message of “Divergent,” the latest young adult blockbuster-in-waiting. It’s also no surprise that the emerging young star Shailene Woodley delivers a crucial dose of humility, sensitivity and intelligence in this showcase role. And it’s no surprise, either, that she generates nice chemistry with her rather absurdly good-looking co-star, Theo James.
What IS surprising is that with all these promising elements, “Divergent,” the first of three installments based on first-time author Veronica Roth’s trilogy, ultimately feels so lackluster. For a film predicated on the principle that being different — or “divergent” — is what makes you special, “Divergent” just doesn’t diverge enough from the pack.
Not that this will hurt the film’s chances at the box office. Like “The Hunger Games,” the franchise to which it will unavoidably be compared, “Divergent” has a ready-made audience of fans just waiting to fill those seats — over 11 million books have been sold, after all.
Those book fans will have a crucial head start. “Divergent” takes a good deal of time explaining plot mechanics, but If you already know what’s happening, you can spend more time admiring, say, those cheekbones on James — or his day-old, dystopian stubble.
In a nutshell, “Divergent,” directed by Neil Burger, takes place in a futuristic Chicago, a bleak version indeed of the Windy City. Half of every building seems to be destroyed, leaving hulking shells. Civilization is divided into five factions, based on human virtues: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Candor.
Beatrice Prior (Woodley) is born into Abnegation. But at age 16, a citizen can choose their own faction, at the Choosing Ceremony. Right before, they take an aptitude test that tells them which faction they fit best. Beatrice’s results are downright scary: She has not one virtue, but all of them. She is “divergent” — which makes her dangerous.
To the distress of her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), Beatrice opts to join Dauntless, the most courageous faction, but also the most reckless: Pierced and tattooed, they look like unusually fit punk rockers. Soon she’s in boot camp, jumping on and off trains (trains never seem to actually stop in this movie) and into pits, and fighting viciously in the ring, under the guidance of the initially unforgiving Four (James), her trainer. Gradually, Beatrice — she’s renamed herself “Tris” — becomes buff and strong. But will it be enough to survive?
On top of all this, there’s a political storm brewing, led by the villainess Jeanine Matthews, played by a blonde and stiletto-clad Kate Winslet in one of her less convincing performances (in a sadly under-written role.) Matthews is the leader of Erudite, which means she’s got a killer IQ along with those killer heels, and she’s convinced that Divergents are a threat to her plan to overthrow Abnegation.
Then there’s Peter, another Dauntless initiate who comes from Candor, meaning the role is perfect for the fast-talking Miles Teller — so memorable opposite Woodley in “The Spectacular Now,” but underused here.
There’s some entertaining action here, but the action most teen fans may like best involves a lip-lock — as teen movie kisses go, it’s a really good one — between Woodley and James.
At 143 minutes, though, the movie feels overly long, and by the end, you may want to hop onto one of those trains yourself and hope it arrives somewhere a lot less grim. But two sequels await. So there’s always hope.
“Divergent,” a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.” Running time: 143 minutes. Two stars out of four.