Take the first Hunger Games movie, strip away the more fantastical elements and cartoonishly colorful characters, and amp up the teenage romance quotient. You’ll end up with something along the lines of Divergent, another futuristic dystopian saga aimed at the young-adult market. That’s the only audience Hollywood trusts to turn out at the theaters on opening weekend.
Set in Chicago a hundred years after a war devastated Earth, Divergent tells of how the survivors developed a system of factions to keep individuals subservient to the needs of society at large. Each person is sorted into one of five groups based on personality type: Erudite for the smart, Candor for the honest, Abnegation for the selfless, Amity for the peaceful, or Dauntless for the brave. Though born into a family within one of these factions, at age 16 each person must decide for himself or herself which to join for good. There’s no changing your mind.
A test is administered first, using a drug that induces a dream-like state designed to reveal in which direction each person should be slotted. Except that when Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), from a prominent Abnegation family, is tested, the results are inconclusive. She’s equal parts Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless — which makes her “Divergent.” The test administrator (Maggie Q) smuggles Beatrice out the back and warns her not to tell anyone what has occurred, that her life could be in danger. Because she doesn’t conform to one of society’s predefined standards, she’s considered a threat.
But Beatrice takes the news mostly like any self-obsessed teenager (yes, that’s probably redundant) would. She’s frustrated because the results were supposed to tell her which faction she was supposed to join. Now what?
At the sorting ceremony, each of the city’s 16-year-olds steps onto a platform in front of the gathered masses and cuts his or her hand to drip blood into a bowl that symbolically represents the chosen faction. Beatrice has never felt like she belongs in Abnegation, people who spend their days as public servants, feeding the poor (in their society these are “the factionless”) and running the government. So, despite her concern that she’s disappointing her parents, at the last moment she decides to throw herself in with the Dauntless, the faction she has long admired for their fearlessness.
Quickly she’s ushered away with the rest of the new initiates to Dauntless. Whereas Abnegation seems modeled on the Quakers or the Mennonite, living simply and without vanity, those in Dauntless are like the cast of a Mountain Dew commercial. They run in packs like wolves, climb over any building that gets it their way, leap from moving trains, and subsist on a diet of hamburger patties.
Most of the rest of the film is occupied by Beatrice’s attempt to make it through Dauntless boot camp without getting cut and thereafter consigned to a life among the factionless. After renaming herself Tris, she struggles with the physical skills necessary for the first round of weeding out recruits but squeaks by with the help of her tall, taciturn, and handsome instructor Four (Theo James). When she progresses to the second phase, which involves more dream-state testing, she excels because of her Divergent nature, but she must learn to hide the secret to her success.
Along the way she learns of the plans of Erudite and Dauntless leadership to conspire to overthrow and eliminate those in Abnegation. Will she and Four be able to stop them?
Despite the science-fiction trappings, Divergent is just another movie about surviving high school — and not a particularly insightful or exciting one. Tris is terribly insecure. She has to figure out what group she fits in with, all while balancing the need to pass her final exams with spending time with her first boyfriend. If she can get around to saving her world in the process, that’s just extra credit.