If you crave a postapocalyptic world that’s been divided into competitive factions and is derived from a young-adult trilogy, and you can’t wait for Mockingjay – Part 1, there’s Divergent. It’s to The Hunger Games as Mr. Pibb is to Dr Pepper — respectable, but deeply desperate. Veronica Roth wrote the Divergent trilogy. That she hasn’t yet been required to face Suzanne Collins in a televised ring-of-fire copyright-infringement death match feels like a crime against entertainment.
But what can you do? People need their messy societal allegories. The monotonous first installment of this one has Shailene Woodley carrying the long face and surprising gumption required of the heroines of these movies. Beatrice Prior — everyone winds up calling her “Tris” (rhymes with “Katniss”) — lives in a Chicago that’s been carved up into thinkers, farmers, logicians, soldiers, and do-gooders. Tests confirm that Tris doesn’t conform to one group. She’s a soldier, a thinker, and a do-gooder. She’s — say it with me! — divergent. But she opts to join the soldiers, and most of the movie therefore involves an unseemly amount of training exercises and exposition. The experience of watching them jog and spar and shoot is like getting to the gym only to realize you’ve left your workout clothes at home.
The do-gooding faction’s realm is called Abnegation, and Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn represent it well. They wear complicated layers of wool and linen, like something from the Eileen Fisher farmers market collection. The logicians — Erudites — who are threatening a takeover of the Abnegation-run government, favor Capitol Hill tailoring, and are led by Jeanine Matthews, a steely bitch with a haircut that whispers, “Your nightmare of Hillary in 2016.” She’s played by Kate Winslet, who infuses her enunciation with care that undermines the character’s ruthlessness. She’s not running for office. She’s stealing it. But you’d vote for her anyway. She looks as if she’d keep the streets clean and the people decently dressed.
The soldiers — called Dauntless — wear tight black clothes and run all over town like a gang of unruly personal trainers. Tris makes friends (Zoë Kravitz), enemies (Miles Teller), and something like love to Four, the cute, fit, mysterious higher-up played by Theo James. Obviously, because he’s manly and desirable, he lives in a handsomely furnished warehouse loft. The carnal highlight occurs when Tris jacks into his mind to experience some of his worst fears, which include being trapped inside a shrinking box. I’ll let you play music-video psychiatrist with that one.
It would have helped if we had never seen nor read any of these Chosen One allegories; Divergent might have had a mark of specialness. But even then, the climactic chases, shootouts, and fistfights have been staged, filmed, and edited with insobriety. Visual clarity shouldn’t be too much to ask from these movies, even if they fail to achieve ideological coherence. That second Hunger Games film from last winter managed something close to both. And that series has a kind of dangerousness — those movies are building to something exciting. Divergent feels like it’s laying groundwork we’ve been over. Nothing about Woodley, who played George Clooney’s elder daughter in The Descendants, reminds you of Jennifer Lawrence. She has a pleasing, absorbing softness that this movie forces into aggression, and she’s actress enough to acquit herself well. But the problem of Lawrence in the early going of the Hunger Games series is that she can’t do soft and innocent. There’s a natural sarcastic edge to her. They should switch franchises.
All you feel watching Divergent is that it’s prep for future installments. There’s really no hook and therefore no excitement. The ideas run from duh to sloppy. It’s as if a grad student read George Orwell and Collins and said, “I can do that,” and 15 minutes later had a best-selling series. Perhaps congratulations are in order, but Roth just deploys a lot of fascist and Nazi tropes to reiterate the obvious — that life is just AP History on repeat.