Divergent, the latest outcast-teen-battles-the-system thriller, is similar enough to The Hunger Games that hardcore fans of Katniss Everdeen might dismiss it. But it's a more streamlined film, and it has a love story with genuine heat and deaths with genuine pathos.
Director Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) inserts us into this world with a lack of fuss that the stiff, exposition-stuffed Games films have never managed.
So let's skip past any suggestions of novelist Veronica Roth knocking off the formula of Suzanne Collins' wildly successful Games novels. Remember, one has Katniss for a heroine, the other Tris. World of difference.
Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) lives in a post-war future in the semi-ruined city of Chicago. Fenced in against the devastated outside world in battered but habitable skyscrapers equipped with wind generators, the El trains still run and society still functions thanks to "factions."
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We have the Candor faction, famed for popping off without self-censoring, and the Amity faction, the earnest workers and land-loving farmers. The Erudite, let by imperious Kate Winslet, are the scientific, smart class, and Dauntless is the reckless "soldier" faction of young fighters who dive off the El rather than waiting for it to stop.
Then there is Abnegation, which, if you look it up, means "self-denial." They are the self-sacrificing public servants. Tris, or Beatrice, as her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) know her, grew up in that class — redistributing food, governing by consensus, liberal. It's an easy fit. Abegnations "reject vanity" and wear drab clothes in shades of gray, but that doesn't mean a girl can't have makeup, lip gloss and highlights, never a hair out of place.
When teens hit a certain age, they go through "The Test" and are told where their strengths lie. Like a college kid declaring a major, there is a "choosing ceremony" in which you cut your hand and with a drop of blood, declare your faction for life.
Tris is confused; empathetic but fearless, smart but earthy. Her "Test" doesn't take. The tester (Maggie Q) tells her she's "Divergent," and that the other factions fear Divergents. So Tris has a secret she keeps as she declares "Dauntless" and undertakes Darwinian training with the leather-jacketed jocks, learning to fight with guns, knives and her fists, learning to conquer her fears.
Woodley is a wonderful, transparent actress who lets us see her thoughts, especially when it comes to the hunky, stand-offish Dauntless lad (Theo James, Mr. Pamuk from Downton Abbey) who trains her. No, she doesn't have any memorable lines. And yes, she seems too dainty and fragile to be up to this soldiering thing.
Especially when compared to the raw-boned and gangly Jennifer Lawrence of Hunger Games. But Woodley makes Tris vulnerable and cunning as she is given drugs that play tricks on her mind to test her.
What novelist Roth was aiming for was a parable about creating well-rounded, compassionate adults in a world where The System is literally inside your head. As science fiction, it's no heavier than Stephenie Meyer's The Host, or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game or any of the other young adult fare in this genre — a world we recognize, sliced into stark metaphors of social strata.
But Hunger Games fans shouldn't feel superior in looking down on this sci-fi variation on a rebel teen theme. This latest franchise is not inferior. It's pretty much the same Games, give or take a bow and arrow. By not diverging from that simple formula for a YA sci-fi hit, the author and filmmakers reveal the shallowness of both series.