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Review: 'Divergent' falls short of 'Hunger Games' franchise it tries to emulate


In Veronica Roth's young adult trilogy of best-selling futuristic hellholes, being a "divergent" means you avoid easy categorization and defy the crushing dictates of your overseers.

The movie version of "Divergent" is no divergent. It goes along to get along. It's tame, formulaic and strictly by the book in every sense.

Certainly you can do worse in this genre. The recent screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's "The Host" was a lot worse. But you can do better, courtesy of "The Hunger Games," to which "Divergent" bears a more-than-passing resemblance.

The time is a century plus change from now, after a devastating world war. The place: a desiccated and user-hostile Chicago, where there are no music festivals or charming storefront theaters of any kind. The city sits beside a dried-up Lake Michigan. The crumbling skyscrapers are dotted with wind turbines.

The government divides the populace into five factions based on an individual's primary virtue. Either you're a Dauntless, an Abnegation, an Erudite, an Amity or a Candor. If you a Divergent, you're none or all of these, and therefore an enemy of the state. If you're "Divergent," the movie, you're a blandly well-crafted adaptation of a YA success story, lacking a sense of personal identity or visual magic.

Director Neil Burger made the diverting "Limitless" and "The Illusionist," among other films. In "Limitless" he asserted his ability to propel a story; in "The Illusionist" he fashioned a convincing period picture on a low budget. He was a pretty good bet for the "Divergent" trilogy, the first installment adapted from Roth's book by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor.

But the project cannot shake its aura of overfamiliarity. As in "The Hunger Games," we have a hardy, underestimated young heroine, this one called Beatrice "Tris" Prior, played by Shailene Woodley. We have another one of those nasty public competitions or "choosing ceremonies," determining the characters' futures, in this instance their lifelong faction.

Tris must undergo terrifying drug-induced tests of will, as her subconscious dream state brings to life all her worst fears (rabid dogs, unsuccessful franchise launches) in realistic detail. Keeping a sharp, cold eye on her progress is the totalitarian matriarch played by Kate Winslet, whose talent so far outstrips her material, her scenes become mini training videos in how to enliven the most conventional material imaginable. Her character exists so that Woodley's character can assert her self-empowerment. "All of my life I've lived by your rules," Tris hisses at one point, echoing the inner thoughts of adolescents the world over. "Not anymore."

There are revelations regarding what's up with the choosing ceremony, who's involved with the simmering revolution, and how the male lead, played by Theo James, will look without a shirt. In a recent interview Woodley told MTV News: "We didn't want it to feel like, oh, attractive male lead taking his shirt off in a young adult franchise." Yes, well. Good try. All the same, James is the best thing in "Divergent." Imagine the pain and suffering this film might've inflicted with Taylor Lautner of "Twilight" in the male-lust-object role, and you especially appreciate James' wry, offhanded charisma.

At one point Tris zip-lines down from atop the John Hancock Center. This scene is fun. Berger manages one lovely and surprising image: that of a hallucinating Tris floating in a reclining medical exam chair in an open field. The generic bulk of "Divergent" hits its marks and moves on. Woodley — excellent in "The Descendants" and "The Spectacular Now," where she played the bitchiest and the nicest young women on the planet, respectively — has the stuff it takes to anchor one of these dystopian jobbies. Here's hoping the second movie, scheduled to be released a year from now, rebels against the establishment in more ways than one.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Divergent" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality)

Running time: 2:23



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