DivergentcoverGrade:  B
Entire family: No
2014, 139 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C+

These days, the money seems to be in young adult novels—especially if they’re made into movies. I suppose you could say J.K. Rowling started the trend with a Harry Potter series that began in 1997, and then in 2003 Stephenie Meyer hit pay dirt with the first of her Twilight vampire-werewolf romance novels. The next big score came from Suzanne Collins, whose futuristic Hunger Games novels first emerged in 2008. Now to film comes Divergent, based on a popular young adult trilogy from Veronica Roth that began in 2011 with Divergent, followed by Insurgent (2012), and Allegiant (2013).

In our family of four, my daughter is the target audience for all of these books, while my wife reads them with her. They’re fans of the films as well, and they thought, as I did, that the film version of Divergent is pretty comparable to the The Hunger Games, only instead of Jennifer Lawrence as an archer playing a futuristic survival game in the world’s largest arena we get Shailene Woodley as a free running initiate into a faction of a futuristic society that’s charged with the task of protecting it from outside—and inside—dangers.  

It’s a nice change of pace to have a post-apocalyptic, dystopian society based somewhere other than New York, L.A., or a nameless dessert. In Divergent the survivors live in what’s left of Chicago, and that includes riding the El trains . . . if you happen to be a member of the Dauntless faction.

DivergentscreenHarry Potter had the sorting hat, and in Divergent those who come of age must take a knife to their hand and spill a drop of their blood into one of five bowls in a ceremony attended by the five factions of this futuristic society: ones who are disposed to practice Abnegation (selfless, sacrifice), those who are Erudite (intellectuals), those who favor Amity (friendship, harmony), those prone to Candor (honesty at all costs), and those who are Dauntless (fearless, inclined to protect). There’s no changing after the choice is made, we’re told, so initiates are told they must know themselves . . . and to help them, they’re given a drug that induces a vision. Then, like Soviet gymnasts, they have to leave their families and bond with only like-minded individuals in the faction they’ve chosen. This is the best way for the new society to survive without conflict, say the Erudites, whose leader is played by Kate Winslet.

I’m told that the film version omits some sex and violence—no doubt to earn a PG-13 rating. I haven’t read the books, but the film version gets a little muddy when it comes to the basic premise. Like, those who fail to make it in their faction become factionless and basically live like homeless people, who nonetheless exist in a group . . . so aren’t they a faction?

Though we’re told that only the top 10 initiates in Dauntless will be accepted and the rest will be factionless, we meet people along the way who are “transfers,” and that option isn’t really explained in the film . . . or at least it’s removed from the heroine and her brother, who chose Erudite instead. Both of them disappointed their Abnegation parents, who wanted them to remain with them, and Abnegation currently rules the society. Yet the authority figure that’s dominant, the one who seems to be in charge of this dystopia, is the Erudite Jeanine (Winslet). Meanwhile, there’s the Dauntless bunch, which inexplicably seems more like a gang of free running street punks and thugs than soldiers, and they train, fittingly, at a former prison.

Visually, there are some fun special effects and stunts, and the CGI post-apocalyptic Chicago is much more interesting than other landscapes we’ve seen. So confusions aside, Divergent really is on a par with The Hunger Games. Though Woodley’s character Beatrice/Tris is a little more fragile, by design, than Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, there’s perhaps more here for teens and ‘tweens to identify with. The whole point of Hunger Games was survival, but survival here is a by-product. The real issues are questions of identity and societal structure: family vs. society, knowing the self, having to make a decision that basically pigeonholes you for the rest of your life at a time when you DON’T know yourself, and, of course, the theme of “divergence”—of having the inclination or desire to have more than one virtue or impulse. All of these are appealing to the target audience, even to other viewers who may wonder what constitutes an ideal society, given all the political turmoil in the world.

There’s a little good cop/bad cop in Divergent as well, and that adds interest. Jai Courtney is chilling as Eric, a Dauntless trainer who doesn’t seem to care if the program causes pain . . . or death. And as Four, the good trainer and romantic interest, Theo James (Underworld: Awakening) has the kind of smoldering intensity that makes for good chemistry between the leads.

One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia—at least that’s one takeaway you get from Divergent, a futuristic action-drama that’s fueled as much by its young stars as it is the writer’s mind. It’s for families with children ages 10 and older.