'Divergent' review: Star power comes to Chicago

RedEye's Matt Pais and Ernest Wilkins discuss the highly anticipated adaptation of Veronica Roth's novel and the value of stars Shailene Woodley and Theo James.

**1/2 (out of four)

For the first time since YA adaptations ("Twilight," "The Hunger Games") became the new blockbusters, we have a movie in which the most important stars do exactly what they're supposed to.

In "Divergent," Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants") and little-known-for-now Theo James ("Downton Abbey") take what was depicted as a somewhat juvenile romance in Veronica Roth's bestselling book and turn it into a balanced relationship born of instant heat. Woodley and James' chemistry may inspire blushing even in viewers who aren't screaming "Wooooooo!" when Tris (Woodley) and Four (James) do something about all that non-platonic tension between them.

Of course, the futuristic Chicago-set and -filmed dystopia of "Divergent" is much more than a love story, and the highly anticipated action flick is both tightly entertaining and a medium-size disappointment. Those who have read the book (like me) will understand it a lot better than newbies and either be forgiving of the film's errors or particularly aware of the many ways "Divergent" fumbles on the big screen.

The plot, in case you just emerged from under a rock: When Tris takes a test to help determine which one of the society's five factions she will join, she comes up "divergent." This inconclusive result suggests she's more than just selfless or brave -- and thus in danger from a veiled enemy who sees complex personality characteristics as a threat to this world's fragile stability. She elects to separate from her family's faction of Abnegation and join the risk-taking, community-defending folks of Dauntless, where a bully (Miles Teller, Woodley's "The Spectacular Now" love interest) insists she'll be dead in no time, and dreamy trainer Four becomes a mentor unable to contain a grin as this fiery newbie stands out from the crowd.

Much of the dialogue from writers of "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Game of Thrones" transparently explains the who-what-why of this post-war environment, to the point where it sounds less like natural conversation than an uninspired way to ensure the audience understands a complicated situation. And yet, much of "Divergent" either doesn't make sense on-screen or doesn't work in the way it's translated. Tris' friendship with fellow initiate Christina (Zoe Kravitz) loses its complexity, and her awareness of another newcomer is so minimal that when he eventually lashes out, it's less likely that Tris would feel betrayed than ask, "Wait, who are you again?"

He is not especially good at action, so director Neil Burger ("Limitless") was an odd choice, and he makes some of the film's most urgent sequences look fake. He also minimizes the threat of other moments that are supposed to terrify but instead feel condensed to the point of incoherence. Kate Winslet fails to intimidate as Jeanine, the leader of intelligent-but-perhaps-untrustworthy faction Erudite, and Burger neglects to capture the intricacies of "Divergent" that may explain why, say, every person cutting their hand to indicate their faction uses the same blade. I assume that sanitary concern no longer applies in the new Chicago, but who knows? Aside from the film's failure to demonstrate cracks in the system, wouldn't kids choosing their own factions undermine the entire premise of a society established to eradicate flaws in human nature? You'd think the test results would be mandatory.

For what it's worth, most of these complaints materialized after the 140-minute, all-plot-and-little-nuance movie, which moves fluidly and offers some cool shots of the city. (Including a train that travels down Michigan Avenue. Stay tuned in the future for that, I guess.) And even when the movie just makes you want to immerse yourself in the book's details, there's James delivering a toughness that no male lead in "The Hunger Games" or "Twilight" ever glimpsed. And Woodley converts Tris from a meek, uncertain young woman into an ass-kicker who turns universal self-discovery into the arrival of an unexpected but convincing heroine, tossed into adulthood and showing fear who's boss.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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