An open question for which I would honestly and none-snarkily beg for an answer: could anybody who likes up-and-coming actress Shailene Woodley - and a quick peek at the internet promises me that there are many of you - please explain why? Is it a The Spectacular Now thing? Because I still haven't seen that. But I have seen Divergent, Woodley's shiny new Jennifer Lawrence-esque coming out party as the anchor of a can't-miss YA adaption series, and while the problems keeping it from being anywhere remotely near even the distinctly modest pleasures of The Hunger Games go deeper than the lead actress, I still find her to be a weirdly anxious-making bundle of non-charisma who looks actively nervous to be in front of a camera, and whose presence severely limits my ability to buy into the movie whatsoever.

Based on the first book in a massively popular book trilogy by Veronica Roth, Divergent takes place in a future where Chicago is, apparently, the only outpost of human civilisation left, and to protect itself, a wall has been erected around the remains of the city at a distance of some miles. For reasons that make absolutely not a whisper of goddamn sense at this juncture, society has been divided into five factions, each based on one overriding trait practiced uniformly by all those who belong to it: Abnegation, the selfless folks who are trusted to run government; Dauntless, the fearless soldiers who act as Chicago's security force; Amity, the peaceable love-everyone types responsible for growing and distributing food; and Candor and Erudite, truth-tellers and intellectuals whose function in society is not really even a little bit clear. It's not really in the book, either, but it comes a lot closer; Divergent, bless its heart, represents something of a case study in how to make the very worst decisions in translating a novel to a screenplay.

Anyway, everyone is born into one faction, and at age 16 is given a test that determines whether they are optimally suited for that faction; after this, they are able to choose where they want to live the rest of their lives in a grand ceremony that almost exactly splits the difference between the Reaping in The Hunger Games, and the Sorting Hat of the Harry Potter films. It is thus that Beatrice Prior (Woodley) leaves her parents in Abnegation to join Dauntless - incidentally, the grammar scold in my heart never stopped being annoyed that the faction names include three nouns and two adjectives - for she has admired the athletic, el-track climbing of Dauntless for her whole life, and she learns during her test that she is "Divergent", at odds with the perfectly one-note nature of her compatriots, and thus able to choose her own destiny. Obviously, choosing her own destiny turns out to be a lot more complicated than joining the faction of her choice, when it turns out that Erudite, in the form of the obviously-evil Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), is trying to do evil throughout Chicago, destroying Abnegation for reasons that are also really not even a little bit clear.

As a narrative, the film version of Divergent suffers from two massive problems, one of them easily-avoided, and one not avoidable at all. Going in reverse order, the inevitable problem was that the story, at least in this leg of the trilogy (I haven't read the other two books), is largely backgrounded to conceptual development and ideas, two things that almost, but not quite, add up to world-building. It is a thought-driven narrative, in other words; this is fine in a text-based medium which can be experienced at the reader's own pace, and not fine at all in an image-based medium that goes at a specific pace. And that brings us to the easily-avoided problem, which is that Divergent, the movie, crawls like a dying snail on ice. Something like the first five hours of the 139-minute film are dedicated to Beatrice's - renaming herself Tris - initiation into the Dauntless society and training to be kept in the Dauntless ranks after they slough off the new recruits who couldn't hack it as soldiers. It's symptomatic of the biggest problem with Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor's screenplay, which fiercely mangles the book in translation, favoring the most momentum-deadening and anti-cinematic moments while leaving the characters uniformly indistinguishable on any grounds but their physical appearance, besides Tris and her hunky trainer Four (Theo James), whose leap from authority figure to boyfriend is as inevitable as it is unconvincing and abrupt. To say nothing about making any attempts to clarify anything, leaving a patchwork dystopia whose internal logic is stalled at the "because the writer said so" level of cohesion and sociological insight.

It's a pity the story is such a tangle of under-expressed concepts, stock characters and stock ideas, and pacing misfires, because on the level of basic craftsmanship, Divergent isn't half-bad. It's not a massively-budgeted affair; you can see that in the slick, often unconvincingly-applied CGI meant to apply a layer of ratty future tech and post-apocalyptic wear to the real-life Chicago settings (this movie is unabashed, unapologetic Chicago location porn, for which I will concede a reservoir of affection that would remain even if the whole project was a lot worse in every respect). The action setpiece of the first two hours, a zipline flight from the John Hancock Center (and holy shit, talk about location porn), is delightfully kinetic, but never feels remotely real, for example.

But director Neil Burger, an unexceptional but competent workaday sort of filmmaker, has a good sense of how to keep things punchy and active, as he and cinematographer Alwin H. KΓΌchler weave and whip their camera around without too much recourse to the dreaded handheld shakycam (and when shakycam arrives, it actually works, sort of, at its express purpose of making things seem chaotic but not visually illegible). The visuals are, on the whole, a bit drab - the film's color palette is flat and dominated by too much yellowed-out footage - but there are busy, active compositions and sets that successfully communicate a lived-in and living world that looks vaguely like our own but bent through a funhouse mirror. It succeeds at one of the most important tasks of all post-apocalypse dystopia films, creating a physical reality that seems like it actually could exist in the form we see it. Now, giving a good, clear reason for that physical reality to exist is another thing, and using that reality as the backdrop for a story of any kind of urgency and emotional connection is quite another thing yet. But they have a couple more movies to get it right, and I enthusiastically doubt that they will.

Reviews in this series
Divergent (Burger, 2014)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent (Schwentke, 2015)
The Divergent Series: Allegiant (Schwentke, 2016)