It’s become a cinematic cliche: At the opening of virtually every postapocalyptic movie, the camera sweeps over the landscape of a famous city in ruins, recognizable from the rubble.
“Divergent” is no exception. Though the buildings looked bombed-out, Chicago’s watery skyline still stands. The next scene, however, is unexpected. The camera moves down into the spaces between the busted buildings, and we see a bustling metropolis filled with smiling faces.
This is a strange dystopia. There’s no Will Smith, grim and alone except for a skinny dog, or a few scared survivors huddling in wreckage. “Divergent” does have other elements familiar to fans of the genre: the spunky young heroine, the confident evil genius, the great mass of people uncomfortable with those who ask too many questions. But there’s enough that’s fresh here — mostly some stellar acting — to make “Divergent” more than a little diverting.
Based on the first in a trio of young adult books by Veronica Roth, “Divergent” features a world in which everyone seems happy because everyone is in his or her rightful place. Mostly.
“They divided us into five groups — factions — to keep the peace,” protagonist Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) tells us of the new society, in some overly long and repetitive narration. Those in Abnegation serve others; Dauntless is “the warrior faction”; Erudite consists of eggheads; Amity is for the peacekeepers; and Candor members tell the truth (though what they do with that knowledge is never made clear). Helpfully for the audience and each other, the factions are color-coded. Dauntless are the crazy and cool; they dress in black.
Then there’s the factionless — “the ones who don’t fit in anywhere.” Given that they’re homeless and starving, it’s clear why people tend to stay with the factions they’ve chosen.
For there is an element of choice. At age 16, citizens are given an aptitude test that indicates the faction for which they’re best suited. However, at the choosing ceremony, you’re allowed to pick something else. We’re told that 95 percent of people are found to be best-suited to the faction of their origin. But Beatrice’s results are inconclusive — a dangerous result that her tester hides, to save her life.
Renaissance men (and women) aren’t appreciated here. The well-rounded — those with more than one skillset — are called Divergent, and they usually end up dead. “If you don’t fit into a category, they can’t control you,” the tester (played by Maggie Q) later explains. Put another way, as Erudite head Jeanine (Kate Winslet) does, “The future belongs to those who know where they belong.”
Beatrice surprises her family (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) and even herself by deciding to join Dauntless. It’s no surprise to us, though: It’s the only group she describes using the word “freedom.” But she soon learns that “freedom” doesn’t apply much to soldiering. Tris, as she rechristens herself, faces a tough initiation that, if failed, will send her to the dreaded factionless.
A worse fate awaits her, she soon sees, if her Divergent status is discovered. And her trainer soon has suspicions. But will Four (the impossibly handsome Theo James) become her enemy by ratting her out — or will he become her love interest? You can guess — there are more than a few predictable genre elements.
Yet the acting is so engaging, they’re easy to glide over. Miss Woodley will inevitably be compared to “The Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence. They have the same appealing combination of tough and vulnerable, but neither would be a star without a big dose of individuality. The story is told from Tris’ point of view, and Miss Woodley is daring and delicate enough to carry this film — with the help of Mr. James, who proves more interesting than the usual strong, silent type.
Dystopian dramas have one other thing in common — an exploration, however slight, of the human condition. Sometimes the ideas in “Divergent” seem ridiculous. But they’re thoughtful enough to hold promise for the inevitable sequels to follow. “I think human nature is the enemy,” Miss Winslet’s villainess declares.
It might ache for a certain predictability in its genre, but it also craves fresh voices. “Divergent” delivers on both counts.
CREDITS: Directed by Neil Burger. Written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel by Veronica Roth.
RATING: PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality
RUNNING TIME: 139 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS