"Divergent" propels us into a seedy, futuristic world of teen angst and hormonally inspired romance where body, emotion and character are constantly pushed to the breaking point in an action-packed tale pitting the individual against a dehumanizing collective.
Yet, Neil Burger, who gave us the strange, kinetic drug thriller "Limitless," directs "Divergent" with near joyless disinterest, only occasionally lifting this promising material out of its blandly generic milieu.
"Divergent"★ ★ ½
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller
Directed by: Neil Burger
Other: A Summit Entertainment release. Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual situations. 140 minutes
Action-nourished, yet suspense-starved, Burger's science-fiction thriller explores a brave new world that feels unsettlingly familiar.
We've never encountered this vision of a wounded, post-apocalyptic Chicago behind imposing walls before, yet, the movie evokes an unmistakable feeling of deja-view.
When editors at HarperCollins optioned the book (by Barrington native Veronica Roth), they likened it to "The Hunger Games" meets "The Matrix," an analogy that lends both the novel and movie to easy and instant classification, which, strangely enough, opposes the whole point of the story.
"Divergent" takes place many years after a major war has turned the Windy City into still-operational crumbling ruins.
Upon turning 16, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) must experience a rite of passage by choosing which of five "factions" to join.
All adolescents become tested and, based on their aptitude scores, placed into the groups Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peacefulness) or Erudite (intelligence). That these faction names can't decide if they're nouns or adjectives makes perfect sense, being the obvious product of government committees.
Oddly, however, teens can accept their official factions or simply choose those of their liking, which seems to render the whole point of testing irrelevant.
Anyone who doesn't conform to the five accepted factions is branded a "divergent."
Beatrice's tester (Maggie Q) realizes the worst when it becomes apparent that the teen could belong to several factions, and therefore represents a threat to the societal order. If she's not killed, she could wind up as one of the pitiful, rejected members of the factionless class.
Advised to say nothing about the test scores, the low-key Beatrice surprises everyone by choosing Dauntless, the loud, swaggering and athletically overachieving police of this Windy City world, the exact opposite of her quiet, Abnegation parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd).
Cool, calm Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Beatrice's twin brother, goes with Erudite, the smarty pants faction ruled by Jeanine (Kate Winslet in snarky, evil Disney queen mode), a pensive plotter with plans, we discover, to relinquish the burden of leadership from the ruling Abnegation faction.
Beatrice, in an obvious search for identity, redubs herself simply "Tris," and engages in dangerous, hazing-like behavior to prove her worthiness as a Dauntless.
She and her friend (Zoe Kravitz) jump out of a speeding El train onto a Chicago rooftop. She is apparently unDaunted by such acts, but they impress her tough-as-rusty-nails leader Eric (Jai Courtney) and her mysterious trainer Four (Theo James, emanating a young Harry Hamlin vibe), who makes no secret he'd like to jump on a roof top with her anytime.
Tris embodies the essence of adolescence as she experiences teen rebellion, divests herself from her parents, struggles to discover her own identity and tests herself, only to be amazed by what she can really do when motivated.
Woodley, who shined in last year's youthful romance "The Spectacular Now" (with "Divergent" co-star Miles Teller), makes for an appealing, credible pre-Dauntless Tris, but lacks the raw, athletic carriage that her character should have developed after months of training. (There was never a moment when Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss from "Hunger Games" didn't move like a hunter in the wild.)
The good news?
Roth's second Tris tale "Insurgent" (a third book "Allegiant" waits in the wings) is already being prepped for a sequel, directed by Robert Schwentke, who gave us "Red" and "R.I.P.D."
If the "Divergent" series follows the pattern of the "Harry Potter," "Hunger Games" and "Twilight" franchises, the second chapter will be better than the first.