Divergent was obviously green-lit in order to ride the coattails of the phenomenally successful adaptations of the Hunger Games novels. Neil Burger's big-screen version of the first book in Veronica Roth's best-selling trilogy comes up short when compared to the adventures of Katniss Everdeen, but that doesn't mean it's a failure.
The movie takes place in Chicago, in a future in which "the war" has supposedly made the vast majority of the country unlivable. The city is protected by a very tall fence, and in order to keep the peace, society has divided itself into five "factions." There's Dauntless, the brave warriors; Amity, peaceful farmers; Candor, truth tellers; Erudite, the brainy; and Abnegation, the selfless. This world operates under the motto "faction before family," as society believes that these five groups help to balance each other and maintain the peace. Those who don't fit into any of the groups become part of the "factionless," the poor and needy underclass.
Teenagers take a test that reveals which of the five factions they belong in; this is followed by a public ceremony in which they declare their allegiance, although they're under no obligation to follow their test results. Once you choose, you can't change or else you become factionless. Tris (Shailene Woodley), the daughter of two members of Abnegation, takes her test and discovers that she would fit into not only that group, but also Erudite and Dauntless -- the latter being the faction she's always wanted to join. The ability to fit in with multiple groups makes her a "Divergent," and Divergents are scary to the powers that be because this society runs on everyone knowing their place.
That's a whole lot of plot and backstory to dump on an audience, and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor get all of it out of the way in the first 20 minutes, often utilizing a voice-over from Woodley that feels like an excerpt from an audiobook rather than an attempt to understand her character. Thankfully, when Woodley isn't saddled with explaining how her world works, she's quite appealing. She's a credible teenager, a plausible tough girl, and believably smart. She gives Tris the habit of looking back and forth into the eyes of whomever she's talking to, a trait that signifies both her character's desire to understand her surroundings and her ability to connect with people.
Tris chooses to become Dauntless, and much of the film is made up of her training to join the faction, which consists of a physical stage and then a mental stage. As she slowly becomes friends with the hunky Four (Theo James), one of her drill instructors, she discovers that Erudite may be planning to overthrow Abnegation, the faction that currently controls the government. She also learns that Erudite are reportedly hunting down and eliminating Divergents, making it difficult for Tris to know whom she can trust.
Director Neil Burger has to do something very difficult throughout Divergent: keep the audience on the edge of their seats so they don't start to think about all of the questions they have. He succeeds for the most part, largely thanks to Woodley providing such a solid center. He's capable of decent action sequences -- an elaborate game of capture the flag is a winner -- and he's just as good with the emotional scenes between the characters. The movie maintains a palpable sense of momentum, only occasionally hitting a rough patch in which people are forced to deliver ridiculously tortured lines like, "Every minute we lose, another Abnegation dies and another Dauntless becomes a killer." If nothing else, Divergent must set a record for the number of times the words "dauntless" and "abnegation" are said aloud in a movie.
What nags about the film is the fact that, because it's an adaptation of the first part of a trilogy, it isn't a full story. We're told how important the factions are, but only three of them really matter in this tale. While that's probably faithful to the book, it leaves gaping plot holes and questions that can't be answered. Additionally, the subtext of this movie seems to be that smart people are evil, and that's a rather difficult moral to swallow. Although that might not be Veronica Roth's overarching theme for the whole series, it's unmistakably what this story expresses as the Erudite use their knowledge of chemistry to attempt to seize control.
Of course, anybody who just wants to watch a smart, tough female teen protagonist learn to use her brains and her brawn to survive doesn't need to worry about any of this. Those looking for a new hero to get behind will find Tris to be a worthwhile choice. However, it will take compelling sequels in order to make this a story worthy of her.