1. Dystopian future society.
2. Plucky, resourceful female heroine.
3. Sinister tyrannical machinations by the power elite.
4. Adapted from a young-adult bestseller.
For these four reasons, the yardstick used to compare the success or failure of the movie Divergent will be The Hunger Games. The similarities are sufficiently pronounced that this movie runs the risk of looking like an outright knockoff.
The dystopia here is, surprisingly, a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic Chicago. (It looks like somebody finally shot the mother of all Blues Brothers movies here.)
To make their society work, the powers-that-be have divided the populace into five occupational categories in which each citizen is compelled to take his or her place: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity and Candour. Dauntless are protectors, Abnegation are the caregivers, Erudite are the troublesome smarties, Amity grows the food in the spirit of communal welfare and Candour... well, I'm not really sure what those recklessly honest folk actually do. Critics?
At age 16, citizens participate in a ceremony where they choose their faction, whether it be the realm in which they were raised or the realm they feel compelled to join. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), raised in the neo-Amish simplicity of Abnegation, joins the daring, physical Dauntless, to the consternation of her mother (Ashley Judd).
It turns out that to be Dauntless is a punishing business in which novitiates learn to fight, use weapons and engage in reckless derring-do. But for Beatrice, now re-invented as "Tris," there are benefits, mostly involving being in the smouldering presence of a ridiculously good-looking instructor called "Four" (Theo James).
But even with that going for her, Tris is facing a couple of crises. During her initial testing, a tech (Maggie Q) informs Tris that her talents extend beyond one category. She is, in reality, a Divergent.
Worse news: the balanced power structure is in transition, apparently owing to the machinations of cold-blooded Erudite honcho Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet). And that power structure would just as soon eliminate Divergents altogether.
Going in, director Neil Burger has an advantage over the Hunger Games model. The Veronica Roth novel on which the movie was based has a science-fiction foundation that's not only intriguing, it's rock-solid compared with Hunger Games' credibility-defying, scattershot approach to the genre.
This movie also suffers no deficit when it comes to a heroine. If Jennifer Lawrence succeeds in classing up the HG joint with her soulful, vital presence, Shailene Woodley delivers those qualities too. And she gets to do it without having to prop up a silly premise in the bargain.
That said, I doubt this film will do as well as The Hunger Games, since it lacks much in the way of romantic intrigue and outlandish fashion. Also, unlike its own heroine, the movie doesn't really distinguish itself that much from the young-adult fantasy mill.
But in a holistic sense, this is an improvement on The Hunger Games.
Pardon my candour.