Released in the wake of other young adult novels that have flown or fallen on the big screen — a trend so gigantic, the joke is that in Hollywood, "YA" doesn't stand for "Young Adult" but "Yet Another" — "Divergent" offers moviegoers a conundrum. Based on Veronica Roth's best-selling novels, "Divergent" stars Shailene Woodley as Beatrice, who lives in a post-apocalyptic Chicago 100 years after some devastating war; to keep peace and maintain the city, residents are divided into five factions, each representing a different philosophy, embodying a way of life and obligating a member to certain duties. The truth-telling public servants of law are Candor; the selfless sharers who provide social services and provide leadership, Abnegation. Knowledge and science are the province of Erudite, while crops are grown by the friendly, helpful Amity faction. Last but not least, the city's defenders, soldiers and cops come from Dauntless. Beatrice takes the test that helps determine which faction you should join (you're born into a faction, but can change your mind as a teenager), but comes back with mixed results: there are many things she could be. And in a rigidly controlled world, such people, labeled Divergent, are dangerous, and are targets. And you stressed out about your SATs.
That synopsis — over-plotty, convoluted, full of unanswered questions and unquestioned assumptions — is a big part of the problem here, but director Neil Burger ("Limitless") pulls off a neat trick here, in that "Divergent" is a pretty diverting piece of moviemaking pulled from a not-especially-good story. All of the factions have the kind of names you'd expect to see on a 50-cent vial of men's room vending machine cologne; the 5-sided, color-coded world Roth creates is as hokey as anything Gene Roddenberry came up for the worst episodes of "Star Trek." The ultimate power-play plot driven by Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet, bleached-blonde and under-used) is lazy and loose and weakly written ... and yet despite all of these things, "Divergent" is surprisingly entertaining, in no small part thanks to Woodley.
Beatrice grew up in Abegnation, not looking at mirrors and wearing coarse fabrics; on the day when she chooses a faction, though, she shifts to Dauntless. The Dauntless pretty much dress and behave like Rufio in "Hook" — a lot of red and black and whooping and hollering; it's like they have Mountain Dew for blood. But Beatrice, who now calls herself "Tris," has to try and make it through Dauntless training without washing out and becoming a lowest-of-the-low Factionless or being found out as a Divergent. Meanwhile, Jeanine and all of Erudite are plotting to seize control from Abegnation by drugging Dauntless' members with a mind-controlling chemical injection that turns them into stupor trooper murder-robots ... and Tris might be falling in love with her sensitive-under-the-muscles instructor, Four (Theo James).
Much like Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games" — which are better movies, adapted from better books — the real secret weapon here is Woodley. You may not buy the individual bits of Tris' world, or the convolutions and machinations of the plot that she gets caught up in, but Woodley does; she believes them with every atom of her being, whether the elation of her freedom in Dauntless to the pain she feels at leaving her family. Director Neil Burger shoots the film well, with an eye for both wide shots (a mob, seen from above, piling into a neighborhood to enact a pogrom is chilling) and close-quarters combat. Screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daughtery do what they can with the source material, and Woodley makes dead lines seem alive and lively bits of dialogue sparkle. (Her late-in-the-film line "Why do people keep saying that to me?" — you'll know it when you see it — is perfectly delivered.)
But the charismatic lead and excellent supporting cast (shot through with names like Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, Miles Teller and Zoe Kravitz) can only do so much in the context of an under-developed world, too much voice-over and a film so intent on setting up its own sequels (Roth has two more books and several ancillary spin-offs ready for the screen) that it never fully sets up its own individual plot as well as one might hope. There may be more "Divergent" coming — and based on this, I can't bring myself to feel either elation or disgust at the prospect — but let's hope that if there are future follow-ups, the next group of creators behind the camera set out on their own path to storytelling instead of just weakly following along with Roth's words and world.
SCORE: 6.5 / 10