I recently watched the DIVERGENT trilogy movies, DIVERGENT (2014), INSURGENT (2015), and ALLEGIANT (2016). Based on the DIVERGENT book trilogy for young adults by Veronica Roth, they’re fun post Apocalypse dystopian action flicks with a good message: authoritarianism is bad and diversity is good, even vital, for humanity. And British actor Theo James as the male lead (named Tobias Eaton, a.k.a. “Four”) is sincere and luscious to behold. He pleasantly adds to the array of neat visuals in these screen dramas.
A central concept in the series is that of factions, which people in a 23rd century, post world war Chicago have to live within. Those who do not test well for any particular faction are rendered “factionless,” societal rejects who exist as the city’s itinerant homeless. Then, there are the “Divergents,” whose temperaments and abilities qualify them for fitting well into more than one faction. They are mentally and emotionally flexible and adaptive, which threatens the social fabric of this future society’s rigidly ordered culture. The five large groupings of people by personality type and aptitude is an interesting way to explore the tensions of conformity and belonging on one hand and individualism, personal liberty, and freedom of self expression on the other. The narrative’s explicit bias here is that the latter three attributes are more important, the other two being most valued by oppressive authoritarian thinkers and leaders.
The movies focus on Beatrice (“Tris”) Prior (Shailene Woodley), a teenaged Divergent, and her romantic involvement with Four (Tobias). Tris initially does her best to fit into her newly chosen faction, Dauntless, which comprises the police and military portion of the population. Their main job is to protect Chicago, ensuring that no outsider comes through its distant surrounding wall. Ms. Woodley, who was about twenty-two to twenty-four years old during actual filming, looks the part and straightforward and compelling in her role. I found the character of Tris to be lacking in depth and complexity. However, she is sufficiently sympathetic and compelling to carry the movie, particularly with the more mature, gritty, and complex character of Four by her side lending his gravitas and sex appeal.
Much of the series is basically a cat-and-mouse suspense drama whereby two young adults navigate the increasingly oppressive faction system with the ultimate intention of dismantling it. The final, comparatively weaker, movie goes even further than this after Tris, Four, and a few of their peers discover beyond Chicago a far more advanced society built upon the ruins of O’Hare International Airport. Without giving too much of the story away, we viewers learn that, from afar, a calculating scientist named David (Jeff Daniels) has been monitoring the population of Chicago, its residents a post war genetic experiment. Tris and Four must outsmart and thwart David and his sinister designs against the only place they’ve ever known as home.
I appreciated the supporting cast, particularly Kate Winslet as villainess Jeanine Matthews, who heads up Erudite, the faction comprising scholars and scientists. With her often dead-pan expressions and sanitized professional look, she ruthlessly maneuvers Erudite to become the governing faction over all of Chicago in place of the Abnegation (selfless and ever-serving others) faction, from which Tris and Four had been born and raised. It was fun to see Ms. Winslet play someone so cold and calculating. I’m sure she appreciated this role after years of often portraying sympathetic leading ladies.
Two other supporting cast members are worth a special mention here. The always lovely and interesting Octavia Spencer plays Johanna Reyes, the faction leader of Amity, who are the ever kind and peace-loving farmers within this mostly urban society. Her scenes are short and limited to the second and third movies, but Ms. Spencer lends her no-nonsense, wise presence to a character that would otherwise be far less memorable in someone else’s hands. Maggie Q as Tori Wu is another particularly gritty female. She is the first to identify Tris as a Divergent and becomes a close ally to the heroine. Tori is beautiful with a tough exterior, developed through painful losses, yet she’s tender just beneath the surface. It was good to see her among so many strong female characters, most of them sympathetic.
Initially, a fourth and final film, ASCENDANT, was planned but scrapped due to a large decrease in box office revenue for ALLEGIANT compared to the first two movies. Producers floated the idea of a television production of this fourth installment. This was rejected by the primary actors, who felt they had not signed up for a lackluster conclusion to such blockbuster projects. Apparently, interest in young adult science fiction movie series had significantly declined by 2016, after a slew of them (such as THE HUNGER GAMES franchise) had been made up to that time. To my relief, ALLEGIANT felt like a tolerable, decent enough conclusion to the story arc even though I saw how it could have gone further. In particular, tensions clearly remained between Chicago with its largely genetically “damaged” people and the more genetically “pure” led society out beyond. I imagine a war or some smaller scale, but equally dramatic, conflict was in the offing to occur within ASCENDANT. But, honestly, I’m fine that this didn’t happen. The villainous David seemed like an annoying, smug bureaucrat rather than an intriguing bad guy I wanted to keep watching. I felt fine with no longer seeing more of him. And since real life is open-ended with a mix of resolutions and ongoing change and challenges, I felt satisfied over where and how the DIVERGENT trilogy ended. We viewers are left to draw our own conclusions if we so feel the need.
Clearly, the DIVERGENT series is largely light fare, where a lot of character development does not occur. The story arc is derivative of other post Apocalypse writings and is simplified for young adult readers and viewers. That said, the screenplays are a little thought provoking in places and generally a lot of fun, particularly the first two films DIVERGENT and INSURGENT.