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Summit Entertainment // PG-13 // August 5, 2014
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 9, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

As some modern movie adaptations of popular young-adult books elevate expectations of what they're capable of, there are a slate of recent others -- from The Mortal Instruments to The Host and Percy Jackson -- that serve as a reminder of the turbulence still plaguing the subgenre. Despite Hollywood's progress in the halls of Hogwarts and the districts of Panem, there's still a lot of kinks that haven't been worked out in balancing solid filmmaking, story reverence, and respect to a loyal fanbase in other franchises. Hoping to strike while the Mockingjay iron's hot, Summit/Lionsgate called upon The Illusionist and Limitless director Neil Burger to take a shot at Divergent, Veronica Roth's familiarly-themed series of books about dystopian government control and the civilization's youth choosing a set personality type and way of living at an early age. While this mostly-respectful yet muddled adaptation leaves one hungry for the magic of Burger's more inventive style and the novel's sharper edge, there's still a spark generated by the performances and themes of non-conformity that boost it above most of its other tepid contemporaries.

Divergent takes place at an undisclosed period in human history following a vague catastrophe, walling off the city of Chicago in a quasi-quarantine. With no knowledge of what lies beyond its fence, those living within the city cohabitate in a utopic system hinged on factions: groups who live by and obey specific virtues of peace (Amity), truth (Candor), intelligence (Erudite), bravery (Dauntless), and selflessness (Abnegation). Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her family (Tony Goldwyn; Ashley Judd; Ansel Elgort) belong to the last group, Abnegation, who are tasked with governing the city's population -- a paradigm challenged by the Erudite, led by Jeannine Matthews (Kate Winslet) -- and caring for the "faction-less" castoffs. On their sixteenth birthday, teenagers in each faction are administered a virtual-reality aptitude simulation and are required to choose which of these groups they belong to based on this test (and their individual outlook), while those who place in multiple mental spheres, called "divergent", are viewed as dangerous. Beatrice, always rebellious against her faction's unyielding self-sacrifice, falls into that category. With help hiding her secret, she chooses a different faction: Dauntless.

Pointing out Veronica Roth's influences isn't difficult, from a choosing ceremony and merit-based districts to a singular heroine whose lack of bow or wand really isn't fooling anyone, yet the author brings some thematic and visceral bite to the table that reconstructs the ideas in a distinct, albeit far-fetched, environment. The script from Snow White and the Huntsman's Evan Daugherty and Game of Thrones' Vanessa Taylor regrettably muzzles some of that energy, allowing on-the-nose expository dialogue and a safe, cold shoulder from violence to expose the story's resemblance to others like it. Areas where Burger's imaginative direction would be expected to take flight -- notably during the mental simulations -- are awkwardly truncated and obscured without the benefit of Tris' point-of-view narration. This becomes tricky when she uses the info to inform her decision towards the "warrior" class that's opportunely designed to shape her into a hero, which feels more like contrived recklessness than an expression of daring self-discovery.

The bulk of Divergent takes place in the rocky pit of the Dauntless training facility, the space designed to harden Tris and build her camaraderie with other initiates, including her ex-Candor bestie, Christina (almost-perfectly portrayed by Zoe Kravitz). It's a drawn-out stretch of hand-to-hand combat and artillery training that's intended to be a dangerous zone, elevated in the book by strict high-stakes competition and cutthroat brutality. Unfortunately, a lack of risks taken in the filmmaking transform Tris' physical metamorphosis into little more than a drably-shot bootcamp, never seeming like she's really in jeopardy. The script contends that she's on shaky ground -- primarily through verbal bullying from the ominous head-instructor, Erik (Jai Counrtney), and how her name dips on a ranking board -- but the prolonged initiation lacks the convincing peril it needs to offset cinematic expectations, namely in how the film underuses her competitive antagonist, Peter (Miles Teller), a cocky nuisance who'd easily get put in his place by someone like The Karate Kid's bloodthirsty Johnny.

What Neil Burger and his writers do well, once you've cut through some of the daftness, lies in how Tris' insecurity gets sharpened against the whetstone of the Dauntless facility and through the desolate expanses of abandoned Chicago, along with the developing mystery and secrecy of her "inconclusive" personality. While Shailene Woodley might not fit what readers pictured in the book, she skillfully navigates Tris' internal disarray over her test results and resolve to discover who she's meant to be, especially when she reveals her selfishness, unpredictable reactions, and moments where she embraces her new faction's gusto. The depth of Tris' character elevates the dystopian film amid its anemic representation of the city's uneven social climate and witchhunt for those who share her divergence, along with her developing rapport with Four (Theo James), her stoic-yet-intimidating instructor whose interest develops beyond a teacher's concern. Both Woodley and Theo James elevate the pair's typical YA-novel flirtations with uniquely skewed chemistry, especially as James surprises with how he enriches Four's sympathetic history and chinks in his armor.

Ultimately, though, it's discouraging to see Burger's astute direction get bogged down in Divergent's dullness and predictability, despite its credible performances and respectable symbolic intentions. Even as the stakes are bolstered by the last act's science-fiction elements and the broken nature of conforming to the faction system -- powered by renegade serums and military strikes amid the city's maze -- the cumbersome rhythm of it all resembles the subtle lull of a train arriving at a recognizable destination. Instead of assembling something that'd break away from other franchises of its ilk, director Burger ends up playing too by-the-numbers while riding the rails along its climactic beats, even when it does mildly diverge from Roth's text (and further employs Kate Winslet, boosting the gray-area complexity of the Erudite's leader). The drama that's brought to the screen in this adaptation will satisfy those yearning to see their spirited heroine in motion, but the origin of this promising film franchise needed more dauntless bravery and less passive compliance to fuel an insurgence among its contemporaries.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Divergent ziplines onto Blu-ray in a fearless and deceivingly attractive 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC transfer, embracing the cool, stony structural essence of the Dauntless compound and the stealthy bursts of appealing light amid the simulation rooms, fear landscapes, and exteriors around Chicago. While the visual style intentionally restricts itself from too much flair for the sake of practicality, there's some attractiveness to be relished in the palette -- orange lighting that's both calming and unsettling; deep blue pools in the Erudite clothing; blasts of neon amid darkness during a glorified paintball session -- and exquisite, rock-solid balance of contrast in the industrial settings. Skin tones are warm and natural amid the film's consistent close-ups on Tris and those she's conversing with, accentuated by garment textiles and the texture of tattoos, while training and live combat sequences are unyielding amid the film's brisk movement. Details could be more focused and crisper at times, but it's a gorgeous digital transfer.

The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn't miss any opportunities to impress, whether it's the aggressiveness of artillery-based action sequences or the subtle ambience of echoing voices in the Dauntless compound. Every step of the way, the clarity resonating from Summit/Lionsgate's aural treatment flexes its high-definition muscle: the presence of Theo James' commanding voice in the training facility, the rattle of a train's wheels along the rains, the thump of fists against punching bags (and human flesh), and the stream of darts during the capture-the-flag training sequence are incredibly robust and free of distortion. Subtler effects, like the sizzle of blood on heated stones or the slipping of a knife blade off a table, are impressively clear and showcase the design's reputable separation across the front channels. Dialogue commands a natural, space-aware presence while staying crisp and discernible, whether it's Shailene Woodley's mix of faintly-gravelly whispers and ferocity, her friends conversations amid the Dauntless mess hall's chatter, or Kate Winslet's steady Erudite enunciation. And the surround activity from the above is versatile and immersive, frequently and skillfully employing all rear channels, especially during the film's several pop song. In all, fans of Divergent couldn't ask for more than this treatment. English Descriptive and Spanish audio tracks are also available, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles.

Special Features:

Audio Commentaries:
Two commentary tracks have been included, on with Director Neil Burger and another with Producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, that do a moderate job of covering most basis between the two of them. Burger apparently took some notes from the criticisms lobbed at his Limitless commentary, because he does noticeably less story narration and tackles hardbound elements of the production and direction intentions. He's still prone to leaving silent gaps and some story repetition, sure, but there's a respectable amount of discussion about cinematography aims, filming times and locations, and visual effects. It's a chore at two and a half hours, but manageable for the rays of insight he offers. The second option with Wick and Fisher is a cautious, light and slightly awkward track that tosses in a handful of worthwhile anecdotes in between wide spans of silence. They mostly have a lot of interesting things to add about the actors, about their rapport and their prior/current roles. Both commentaries are best explored by fast-forwarding to scenes of interest instead of listening to their entire duration.

Summit/Lionsgate have assembled a series of four press-kit features exclusive to the Blu-ray in Bringing Divergent to Life (47:17; 16x9 HD) that, in total, run about forty-five minutes in length, splicing together cast interviews with extensive, crisply-shot behind-the-scenes footage. There's a lot of neat material buried in the stock framework: lengthy glimpses at the cast getting prepped at boot-camp, before and after progressions of certain locations, and the gradual "working up" process for Shailene Woodley's stunt double for a complex multi-part jumping sequence. While A Bold Beginning (6:54) is about what you'd expect out of these kinds of features -- congratulating the author, director, and cast while the initial conceptualization of the book and film is discussed -- Becoming Divergent (6:26, 16x9 HD) gets the more substantive content started by illustrating the preparation process for the cast. From there, the content moves into a lengthy chunk of unorganized making-of material for The Epic Experience (25:20) , which covers everything from developing a new fighting style to stunt work and set locations, and then into A Fearless Finish (8:36, 16x9 HD), a quick sweep over photography and before-after visual effects in post-production that leads into the premiere.

On a more general front, Faction Before Blood (14:51, 16x9 HD) features author Veronica Roth and the cast/crew discussing the lore and philosophy behind the virtue-based faction system and the setting for the story itself, from the tribal "anthropology" behind the idea to the nuances of each group's temperament. Most of the primary actors chime in on their characters' individual factions, while the content moves directly to Tris' categorization at the end. The Marketing Gallery includes two Theatrical Trailers and a Poster Gallery, while an Ellie Goulding Music Video for Beating Heart (3:48, 16x9 HD) full of clips and elements of the universe also makes an appearance. Fans of the books will likely be more frustrated than delighted by the Deleted Scenes (4:27, 16x9 HD): some reflect on excised plot elements from the book that would've helped the narrative in seemingly minor, yet significant ways, especially a sequence involving an intentionally and brutally injured initiate that really needed to be there for a few different reasons.

A DVD Copy of the film has also been included, as well as a Digital Download slip and a collection of temporary faction sticker tattoos.

Final Thoughts:

You have to suspend disbelief quite a bit to embrace the dystopic Chicago that Veronica Roth erected for Divergent, from the socio-political conceits to the technology employed, but there's a thematically rich yarn being spun in Beatrice Prior's journey of self-discovery through the Dauntless training pit that makes the most of its unlikelihood. Neil Burger's adaptation more or less captures the revolutionary spirit of Roth's novel; however, it's also cautious in both visual tone and physicality, and does little to avoid drawn similarities with other popular young-adult properties. Thankfully, Shailene Woodley's organic, subtly fierce performance and her rapport with an impressively nondescript Theo James help to counterbalance its other issues, namely in expecting more of Neil Burger's thumbprint on the direction. Divergent isn't quite the competitor it'd like to be and cannot overcome some of the narrative's inherent oddities, but it's an occasionally thrilling and meaningful sci-fi cohabitant that fits comfortably in the middle of the genre's output ... and, thankfully, avoids fitting the label of being nothing more than a post-apocalyptic equivalent of Twilight, or something along those lines. The film itself only receives a very mild recommendation for those hungry for something new of its type, but Lionsgate/Summit's Blu-ray fires on all cylinders for a fine overall package. Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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