The history of pop culture is the history of people appropriating previous ideas to new effect. “West Side Story” didn’t just usurp “Romeo and Juliet,” “Romeo and Juliet” borrowed heavily from “Pyramus and Thisbe.” There’s nothing new under the sun, granted.
But there’s a responsibility to inject some life into the stolen goods — déjà vu is one thing, but déjà vu with boredom on top is more than an audience should be asked to tolerate.
“Divergent” would be forgivable in its flagrant borrowing of ideas, tropes and characters from some of the most popular young-adult fiction of the last 20 years or so if it spun those ideas around, flipped them and gave them a sassy new paint job. As it is, the film (based on the novel by Veronica Roth) jolts around in fits and starts, never sufficiently explains its premise and, yes, rips off far too many notions from better books and movies to stride successfully down its own path.
It’s after the apocalypse, and society is desperately attempting to rebuild itself. Inside a fence that’s been erected around the ruins of Chicago, humanity has divided itself into five factions: Erudite (the intelligentsia), Amity (ostensibly the kind, but apparently the agrarian), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Abnegation (the charitable). Everyone is tested for their dominant trait and placed in one of the factions, which become that person’s new family. (“Factions before blood” is this group’s catchy expression.)
If you fit into more than one of them, that’s considered disruptive, and you’re branded a “Divergent.” And since this is a YA adaptation, you can bet that our heroine is The Specialest Girl in the World: Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) assumes she’ll follow in her parents’ Abnegation footsteps, but she envies the way that the Dauntless security forces whoop it up and climb up buildings like the cast of an all-parkour production of “Godspell.”
Beatrice’s test administrator (Maggie Q) keeps it secret that the girl’s examination shows her to be eligible for several factions, but on the day of the big Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice opts for Dauntless. Getting to stay in the group involves a great deal of physical challenges — because to be “faction-less” in this world is the worst fate imaginable — and she, now going by “Tris,” must push herself to the limit under the guidance of pouty-lipped trainer Four (Theo James), who of course falls madly in love with her.
Meanwhile, the Erudite, under the leadership of devil-in-a-blue-power-suit Jeanine (Kate Winslet), are planning to remove Abnegation from their role as government leaders with a coup that involves nefarious exploitation of Dauntless’ muscle. As subplots go, none of this manages to be very interesting, but it does allow Winslet to smolder and glare and flare her nostrils in a fashion that would get a thumbs-up from Faye Dunaway.
One big problem with “Divergent” is that its basic five-faction premise doesn’t really seem to hold up. If everyone in this world is either a smartypants, a farmer, a lawyer, a cop or a social worker, who built the car that carries Jeanine around? Who takes out the trash? Who makes the color-coded uniforms everyone wears?
There are also issues that have nothing to do with the source material. Director Neil Burger (“Limitless”), working from an adaptation by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, spends a lot of time on Tris’ Dauntless training, but surrounds her with a bunch of indistinguishable brunettes. Of the small circle of people we meet in her giant freshman class, there are two girls (one black, played by Zoë Kravitz, and one white and broad-shouldered) and somewhere between three and five look-alike guys; only the one who’s played by Miles Teller, Woodley’s “The Spectacular Now” co-star, stands apart.
That film, incidentally, demonstrated that Woodley is a gifted and empathetic young actress, but with this material, she comes off as fairly generic. You can sense her efforts at imbuing the goings-on (and the by-the-numbers romance with the handsome but stiff James) with some passion, but she’s swallowed up by the gray sets and the cobbled-together storyline that forces her to dredge up highlights from “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter.”
When Shakespeare rejiggered “Pyramus and Thisbe,” it was 80 or so years after its first translation into English. It’s a classier move than stealing from characters whose ink is barely dry on the page.