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Originally published Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 12:06 AM

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‘Divergent’: the latest product from the teen-warrior factory

A 2.5-star review of “Divergent,” a grim, dystopian teen adventure with a bright spot: actress Shailene Woodley.




Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2.5 stars

‘Divergent,’ with Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Cortney, Ray Stevenson, Ashley Judd, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Maggie Q, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Mekhi Phifer, Ben Lamb, Kate Winslet. Directed by Neil Burger, from a screenplay by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel by Veronica Roth. 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality. Several theaters.

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All right, shall we just put Tris Prior and Katniss Everdeen into a ring and let them fight it out? The new “Divergent,” based on Veronica Roth’s blockbuster young-adult novel, feels uncannily like “The Hunger Games”: teenagers, in a futuristic dystopia, are chosen in a public ceremony (this one has a dash of the “Harry Potter” sorting hat) and mercilessly trained for upcoming violence. One girl goes along with the program but is somehow different; we experience it all with her, and watch as she falls in love and tries to save herself and others.

Taking place in a hollowed-out shell of Chicago, “Divergent” distinguishes itself by being even more gray and more humorless than “Hunger Games” (where’s the Effie Trinket equivalent here?) — but, like the “Hunger Games” movies, it’s helped immensely by a charismatic performance at its center. Shailene Woodley, though nobody’s idea of a warrior, has always projected an uncannily direct honesty on screen (watch her stealing scenes from George Clooney in “The Descendants”); here, as a 16-year-old separated from her family by a merciless “faction” system, she’s like a steady beam of light in the darkness. Woodley has a scratchy little voice and a way of clamping her eyes on her scene partners as if they might catch fire if she looked away; she also has that rare quality of utter likability, and of making preposterous situations seem believable simply because she’s there.

Without her, “Divergent” would be a grim slog indeed. With her fellow 16-year-old initiates (many of whom, in the frequent way of Hollywood, look nowhere near their teens), Tris joins Dauntless, the faction known for reckless bravery, despite being unsure if she belongs there. (Tris is, as the book’s readers know, a “divergent,” someone who doesn’t clearly fit into a particular faction. Dauntless is a sort of tattooed, angry version of Gryffindor.) As a cog in a teen-warrior factory, she learns to bash the daylights out of her fellow initiates, to fire a gun and to defend herself against those who know of her secret divergent status. Along the way, she finds stony-faced romance with a trainer called Four (Theo James, swoonily known to all “Downton Abbey” fans as the ill-fated Kemal Pamuk).

The whole thing is, of course, a setup for two sequels, and quite possibly the trilogy’s fans will be pleased by the movie’s (mostly) faithful allegiance to the book and by Woodley’s winning presence. The rest of us might find “Divergent’s” 140-minute running time rather long and its story drawn-out and familiar; might be tired of seeing teenagers viciously battling each other on the big screen; and might find ourselves wondering where the secret Dauntless hair salon is (Tris clearly spends a lot of time there). “The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” a villain (Kate Winslet) intones at one point; those who belong at this movie, likewise, know who they are.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com



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