You know the drill by now: it’s the future, and after some great cataclysm that wiped out everything that went before – well, not the buildings and stuff, because we’re still clearly in Chicago, even if things are a bit crumbly and there are wind turbines on all the tall buildings – society has undergone some serious changes. Here, that means that people are grouped into five clans, each in charge of a different aspect of society (farming, public servants, truth-tellers, the cops/army and the smart guys), and during a special ceremony you have to choose which one you want to go into.
For Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), this is a problem, as she’s just done the big test meant to guide teens to the path for them, only to discover she’s “divergent” – equally good at more than one thing. Forced to keep it a secret, she still decides to follow her heart (and break her parents’ hearts) by leaving behind their boring do-gooder Abnegation cast and joining Dauntless, who run everywhere, spend all their spare time climbing stuff, and presumably use these skills to defend the realm against various unspecified threats. Those guys don’t mess around, and the extended training that follows is underlined by the very real threat of death or being kicked out – and once you’re kicked out of one group, none of the others will have you.
What develops isn’t all that original – there’s a hunky instructor (Theo James), a bunch of feisty friends, and a range of sinister and oily leaders (Kate Winslet being the most obvious) who are clearly up to no good – but unlike a lot of recent young adult franchises, this knuckles down to tell a solid story while keeping the characters focused within that story.
There aren’t the usual comedic moments or bizarre asides that often make these films fun but flawed: Prior’s story is told straight and with an earnest touch that works out, largely due to the strength of Woodley’s performance.
It’s not going to replace The Hunger Games any time soon, but even if there are no further instalments – while there are more novels, this ends on a pleasingly definite note if the series doesn’t continue – this is the first worthy challenger in a long time.
Written by Anthony Morris