What the critics are saying: ‘Divergent’

TORONTO — The much-hyped action-adventure flick Divergent is expected to have a big opening weekend at the box office.

Based on the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, the movie stars Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Theo James (Underworld: Awakening) in a story about a dystopian society where people are divided into personality-based factions.

Will Divergent be a Hunger Games-style blockbuster or a Mortal Instruments-type flop? Here’s what some critics think of the movie:

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Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post raved about Divergent, declaring: “It’s rare that a movie is as good as the book on which it’s based. It’s even more unusual when it’s better.”

READ MORE: What the critics are saying about other recent movies

He said director Neil Burger “has crafted a popcorn flick that’s leaner, more propulsive and more satisfying than the bestseller that inspired it.”

This isn’t exactly the opinion of Matt Patches of IGN, who described Divergent as “a rip-off.”

He explained: “Cobbled together by director Neil Burger and writers Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, Divergent is the eighth Xerox of a shuffled stack of random pages ripped from Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games screenplays. There isn’t an inspired design, dash of creative world-building or original emotional beat in the 139 minutes of this tedious trilogy-opener.”

Patches had praise, though, for Woodley and James.

“Their chemistry sizzles as the background been-there-done-that action blabbers with explanation and pretend threats,” he wrote.

At the New York Post, Lou Lumenick singled out Woodley for doing “reasonably well with her underwritten part” and noted she has “palpable chemistry with James.”

But, added Lumenick, “Divergent is a clumsy, humuorless and shamelessly derivative sci-fi thriller.”

Brad Keefe  of Columbus Alive said comparisons between Divergent and The Hunger Games are inevitable.

“If you haven’t read the books, you’ll see Divergent as a convoluted Hunger Games knock-off. If you have, you’ll find the production values and performances are solid. But the movie is still convoluted,” he opined.

“If the Hunger Games films do a fairly tidy job of explaining their premise, Divergent has to over and over for nearly 2 1/2 hours.”

This is echoed by John Serba of Michigan’s M Live.

“The movie has trouble finding its footing,” he wrote. “Signs of struggle are prevalent in the filmmakers’ attempt to adapt Veronica Roth’s bestselling novel – the reams of exposition and multisyllabic lingo which works just fine on the printed page can be silly and burdensome when spoken.”

Serba credited Woodley with cutting through “the nonsense.”

Overall, the movie is “compelling enough to not be a complete waste of time, and fosters bigger ideas which, one hopes, will come to fruition in future films.”

BELOW: Watch Theo James and Shailene Woodley on Global’s The Morning Show.

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman called Divergent “a lean, exciting basic-training thriller” but complained the second half “goes on a bit, with too many rote combat scenes.”

At the A.V. Club, Kevin McFarland opined: “Anything the film has to say about dystopian regimes or the harm in squelching individual expression gets lost in the rote romantic entanglements and inter-governmental conspiracies, all of which have been borrowed from other sources.

“The ultimate irony is that a series predicated on diverse individuals rising up against totalitarian regiment falls so completely in lock step with all other post-apocalyptic young-adult franchises.”

Mara Reinstein of US Weekly was one of the few critics who took issue with Woodley’s performance.

“At times, the actress can’t get a firm grip on the role. Though Tris is admittedly just a few years removed from adolescence, Woodley has the doe-eyed look and earnest tone of a 2014-era high school student who’s peeved because she’s not getting a straight A in Geometry,” wrote Reinstein.

“She’s just not menacing enough to wield a machine gun with authority. (At least, not menacing enough yet).”

But, Reinstein added, Woodley puts “the right amount of soul into her budding romance with the strapping James.”

At Forbes, Scott Mendelson complained that “for too much of its 143-minute running time, Divergent tells a story mostly independent of its exhaustive world-building.”

He wrote: “The picture takes pains to explicitly set up the rules of its universe with the notion that said rules will play a large role in the narrative. But much of the core story takes place outside the rules and expectations of its mythology, with much of the details and deviations becoming merely distractions for the relatively generic story.”

He said Divergent is “a sporadically entertaining coming-of-age action film that nonetheless works best as metaphor” and “a somewhat disappointing film with a few interesting ideas.”

Denver Post reviewer Lisa Kennedy summed up the movie as “a solidly engaging outing” — with a catch.

“One wishes for more. Or maybe it’s less. Serial movies face storytelling challenges more familiar and usually better managed in TV than feature films,” she wrote. “The narrative rhythms that have us tuning in next week, or binge viewing all weekend, don’t necessarily hold for films that won’t pick up the thread again for a year or so.”

(Insurgent and Allegiant are in production and due for release in 2015 and 2016 respectively.)

“This first salvo has done the introductions and teased us,” said Kennedy. “We’ll have to wait to see if it can really distinguish itself from the faction, er, pack.”

BELOW: Watch the trailer for Divergent.

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