“Divergent” is almost good enough to make you forget what a cynical exercise it is on every possible level. The original 2011 young adult novel by Veronica Roth — reasonably engrossing, thoroughly disposable — reads exactly like what it is: an ambitious young author’s attempt to re-write “The Hunger Games” without bringing the lawyers down on her head. The folks at production company Summit Entertainment are happy to turn the book into a movie because it allows them to crank up the franchise machinery that has worked so well for “Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” and the “Harry Potter” films, only without the bother of creating something fresh.
The associated suckerfish of modern corporate entertainment have attached themselves, offering tie-in CDs of banal pop tunes, T-shirts, key chains, bracelets, throw blankets, and a special line of cosmetics. The inescapable marketing has been going on for months. Shepard Fairey might have been commissioned to make a special “Divergent” OBEY poster, but that would have been redundant.
The aim, obviously, is to create a pop-culture tsunami for the purposes of profit, and a decent movie is usually part of the algorithm. That’s why the suits brought in Neil Burger, a talented commercial filmmaker whose earlier efforts — 2006’s “The Illusionist” (the Edward Norton magician movie), 2011’s “Limitless” (the Bradley Cooper brain-drug movie) — are terrific entertainments that don’t get nearly the respect they deserve.
Burger, screenwriters Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and Vanessa Taylor (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), and production designer Andy Nicholson have taken Roth’s flat, cautious prose and visualized it with flair. We’re in post-apocalypse Chicago, a century after an unspecified war, and the remnants of society have been organized into five Myers Briggs-style factions: Erudite (the smarties), Amity (happy farmers), Candor (caustic truth-tellers), Dauntless (soldiers), and Abnegation (selfless civic leaders). Katniss Everdeen — sorry, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is an adolescent girl whose mother (Ashley Judd) and father (Tony Goldywn) are Abnegation leaders but who is drawn to the adrenaline-junkie antics of the Dauntless crew. In its blunt fashion, “Divergent” addresses an age-old teenage lament: Who am I?
Upon being tested for her faction aptitude — a more rigorous process than the SATs, but not by much — Beatrice learns she is “divergent,” meaning that she belongs to more than one group. This is a no-no in a world where Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), an Erudite leader and this movie’s Queen of Mean, wants everyone in their place, or else. During the Choosing ceremony (no wizard hats involved), the heroine impulsively opts to join Dauntless, abandoning her parents and signing up for a brutal martial training regimen.
If some people had problems with the kids-killing-kids plotline of “Hunger Games,” I don’t know what they’ll make of the scenes in “Divergent” in which girls and boys beat each other to a bloody pulp in order to get a good score. But it’s OK, since Beatrice — now renamed Tris — is being coached by Four (Theo James), a sigh-guy whose eyes are (allow me to quote from the source here) “a dreaming, sleeping, waiting color.”
James is actually quite good in “Divergent” — hunky but intelligent and not hung up on his own beauty the way some of these pre-fab idols can be (*cough* Robert Pattinson *cough*). Woodley is a likably unguarded actress who’s best in realistic fare such as “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now”; she’s miscast here only because she lacks the two-dimensional force of character that Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, brings to her big-screen cartoon. Woodley just doesn’t seem very dauntless; if that makes her interesting to watch in other movies, it leaves this one on wobbly legs.
That said, “Divergent” is an improvement on the novel for much of its overlong running time, because Burger and his team spackle over the novel’s implausibilities, change the bits that need to be changed, and generally create a tighter, more believable fantasy future. The book’s action sequences have been re-imagined with cinematic brio: Tris’ zip-line journey through the ruins of Chicago is now a heart-stopping nighttime thrill ride, one tinged with horror at the devastation through which she plunges. Zöe Kravitz (Lenny’s kid, playing Christina), Miles Teller (so good in “Spectacular Now” opposite Woodley, here downgraded to the sneering Peter), Maggie Q (as older and wiser Tori), and Ben Lloyd-Hughes (as fellow Dauntless recruit Will) all step into their allotted roles with cheerful professionalism. The settings feel as if they’re the right size and lived-in, except for the Dauntless hangout The Pit, which looks like Captain Kirk’s rec room.
There’s not much Burger can do, unfortunately, with the film’s overwrought final act, which envisions a political conspiracy, a mind-control serum, factional genocide, and a few deaths that are meant to be heavy but that feel merely heavy-handed. (We are treated to the sight of a pistol-packin’ Ashley Judd, for which I will be forever grateful.) And of course “Divergent” ends in the accepted franchise fashion, audiences hanging off the cliff until the next installment comes around. Maybe they’ll keep hanging, or maybe they’ll jump off when the film adaptation of “The Giver,” based on the 1993 Lois Lowry novel that started the whole teen-dystopia ball rolling, opens next August. Or maybe — is it too much to hope? — they’ll join the resistance.