Blu-ray Review: Divergent

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Divergent arrived in theaters last March, playing to a largely presold teen audience. Veronica Roth’s teen-lit novel of the same name has millions of fans. The frenzy for the film adaptation may not have reached Twilight or Hunger Games heights, but the demand was most certainly well established. Happy with the worldwide gross of $275 million, distributors Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate have already greenlit the sequel (Roth’s book series forms a trilogy). Is there anything here for the uninitiated? If you’re a fan of actress Shailene Woodley, who stars here as heroine Tris Prior, the answer is yes.

Woodley emerged as a promising talent stuck in the ridiculous (yet ridiculously entertaining) ABC Family series The Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008-13). Her accolades-drenched supporting turn in The Descendants (2011) turned her into a rising star. A deeply felt co-leading turn in The Spectacular Now (2013) solidified her standing. Divergent gives her a full-fledged breakout role, carrying a sci-fi/action blockbuster almost entirely on her shoulders. While the dystopian future scenario, in which a fascist government controls its population by pigeonholing each individual in one of five “factions,” provides few surprises, Woodley is a certifiable star and her performance as rebellious Tris is the main attraction.

Divergent 2 (380x253).jpgIn a post-apocalyptic future, society now forces 16-year-olds to undergo a test to see which of five “factions” they fit into. “Amity” are the peacekeepers, “Erudites” are the intellectuals, “Dauntless” capitalize on their bravery, “Candor” are made up of compulsive non-liars, and “Abnegation” are selfless. Divergent doesn’t spend a ton of time clearly defining each of the factions’ roles, but suffice it to say that the government rules by forcing the masses into conformity. Beatrice Prior tests positive for several factions simultaneously, signifying that she’s a free-thinking, non-conformist. In this world, that’s known as “divergent.” The ruling body fears these rare individuals because they can resist the serum use to keep everyone in line.

Beatrice is advised to chose Abnegation and walk in lockstep, otherwise she risks her own life. But ever the rebel, Beatrice choose Dauntless, shortens her name to the hipper Tris, and struggles to compete in the various physical training exercises required of this band of aggressive defenders. She and Dauntless instructor Four (Theo James) bond, with the latter helping her deal with the demands of Dauntless leader Eric (Jai Courtney). Meanwhile, Tris learns some secrets about her pistol-packin’ mama Natalie (Ashley Judd) while uncovering a dirty plot headed up by Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). It’s all remarkably humorless and self-serious.

Divergent 4 (380x253).jpgHaving not read the book, I can’t speak to the relative success of the written story’s transition to the screen. But director Neil Burger (Limitless) and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor tell “part one” of Tris and Four’s saga in a fairly pedestrian manner. Part of the reason Woodley so handily dominates the proceedings is that the supporting characters are given too little to do. Not just Winslet and Judd, but also Mekhi Pfifer and Miles Teller (so terrific as Woodley’s co-star in The Spectacular Now) are handed underwritten roles. Speaking of co-stars, Woodley’s romantic interest from her other 2014 smash, The Fault in Our Stars, plays her brother in Divergent: Ansel Elgort, no better utilized here than the rest of the supporting cast.

No issues to report with Lionsgate’s Blu-ray presentation of Divergent. This is a sleek, digitally-shot production, with cinematographer Alwin H. K├╝chler’s registering every bit of sharpness and detail expected of modern, big-budget filmmaking. While the transfer delivers typical high definition excellence, it’s the DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix that goes above and beyond. The barrage of effects during the busiest action sequences really whips around the spectrum, enveloping the viewer in a truly satisfying audio environment. Dialogue and Junkie XL’s icy score are never compromised, regardless of whatever else is going on in the mix.

Two commentary tracks and a sturdy series of “making of” featurettes highlight a modest supplemental package. After sampling each commentary, it seems director Neil Burger is a bit dry, adopting a “just the facts” style. Producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick share the spotlight for the other track, providing a more animated discussion. “Bringing Divergent to Life” is a four-part series that totals about 47 minutes. It manages to go beyond the standard EPK fluff for a good look behind the scenes. Less interesting is the 15-minute “Faction Before Blood” (this one is typical EPK fare). There are a few uninteresting deleted scenes and a music video for Ellie Goulding’s “Beating Heart.” The Blu-ray package includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet digital copy.

Divergent isn’t particularly inventive, but as an “origin story” of sorts, perhaps it has paved the way for more exciting stories to come. The Divergent Series: Insurgent is due to arrive in theaters March 20, 2015.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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