Film review: Divergent (12A)

Divergent. Picture: Contributed

Divergent. Picture: Contributed

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It’s hard to think of a movie less suited to its title than Divergent.

DIVERGENT (12A)

Directed by: Neil Burger

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet

Star rating: *

Based on the first instalment of a best-selling trilogy of young adult novels, the film is so ruthlessly calculated to fit into the Hunger Games mould that it sees no irony in being built around a heroine whose titular uniqueness is supposed to make her a threat to its rigidly ordered post-apocalyptic world. Then again, as confusingly defined in the film, a “divergent” is someone who has more than one dominant personality trait, so while they don’t necessarily conform to one of the five functionally aligned factions into which this dystopia has been divided, they can flit between factions without raising suspicion. Their multiple generic personalities, in other words, are apparently what make them special, something again echoed without irony by the film as it pilfers from The Matrix, Buffy and host of other fantasy and sci-fi sagas in an attempt to show that it’s really not just a knock-off of The Hunger Games after all.

It is, though, right down to its tough, resourceful, teenage heroine whose name, Tris, even sounds a little like Katniss. Played by Shailene Woodley, she discovers her divergent status in the run-up to the Choosing Ceremony: an initiation right that allows children to choose which faction – Amity, Abnegation, Candor, Erudite or Dauntless – they want to serve for the rest of their lives. Although a plot eventually emerges involving a nefarious attempt to seize control of this segregated world by the leader of the Erudite (Kate Winslet), the film spends much of its needlessly protracted 160-minute running time focusing on Tris’s decision to switch from the selfless, fun-free Abnegation faction (in which she was raised) to Dauntless – a crypto-fascist order of extreme sports fanatics.

As such, we get a lots of boring scenes of Tris going through her training, as director Neil Burger subjects us to reel upon reel of anaemic action in which we’re supposed to believe that someone who looks as if she weighs seven stone soaking wet can beat people to a pulp. That just highlights another problem with the film, though: it mistakes a heroine who can kick-ass for a kick-ass heroine. Tris has no convincing interior life of her own; she’s just a collection of traits familiar from other, better movies. And with nothing to work with, Woodley simply echoes what Jennifer Lawrence did in The Hunger Games, instead of putting her own stamp on proceedings.

THE REST OF THIS WEEK’S RELEASES

A Story of Children and Film (PG)

Directed by: Mark Cousins

Star rating: * * * *

Following his epic undertaking The Story of Film, this latest meditation on movie-making from Mark Cousins celebrates cinema’s relative infancy as an artform by exploring its capacity to capture and reflect the world as a child sees it – in all its strange, beautiful and frightening wonder. Cousins uses a simple shot of his niece and nephew playing in his front room as a jumping-off point for a cinematic tour of the globe that draws together a diverse array of movie clips about childhood to illustrate how a child’s instinctive understanding of things like fear, class, family and adventure is analogous to a film camera’s potential role as a device for expressing new ideas about the world. That this potential is so rarely exploited (at least in mainstream cinema) is the unspoken call-to-arms underlying this fascinating cine-essay.

The Double (15)

Directed by: Richard Ayoade

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Paddy Considine

Star rating: * * *

A loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s doppelganger-themed novella of the same name, Richard Ayoade’s second feature is a much harder film to fall for than his eager-to-please Submarine. That’s hardly surprising given the oppressive source material, but Ayoade’s admirable determination to do something different in tone isn’t enough to make this oft-invoked tale all that compelling. Pulling double duty, Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a depressed office drone suddenly forced to confront his own failings when an identical-looking interloper by the name of James Simon becomes a star at his work and hits it off with the object of Simon’s desires (Mia Wasikowska). Existential despair is intensified by the film’s Brazil-aping retro-futuristic designs, but Ayoade never quite manages to transform this into anything particularly profound.

Rio 2 (U)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha

Voices: Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Jemaine Clement, Jamie Foxx

Star rating: * *

A generic, brightly coloured sequel to 2011’s generic, brightly coloured animation hit, Rio 2 is little more than a cinematic pacifier designed to keep undiscerning kids quiet for a couple of hours during the Easter holidays. In his second film this week, Jesse Eisenberg once again provides the voice for Blu, the nervy Macaw who finds himself living a life of domestic bliss in the titular city, raising a brood of three young birds with his mate Suzanne (Anne Hathaway). Believed to be the last of their species, it’s a situation that suits Blu down to the ground, but Suzanne can’t resist the call of the wild and before long the whole family is embroiled in an Amazonian adventure that makes Blu feel increasingly out of place. Aside from Jemaine Clement’s smile-raising return as Blu’s theatrically villainous cockatoo nemesis, Nigel, this is uninspired stuff, not helped by a slew of disposable songs.

Visitors (U)

Directed by: Godfrey Reggio

Star rating: * * *

Less preachy than the final two instalments of his dreamy Qatsi trilogy, Visitors finds Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio reteaming with composer Philip Glass for another non-narrative exploration of the modern world. Clearly intent on visually distinguishing his work from former collaborator Ron Fricke’s thunder-stealing Samsara, this time he creates a startling series of slow-motion monochrome compositions that juxtapose portrait shots of people (and one gorilla) with deserted scenes of urban decay, primordial landscapes and vast monolithic buildings. The effect is mesmerizing at times and repetitive at others, but watching people isolated from their surroundings and surroundings uninhabited by people creates a nifty contrast that subtly questions the relationship between the two.

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