Like The Hunger Games, Divergent is adapted from a young-adult novel (the first in a trilogy, naturally) and speaks to the postapocalyptic survivalist in every 15-year-old girl. A century after some vaguely referenced world war, all of human society has divided itself into five tribes based on people’s personality type—the smart, the brave, the honest, the selfless, the pacifist—and teenagers choose their affiliation in a public coming-of-age ritual. Young Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) throws in with the brave, or “Dauntless,” much to the consternation of her selfless parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwin). But there’s a catch: in her diagnostic test, which involves a powerful hallucinatory drug, Beatrice tests positive for three powerful traits, which makes her a “divergent” and a threat to the social order. Divergent would have us know that categorizing people is bad, because people’s personalities are complicated, and that boys are good, especially the handsome Four (Theo James), who becomes Beatrice’s mentor as she trains with the macho warrior class.
It’s all pretty dumb, and it marks a career low for director Neil Burger, who’s made some first-class indie dramas from his own scripts (Interview With the Assassin, The Illusionist, The Lucky Ones). But local moviegoers might want to see Divergent simply for its fanciful rendering of the Chicago cityscape. Production designer Andy Nicholson (Gravity) envisions a skyline with all the familiar buildings, even the beloved old terra-cotta relics, outfitted with turbines at every floor; the buildings are in various states of decay and collapse (as you might have guessed, Trump Tower looks especially bad). Navy Pier is all mossed over, the lake has receded out of view (if not disappeared entirely), and citizens line up in the plaza by the Wrigley Building to collect sacks of grain. For kicks the Dauntless like to leap from the open doors of the elevated train onto neighboring rooftops, and one of Beatrice and Four’s intimate conversations transpires as they climb to the top of the dead Ferris wheel on the pier. There’s even a wire-gliding sequence in which Beatrice whooshes down to the cupola of 35 East Wacker.
Apart from the “Dark Knight” trilogy, I can’t think of another contemporary blockbuster that’s made better use of the city, though like those movies, Divergent presents a largely aerial view. There are some cool locations around the near-west and near-south sides (the glassy Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, the modish River City Condos at 800 S. Wells), but not enough street-level photography for my taste. (For one thing, I was curious to learn if Central Camera was still open.) Appropriately, the movie previewed at Navy Pier IMAX, so I had to tramp all the way out there and back again to the Red Line to get home. In Divergent the commuter trains look like something Frank Gehry might have thought up; thankfully, they no longer have those hectoring intercom announcements informing riders of the next stop and telling them how to behave. So nuclear holocaust has not been entirely a bad thing.
Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect the location of the Mansueto Library, which is at the University of Chicago, not the University of Illinois-Chicago.