Following a war, human society survives in a blocked-off Chicago, divided into five factions. Young Tris (Woodley) has been raised among selfless Abnegation but, on testing, discovers that she is 'Divergent' and a threat to the system. She joins the action-loving Dauntless to find her own path.
In the post-apocalyptic future of the Veronica Roth novel adapted here, the question, "What is your greatest strength?" is no longer a job interview stumper but the basis of an entire society. Five factions - Abnegation, Candour, Amity, Dauntless and Erudite (consistent grammar apparently died with civilisation) now comprise the population, and this compulsory segregation is designed somehow to promote peace, despite an almost immediate sense that these groups are poised for conflict. It's a set-up more successful as a philosophy class hypothetical than a dramatic premise, but director Neil Burger does a good job of papering over cracks that could have ruined his character study.
Our heroine is Shailene Woodley's Tris, born in the Amish-like Abnegation faction to selflessly serve others but who, we learn from voiceover, doesn't quite fit in. It turns out that that she is 'Divergent', with an aptitude for three factions. This is portrayed like a superpower, with Tris able to solve problems that stump her faction mates, but it makes her a threat to the carefully ordered system.
Tris soon joins the Dauntless, a group characterised by high-tech sportswear, a penchant for whooping and a habit of jumping from fast objects and high buildings. There she makes new friends, including hunky trainer Four (Theo James), and the film's second act becomes a lengthy and violent training montage. But while Tris faces a growing chance of discovery by scary Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet on the sort of stern form that suggests she's the natural heir to Judi Dench), trouble is brewing on a larger scale.
If you're getting shades of The Hunger Games from all this the filmmakers will be thrilled, because they're all-too-obviously trying to launch a similar franchise with a tough heroine, solid action sequences and a world that might credibly be shaken by a teenager. But while the dystopian, stratified societies are superficially similar, Divergent has none of the cod-Roman familiarity of The Hunger Games. There's more training than action - much of the film is concerned with Tris' quest to move up her class rankings rather than grand questions of politics - and on small human dramas Tris must negotiate. The location, the real Chicago playing its digitally ruined self, gives it a scale it might otherwise lack, even if the visuals are highly reminiscent of I Am Legend.
The film's great strength is its cast, and Woodley in particular. Her attempts to negotiate the pressures of friends, family and her own nature are understated and credible even when she faces fantastical challenges, and like Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games she convinces as an action heroine. James stays just the right side of brooding as the male lead, and more established actors - Winslet, Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn as Tris' parents, Ray Stevenson as the Abnegation leader and Maggie Q as, essentially, Basil Exposition - earn their day's pay in the smaller supporting roles. Whether they will all get the sequel that it begs for remains to be seen, but purely as a first chapter to something larger it's an entertaining start.
Smart, tough and a little bit cool, this is an intriguing opening rather than a slam-dunk in its own right, but the cast - and especially Woodley - make it sufficiently diverting to merit a place in the action franchise ranks.