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Woodley delivers dose of humility ‘Divergent’ latest young adult blockbuster-in-waiting

If you have a kid of a certain age — especially a girl, preteen or thereabouts — then you know the young-adult entertainment message of choice these days: You’re you, and nobody else. Don’t let them define you. Don’t let them put you into one of their neat little slots. You’re unique. And you’re gonna show the world. You go, girl! So it’s no surprise that this is the message of “Divergent,” the latest young adult blockbuster-in-waiting. It’s also no surprise that the emerging young star Shailene Woodley delivers a crucial dose of humility, sensitivity and intelligence in this showcase role. And it’s no surprise, either, that she generates nice chemistry with her rather absurdly good-looking co-star, Theo James.

What is surprising is that with all these promising elements, “Divergent,” the first of three installments based on first-time author Veronica Roth’s trilogy, ultimately feels so lackluster. For a film predicated on the principle that being different — or “divergent” — is what makes you special, “Divergent” just doesn’t diverge enough from the pack. Not that this will hurt the film’s chances at the box office. Like “The Hunger Games,” the franchise to which it will unavoidably be compared, “Divergent” has a ready-made audience of fans just waiting to fill those seats — over 11 million books have been sold, after all.

Those book fans will have a crucial head start. “Divergent” takes a good deal of time explaining plot mechanics, but If you already know what’s happening, you can spend more time admiring, say, those cheekbones on James — or his day-old, dystopian stubble. In a nutshell, “Divergent,” directed by Neil Burger, takes place in a futuristic Chicago, a bleak version indeed of the Windy City. Half of every building seems to be destroyed, leaving hulking shells. Civilization is divided into five factions, based on human virtues: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Candor.

Beatrice Prior (Woodley) is born into Abnegation. But at age 16, a citizen can choose their own faction, at the Choosing Ceremony. Right before, they take an aptitude test that tells them which faction they fit best. Beatrice’s results are downright scary: She has not one virtue, but all of them. She is “divergent” — which makes her dangerous. To the distress of her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), Beatrice opts to join Dauntless, the most courageous faction, but also the most reckless: Pierced and tattooed, they look like unusually fit punk rockers. Soon she’s in boot camp, jumping on and off trains (trains never seem to actually stop in this movie) and into pits, and fighting viciously in the ring, under the guidance of the initially unforgiving Four (James), her trainer. Gradually, Beatrice — she’s renamed herself “Tris” — becomes buff and strong. But will it be enough to survive?

Storm
On top of all this, there’s a political storm brewing, led by the villainess Jeanine Matthews, played by a blonde and stiletto-clad Kate Winslet in one of her less convincing performances (in a sadly under-written role.) Matthews is the leader of Erudite, which means she’s got a killer IQ along with those killer heels, and she’s convinced that Divergents are a threat to her plan to overthrow Abnegation. Then there’s Peter, another Dauntless initiate who comes from Candor, meaning the role is perfect for the fast-talking Miles Teller — so memorable opposite Woodley in “The Spectacular Now,” but underused here. At 143 minutes, though, the movie feels overly long, and by the end, you may want to hop onto one of those trains yourself and hope it arrives somewhere a lot less grim. But two sequels await. So there’s always hope. “Divergent,” a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.” Running time: 143 minutes. Two stars out of four.

Young actors Shailene Woodley and Theo James arrived on the Hollywood set of the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” TV talk show by sliding above a cheering crowd while harnessed to a zip line, a dramatic entrance to spark interest in “Divergent,” the movie Lions Gate Entertainment Corp hopes to make its next hit franchise. The studio behind the mega-hit “Hunger Games” movies is betting again on a popular series of best-selling young adult novels set in a dystopian future. The “Divergent” books, about a society divided into factions by personality traits, have sold more than 17 million copies worldwide. “Divergent,” opened Friday, likely won’t attain “Hunger Games” heights at the box office, but a strong start could answer a question hanging over the independent studio once known for comedian Tyler Perry’s films and the “Saw” horror flicks: can it churn out more blockbuster-sized franchises?

The pre-opening buzz points to a strong performance for “Divergent.” Opening weekend ticket sales will hit $50 million to $68 million in the United States and Canada, according to projections from Wall Street and box office analysts. That’s below the $152.5 million for “Hunger Games,” but would be a big enough hit for Lions Gate to forge ahead with sequels planned for 2015 and 2016, they said. The massive “Twilight” vampire series opened with $69.6 million. “It has the potential to be a massive franchise,” said Phil Contrino, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, said of “Divergent.” The movie’s Facebook page has more than 1 million likes, a high number for the first film in a series. “The marketing campaign is doing a good job of highlighting the movie and getting people to go online and show their support.”

Turning a successful book into a hit film is no sure thing, as Hollywood has found with several attempts to excite teen audiences since “Twilight” ended. Movies including “Beautiful Creatures” from Time Warner Inc’s Warner Bros, Sony Corp’s “The Mortal Instruments,” and Lions Gate’s “Ender’s Game” didn’t draw massive crowds. Some early “Divergent” reviews were negative. Lions Gate spent $85 million to produce “Divergent,” plus $40 million to $45 million on marketing, according to person with knowledge of the film’s budget. The studio has already recouped about $70 million of the cost through international licensing deals, the person said.

Making “Divergent” a success is important for Lions Gate to show investors they can bank on another big franchise outside of “Hunger Games,” said Cowen and Company analyst Doug Creutz. From fiscal years 2013 to 2016, 62 percent of Lions Gate’s adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) will come from “Hunger Games” and “Twilight,” Creutz estimates. Lions Gate acquired “Twilight” with the 2012 purchase of Summit Entertainment, the unit that produced “Divergent.” While Lions Gate is growing its TV revenue with shows like AMC Networks Inc’s “Mad Men” and Netflix Inc’s “Orange is the New Black,” it needs new films to replace the revenue from the two current franchises, Creutz said. “They have two more franchises than they had three years ago,” said Creutz, who rates Lions Gate “market perform.” “Can they do it on a consistent basis? I think that’s still an open question. ‘Divergent’ is an important one for that.” (AP)

By Jocelyn Noveck

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