There are days when I wish movies — especially movies based on dystopian young-adult book series — came with a prologue that would quickly explain the ground rules of the futuristic society, so the movie could cut to the chase.
I felt that way after the first “Hunger Games” movie, and I felt that way after seeing “Divergent,” the first movie based on Veronica Roth’s book series.
Like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” starts with a young woman in a world where a rigid society dictates how people live. In this case, the survivors in a post-apocalyptic Chicago have been divided into five castes, or Factions:
• Erudites — the smart ones, who run the technology.
• Amity — the hippie farmers, who maintain the crops.
• Candor — the painfully honest ones, who run the judiciary.
• Dauntless — the brave ones, who serve as police and military.
• Abnegation — the ones who live to serve, and manage the government.
At a certain age, every child takes an aptitude test that shows in which Faction he or she belongs. Every child is free to choose, but most pick the one the test recommends.
When Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) takes her test, she’s told she qualified not only as Abnegation — the Faction of her parents — but also Erudite and Dauntless. That makes her “Divergent,” and therefore dangerous in the eyes of society’s leaders.
Beatrice chooses Dauntless, surprising her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd). Soon she’s deep in the death-defying training regimen for Dauntless initiates and must fight to keep from being relegated to the slums where the “factionless” rejects live.
Two things alter the equation for Beatrice, or Tris for short: a growing attraction for her trainer, the brooding Four (Theo James), and the ominous news that the Erudites — led by the icy Jeanine (Kate Winslet) — are spreading propaganda against the Abnegation faction and may be plotting to overthrow the government.
Director Neil Burger (“Limitless,” “The Illusionist”) gets particularly creative in scenes of Tris’ psychological testing — when she must confront dreamscapes filled with her worst fears without letting on that she’s Divergent. But Burger must fight against a script, by Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) and Vanessa Taylor (“Hope Springs”), that is larded with too much exposition to really get moving.
Another way “Divergent” compares with “The Hunger Games” is that it showcases an astonishing actress. Woodley doesn’t have the assertive presence of Jennifer Lawrence, but the actress (“The Descendants,” “The Spectactular Now”) has a spunk and an aching vulnerability.
Also, like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” is so concerned with establishing a blockbuster franchise that it falls short as a movie in its own right. Here’s hoping the second installment — “Insurgent,” due in theaters in 2015 — will pick up the pace.
A teen find she has multiple talents and is a threat to her regimented society in this overstuffed adaptation of Veronica Roth’s dystopian novel.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.
Running time • 139 minutes.