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March 20, 2014

'Divergent' is 'Hunger Games' without the arrows

“Divergent,” the latest outcast-teen-battles-The System thriller, is similar enough to “The Hunger Games” that hardcore Katniss fans may dismiss it.

But it’s a more streamlined film, with a love story with genuine heat and deaths with genuine pathos.

And director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist,” “Limitless”) inserts us into this world with a lack of fuss that the stiff, exposition-stuffed “Games” films have never managed.

So let’s skip past any suggestions of novelist Veronica Roth knocking off the formula of Suzanne Collins’ wildly successful “Games” novels. Remember, one has “Katniss” for a heroine, the other “Tris.” World of difference.

Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) lives in a post-war future in the semi-ruined city of Chicago. Fenced in against the devastated outside world in battered but still habitable wind-generator equipped skyscrapers, the El trains still run and society still functions thanks to “factions.”

We have the Candor faction, famed for popping off without self-censoring, and Amity faction, the earnest, workers and land-loving farmers. The Erudite, let by imperious Kate Winslet, are the scientific, smart class, and Dauntless is the reckless “soldier” faction of young fighters who dive off the El rather than waiting for it to stop.

And then there is Abnegation, which, if you look it up, means “self-denial.” They are the self-sacrificing public servants. Tris, or Beatrice, as her parents (Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd) know her, grew up in that class — redistributing food, governing by consensus, liberal. It’s an easy fit. Abnegations may “reject vanity” and wear drab clothes in shades of gray, but that doesn’t mean a girl can’t have makeup, lip gloss and highlights, never a hair out of place.

When teens hit a certain age, they go through “The Test” and are told where their strengths lie. And like a college kid declaring a major, there is a “Choosing Ceremony” where you cut your hand and with a drop of blood, declare your faction — for life.

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