Historically, the second film in a YA series is when the franchise really picks up. Where once there was a medium budget and studio reservations, there is now confidence and unabashedly pricy world-building. The Hunger Games really did catch fire in its sequel, and even Twilight could lure Michael Sheen aboard for a slice of ham.
So walking into The Divergent Series: Insurgent, I hoped for at least a step up from last year’s modest dystopian high school allegory. And it is at this very least that I can say Insurgent is a better-looking, more expensive film. In a few key sequences, it is even an engaging one. But a bigger budget has not been able to buy a more original premise for this endlessly factionalized world—Insurgent is still a tentpole divided by a dozen or so better filmic and literary influences.
The Divergent Series: Insurgent picks up some weeks directly after the previous film that saw Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) go on the run following the slaughtering of Tris’ parents, and the rest of her childhood faction, Abnegation. In theory, the ruins of post-apocalyptic Chicago are still inhabited by the five factions of Abnegation, Dauntless, Candor, Amity, and Erudite. But now, it all seems to have gone to pot since Erudite, led by an increasingly bored looking Kate Winslet as the evil Jeanine, brainwashed or bribed most of Dauntless to slaughter Abnegation over a cryptic and arcane macguffin.
To open a newfound mystery box, Jeanine ironically needs a Divergent—a person who shows an aptitude for more than one of those five SAT prep words. And as it turns out, there are varying degrees of Divergent with the only 100 percent(!) Divergent person in this world being…Tris Prior.
So, after some brief moments of agrarian peace for Tris, Four, loud mouthed Peter (Miles Teller), and Tris’ limp-wristed brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), it is time to run again as Jeanine’s lackies come calling—desperate to put Tris in a virtual reality simulator that will somehow miraculously open this box.
Oh, and Four happens to be related to an underground “Factionless” group of revolutionaries that just so happens to have waited until this exact moment to strike.
To say Insurgent is exposition-heavy is to suggest that the Titanic might have a water problem. Yet, the Divergent sequel has one very humanistic ace up its sleeve in Shailene Woodley. The actress returns to the franchise that made her a global star, and as indebted to Tris Prior for this parkour leap in her career, Woodley seems eager to please in spite of the same character’s lame limitations. Lacking the alluring fire of Hazel from Fault in Our Stars and, quite quizzically for a YA revolutionary, the rebellious defiance she exhibited in The Descendants, Woodley’s Tris is a bit of a wet blanket.
Despite being the super special Divergent of this universe (100 percent!), Tris is strangely passive in her own story. Until literally the last 10 minutes of Insurgent, Tris has the rubbery invincibility of John McClane for the action set-pieces, but otherwise fades to the background as her boyfriend Four or the dastardly Jeanine call all the shots, making her the damsel in distress in an action vehicle she should be driving.
Unfortunately, as the respectively stoic brooding square jaw and the mercurially evil high school principal, Theo James and Kate Winslet are likewise left adrift. The sole color in this drab and thinly sketched world is brought in by bit supporting work from Octavia Spencer, Daniel Dae Kim, and Miles Teller. However, other than Teller, they’re all in the film too briefly to save it from expositional patchwork banality. Teller does manage to enjoy some scenery chewing as the smug smartass cad—so it’s a typical Miles Teller role.
Yet, the core problem remains the world in which they inhabit. In the previous entry, I was distracted by how much of Lois Lowry this Veronica Roth yarn “borrowed.” Still if derivative, those basic themes of adolescent confusion about one’s place in the world provided a durable character thread for Tris in this impossibly designed high school cafeteria of a society. But in Divergent, there is no rhyme or reason to the liberal reappropriations of The Hunger Games, The Matrix, Inception, Logan’s Run, and even a little bit of the Joker’s ultimatum from The Dark Knight. None of it gels into a cohesive whole, leaving the screenplay by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback to meander from one plot point to the next without a momentary awareness about how immutable it all can be.
Director Robert Schwentke gets to show off a little more than Neil Burger did, and during the virtual realities that Jeanine’s dream-machine induces for Tris, there are genuine moments of visual bedazzlement. However, since we know so little about Tris’ blank slate personality, it is ultimately moot. The one genuine moment of pathos and authentic contemplation is in the film’s first five minutes when Tris decides to cut her hair while in mourning for her parents—a sequence partially added to the film to explain away Woodley’s pixie locks after filming Fault in Our Stars.
Abnegation, Erudite, et al. are more than faction titles; they’re the sole indicators of each character’s scant personality and function. Tris Prior might have traits of all five, but if you took those words away and tried to describe her or her world, there would be nothing left to say. In this universe, “divergent” also appears to be a euphemism for milquetoast.
I try to diverge into all sorts of movie and television talk on Twitter @DCrowsNest.