The second film in the Divergent movie series is thankful for Shailene Woodley. She's great, but the film around her struggles to impress.
How do you approach sequel-making for a film that was almost universally recognised as a three star picture at best? Well, Divergent made a healthy $280+ million worldwide, so there must have been a temptation to ignore the middling reception and just roll out a generic sequel that re-treads similar ground. And to start with, that seems to be what Insurgent offers.
Kate Winslet reintroduces us to Veronica Roth’s world with a jargon-filled video message that reminds us of the important facts: that society here is divided into factions, everyone lives within a wall, and the freaky Divergents who can transcend personality groups (assigned at GCSE option sort-of age) are perceived as dangerous. This is intercut with footage of government foot-soldiers wreaking mild havoc, just to remind us that Winslet’s Jeannine is a baddie and we probably shouldn’t trust what she says anyway.
It’s about as effective as having The Empire Strikes Back begin with Darth Vader vlogging about how great the Empire is cross-cut with footage of Stormtroopers shooting at people (inaccurately, of course). It just isn’t exciting, and won’t do much to convince those who are trying hard to give the franchise a second chance. Sadly, what Shailene Woodley’s Tris is up to in the meantime is hardly likely to thrill you either. Is she trying to hijack the feed? Maybe she’s breaking in while Jeannine is busy YouTube-ing? Nope, Tris and co have decided to hide out with officially-most-boring-faction, Amity (the violence-hating hippy ones).
It is not a strong start, and there’s not much of the likeable everygirl left in Tris as she debates murdering Jeannine and puts a knife to Miles Teller’s throat within the first five minutes. Naturally, the main cast are soon found by the villains and must escape their new hideout as it crumbles around them and enemy forces invade. Hey, maybe this is The Empire Strikes Back after all.
It’s not the only parallel either, as the charisma-challenged Four (Theo James) is soon bumping into someone we thought gone, and the goodies must hide among a new ally’s commune while they plan their next move against their oppressors. There’s even a bit where, upon first being put back in a room with Jeannine, Tris tries to shoot her repeatedly but the bullets don’t reach.
You might have guessed: there isn’t much original about the opening act of Insurgent. In fact, in the first hour and a bit of the film’s stretched two-hour runtime, there isn’t anything we particularly liked except for a brief trial scene. That’s when the lead characters are prodded a bit, and there’s a hint that there might be an extra layer or two to Tris that might yet bring this unspectacular franchise to a likeable end. Maybe she isn’t just a vengeful and violent teen after all.
Thankfully, the film’s third act builds on this, backtracking Woodley’s character into the hero we thought had been established in the first film. Here’s where Winslet’s Jeannine also comes into her own, and her actions help the pace finally pick up. It’s also when Insurgent suddenly seems a little less generic.
Tris finally feels like she’s being tested here, and whilst we won’t spoil what she goes through as Insurgent heads towards its ending, the action we see here is at least exciting and well-shot. What’s more, it deals with Tris’ emotional baggage much better than the standard-issue flashbacks and creepy dreams we’ve had to endure to get that far in the movie. And then, almost as suddenly, the action stops in favour of teeing up the next film. We shouldn’t have been so surprised – such is the nature of the young adult movie franchise drag-it-out-as-long-as-you-can mantra that Twilight and Hunger Games have practised before. Surprising nobody, the next book – Allegiant – is being split into two movies.
The shame is that Insurgent only just felt like it was getting going in final 40 or so minutes before the credits rolled. Up to that point? Fairly general sequel stuff, uninspired action, and the sense that the series already misses director Neil Burger (Robert Schwentke, who helmed Red and R.I.P.D, directs this one, and the next episode as well). There’s enough here to retain some interest in where the Divergent movie series heads next. But two films in, it’s clear that we’re a long way from The Hunger Games here.
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