If gobbledygook was gold, Insurgent would be Ft. Knox.
The Divergent Series: InsurgentDirector: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Red Wagon
UK Release Date: 2015-03-19
US Release Date: 2015-03-20
When the history of Hollywood's post-millennial obsession with YA fiction is written, the Harry Potter saga and The Hunger Games will sit securely at the top of the heap, while slapdash future shock like the Divergent series will be viewed as what it is: a box office cash grab that somehow managed to make it past the flawed first film in its series. It lacks the human core that makes these films resonate with audiences while avoiding the awfulness that comes from being on either Team Edward or Team Jacob.
Still, this is 2015, and Hollywood believes that every up and coming starlet needs a genre vehicle to legitimize her place among the industry's upper tier. Oscar winner Lawrence has Katniss to consider, while Chloe Grace Moretz had to suffer through If I Stay. Another member of this YA brigade is Shailene Woodley. After wowing audiences in The Descendents, she's been the poster girl for adolescent literature, appearing in The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, and, of course, this dopey bit of bullspit. Luckily, her talent transcends such traps, if just barely.
The movies themselves are mediocre, with this latest installment arguing for the diminishing returns of such scattershot speculation. The first film introduced us to a future Chicago where the population has been preselected into five distinct factions (brains, peace, truth, etc.), with only the Factionless and the Divergent threatening the rule of law. When Tris Prior (Woodley) is determined to be one of the most powerful aberrations ever, ruler of the realm, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet... seriously?) wants her dead.
Now, our heroine, along with boyfriend/bo-hunk Four (Theo James), her cowardly brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and overall troublemaker Peter (Miles Teller) have escaped to the peaceful agrarian realm of Amity, where they are soon uncovered by Jeanine's right hand muscle, Eric (Jai Courtney). On the run again, Tris and her pals end up in a Factionless area where their leader, Four's supposedly dead mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts), wants their help in overthrowing the government. In the meantime, Jeanine has uncovered an ancient rune which supposedly contains a message from the past. She needs a strong divergent to open it, and guess who fits the bill?
If gobbledygook was gold, Insurgent would be Ft. Knox. It violates the first rule of successful science fiction in that it fails to create a set of firm rules that the characters -- and the author -- need to live by. Instead, author Veronica Roth, as filtered through a trio of screenwriters (Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback) keeps reinventing the various dystopian concepts that created her franchise in the first place. Even though they all live in a finite space, those in charge seem to find it impossible to locate the various enemies of said state. Even worse, instead of plotting ways to keep the two sides apart, the narrative keeps throwing them back together in more and more convoluted manners.
Take the mid-movie aside when Tris and Four are "put on trial" by the populace of Candor. Aside from the arcane nature of their legal system, the whole sequence is nothing more than padding, a way to keep the story from being shortened to something less than a multi-film "international phenomenon". Sure, the actors get to emote, but it's all for naught. The main purpose of Insurgent is to get Jeanine and Tris back in the same room, to have them go toe to toe as the shape of things to come hangs in the balance. During the finale, the film does indeed come to life. Before then, it's all nonsensical exposition and shots of Woodley worrying.
Now, it goes without saying that not every YA adaptation has been successful. The aisles of your local Wal-Mart are festooned with failed attempts at mimicking Harry Potter and his billionaire creator, J.K. Rowling. So the fact that we are on installment number two of the Divergent series means that, on some level, audiences like what they see. But the truth is that, as anything other than visual representations of bestselling books, these movie are mediocre at best. The subject matter suggests risk; the execution argues ennui.
Then there is the acting, a surreal combination of competence and paycheck cashing. On one end of the spectrum is Woodley and Winslet. The former finds a single note to play -- exasperated -- and sticks with it for nearly two hours. Only when presented with the artifact test does she add any other dimensions. Winslet also works within a cement-like ideal. Hers is stern anger, and she never lets up. In fact, if it wasn't for Miles Teller cracking wise every few minutes, everyone in Insurgent appears dour for the sake of same. Even worse, we don't really invest ourselves in the outcome. We know we are headed for another last book/two film split, so most of what we see here is mere place holding.
Balanced precariously between the best (The Hunger Games) and worst (Twilight), the Divergent series, and Insurgent in particular, proves that even a bad B-movie made with questionable talents can still find an audience eager to transfer the images in their mind to paid performers on a screen. This latest entry is not an outright awful film, but it does remind viewers that, sometimes, the source is preferable to the revision.