In this sequel to Divergent (2014) director of 2010’s Red Robert Schwentke, injected an overwhelming dose of action-adventure superfluity into the latest staple of Hollywood cash cows: the dystopian bildungsroman.
I can’t help but wonder if a filmmaker like Iñárritu or Cronenberg will soon make a film about a washed-up Jennifer Lawrence surrogate (okay, that pitch is mine!) But Insurgent felt a bit like the second installment of the Bourne series — senseless underneath the flying bullets, the dazzling fight choreography and the CGI veneer. The film, though more tightly constructed than its predecessor, felt so robbed of substance for its stellar cast.
I already entered Insurgent dreading the chore of putting in the effort to sell myself Veronica Roth’s insane and often silly dystopian city-state of Chicago. It’s fashioned like a Hogwarts mapped onto the urban wastes of Atlanta, where it was filmed. Peace is an obligation, engineered upon its citizens through brutally-sorting individuals into five different “factions” according to personality and aptitude: Abengation (selfless and most fit to govern), Amity (peaceful farmers), Candor (honest and serving as the judiciary arm of this Chicago), Dauntless (brave and acting crazy police force), and Erudite (intelligent and evil). Of course, there are the misfits who are multi-skilled, creative and therefore a threat to society: the Divergents.
The film picks up from the end of Divergent. After committing mass genocide on Abnegation, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet,) the cold leader of the Erudites, has seized an ancient Pandora’s box. The only way to open the box is to hook it up to a Divergent individual for him or her to pass a series of five simulations embodying the characteristics of each faction. Jeanine wants the powerful secret she thinks is contained in this box; so she sends out her brainwashed Dauntless to harvest Divergents.
The only one who’s strong and special enough for the task is the Divergent Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley,) who starts out in hiding in Amity with a gaggle of boys: her boyfriend “Four” (Theo James,) her Erudite brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort,) and the magnificently rat-like Erudite-Dauntless Peter (Miles Teller.)
Tris is traumatized by the murder of her mother and father and is burdened from killing her own friend Will in self-defense. The angst from the former, which plagues her through nightmares, is understandable. The angst from the latter, however, felt so contrived — and that’s partly because her relationship with Will (and Will as a character) was little more than an afterthought in Divergent. Forced to act out such volatile emotions with so-little in the way of dramatic bone-structure, Woodley took up the task like the skilled actress she is proving to be. Her scenes of excruciating emotional torment surprisingly match the physical brutality of her numerous fighting sequences, and make her moments of clarity and epiphany, tranquil in contrast.
And speaking of battles, the film shifts its focus from adolescent angst and love to externalizing Tris’s conflicts of identity and guilt in the action-adventure formula. Less time is devoted to talk, always eventually interrupted by gunfire and explosions.
And there is but one brief but classily chaste sex scene between Tris and Four, in contrast to the copious, but admittedly steamy, teenage frustration explored in the first movie. Tris is forced to undertake as many battles on the physical plane as there are those that occur in consciousness; and those battles take place on a cool Transhumanist plane via the mysterious simulation box — and this is the core story of the movie, hammered into the audience to the very end, when Tris is forced to fight “the one she hates most.”
Naomi Watts is in this movie for some reason, and watchers of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman will probably stifle a laugh at this sentence. But she brings a disturbing delight and slightly oedipal intrigue as Four’s absentee mother. We learn that she’s the leader of the Factionless: self-explanatory outcasts. She, like Four, escaped domestic abuse. And her coyness and passion for a fundamentally populist reformation of Chicago seem so conspiratorially architected that even her own son doesn’t trust her. But she says to her son: “I am the lesser of two evils.” It’s nothing we haven’t heard accessed about society before, but Watts delivers it with more verve than it perhaps deserves.
Fans of the book will most likely be satisfied by this raucous adaptation. Audience members who haven’t read the book (which includes the author of this review) will find surprising nuggets of originality and female power in an otherwise “just another action movie.” After the winter-spring doldrums and a parade of just awful mainstream movies, Insurgent is almost welcome.