Judging by its latest installment, the Divergent movie franchise seems to be heading in the opposite direction of its dystopian cousin The Hunger Games. While both films deal with the adventures of a bold, independent-minded heroine navigating the dangers of a post-apocalyptic future, The Hunger Games films have improved steadily since the first in the series, thanks to smart scripts, solid direction and well-plotted source material.
The same can’t be said for the second film in the Divergent series, which imagines a world carved into five distinct factions (those who don’t fit into a group are outcasts, doomed to scrounge for survival amid the ruins of the fenced-in city). Divergent presented this scenario with flair, introducing us to Tris (Shailene Woodley), the girl from Abnegation who chose to be Dauntless but must hide the truth — she’s really Divergent, harboring the talents of all five factions.
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Unfortunately, Insurgent can’t quite live up to its intriguing set up. Even if you’re curious about it, the movie is often plodding and frequently nonsensical, with action that never feels novel or exciting. There’s a been-there, done-that feel as well as the sense that we’re in a bit of a holding pattern at times, awaiting the trippy surprise ending, which sets the course for the rest of the series.
In Insurgent, which picks up a few days after the final events of Divergent, Tris and her Dauntless tutor/dreamboat boyfriend Four (Theo James) have escaped the brutal forces led by Jeanine (a chilly, forbidding Kate Winslet). Jeanine is the leader of Erudite faction, which has decided to wrest control of the government from Abnegation (charged with leadership because they’re selfless). Novelist Veronica Roth may or may not be aware that she’s equating intelligence with evil by portraying the smartest people in this society as cold-hearted, violent villains, but never mind that. Erudite wants to rule, and rule it shall.
So Tris and Four and a handful of others — including Tris’ brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort of The Fault In Our Stars) and her Dauntless nemesis Peter (Miles Teller of Whiplash) — go on the run (but first, Tris gives herself a four-star makeover despite the lack of hair product or decent lighting). They try hiding with the hippie-like, peace-loving farmers of Amity, then move on to the sleek Candor faction where the rest of their Dauntless pals are hanging out. Why Tris and Four think hiding with Candor — known for always telling the truth — is a good idea is not explained. But then again, they’re Dauntless, which means they’re reckless and brave but maybe not particularly logical.
Of course Tris isn’t really Dauntless; she’s Divergent and a deadly threat to this way of life. Like it did in the first film, this concept remains murky at the film’s start — why would people with multiple talents be so dangerous, you wonder? Wouldn’t they actually be useful in a such a bombed-out, limited society? Fear not. Insurgent addresses this question in a satisfying way, but you’ll have to wade through some unnecessary fights and chases and psychological mumbo jumbo to get to the answer. In the meantime Jeanine is determined to force Tris to turn herself in so she can perform a deadly experiment.
Tris is tormented by the deaths in the first film but mostly by the fact that her true self seems more violent than she would like. Understandable, sure, but did this inner struggle have to be framed as a physical confrontation with herself, part of a series of tests she must pass? Part of the problem with such sequences is that they’re presented as simulations. We know it, and Tris knows it. Insurgent makes a stab at trickery to create a bit more drama, but what Tris must do to pass each test is so obvious, you have to wonder how she could possibly fail knowing full well the scenario is a simulation.
Fortunately, Insurgent ends on a mysterious and intriguing note. If you don’t know where Roth is headed and what lies in store for Tris, Four and the rest, you’ll be interested in Allegiant Parts 1 and 2. Yes, the final novel will be split in two parts, a strategy that worked so well for The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. Here’s hoping it can inject more energy and creativity into this series.
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd.
Director: Robert Schwentke.
Screenwriters: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback. Based on the novel by Veronica Roth.
A Lionsgate release. Running time: 119 minutes. Intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements, brief language. Playing at: area theaters.