Thrilling action sequences get buried by piles of painfully nonsensical plot machinations.
Surprise: The action scenes in Insurgent, the follow-up to 2014’s dystopian sci-fi sensation Divergent (as if you haven’t heard), are actually pretty good. Take a late, trippy scene in which our returning, plucky heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley), sprints after her mom (Ashley Judd), who’s trapped in a room on fire and detached from its building, floating away toward the horizon. Tris scrambles across rooftops and clings to hanging electrical wires, rubble whizzing by her face, as the mass of concrete and broken plumbing threatens to fly off into the stratosphere like a child’s lost balloon. It’s a thrilling, urgent sequence that manages to feel dangerous despite it taking place within a virtual landscape. (Tris’ mom is dead and, you know, rooms don’t fly. I’ll explain in a bit.) If only Insurgent were a straight-up action movie, it may have stood a chance.
But alas, those familiar with the first film and Veronica Roth’s hit young adult book series on which the franchise is based know that the series’ focus lies not in exciting set pieces, but in an ill-conceived mythology centered on a walled-in city (formerly Chicago) that herds people into factions based on predominant personality traits. A few moments of thought reveals this faction system to be laughably illogical and impractical, and yet it there it is, the bubble of idiocy within which all of the film’s events are informed and take place. So, while the action is entertaining when judged on its own, it always leads us back to the story’s dimwitted conceit. Practicality isn’t a storytelling prerequisite (especially when it comes to sci-fi), but there’s a point where suspending one’s disbelief so actively and extensively becomes a mind-numbing chore. Just like its predecessor, Insurgent is a head-scratcher from beginning to end, further cementing the series as the inferior alternative to the mighty Hunger Games juggernaut.
Things pick up shortly after the events of the first film, with Tris and her boyfriend, Four (Theo James), sharing a light chat and a kiss on a farming compound overseen by Amity (the pacifist faction), where they’re hiding from the military forces of Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the leader of Erudite (the rich, entitled faction). Her death, Tris thinks, is the key to city-wide peace, or something. Joining the killing-machine lovebirds on the farm are Peter (Miles Teller), Tris’ Dauntless arch-rival, and Caleb (Ansel Elgort), her formerly Erudite brother, but the four hideaways get quickly disbanded when a tank-driving hoard of Jeanine’s troops, led by merciless Dauntless turncoat Eric (Jai Courtney), raids the compound in search of Tris.
Oh, that Tris. She’s so special. Jeanine’s hunting her down because she found a mysterious box in Tris’ old Abnegation home. She needs a Divergent—someone who carries the primary traits of all five factions—to open it: Contained within is a message from the architects of the city (not Chicago, the new city, the one based on segregation), and only when someone endures all five faction-themed “sims” (that floating room deal was the Dauntless sim) will its contents be revealed. There are plenty of Divergents running around, but none that Jeanine’s managed to capture have thus far been able to survive the five virtual trials. She needs a special Divergent. The best Divergent. Who do you think that could be? Hm?!!
The main appeal of female-centric young adult series like Twilight, Hunger Games, and Divergent is that they provide young girls with a powerful, brave, sought-after, special heroine to project themselves onto, thereby feeding into their wildest center-of-the-universe fantasies. Allegory is the vessel by which these stories deliver their coming-of-age messages (Insurgent‘s happens to be one of self-forgiveness), but the problem with Roth is that she piles on so much on-the-nose allegory and symbolism that her messages feel hokey and forced and obtuse. The film’s cast is talented for days, and its director, Robert Schwentke, despite having a hit-or-miss catalogue (Flightplan, R.I.P.D., RED), has proven to be a very capable filmmaker. Everyone involved is capable of making good stuff, but what ultimately does them in is the shoddy source material.
The actors are pros put forth a decent effort, though it’s clear some of them would jump ship if they could. Teller and Elgort, who’ve each found major success in the 12 months since the first film, feel a bit overqualified for their roles at this point, but they make lemons out of lemonade, particularly Teller, who plays a great, love-to-hate-him turncoat weasel. He’s always a welcome on-screen presence, especially when he manages to squeeze some real humor out of otherwise lifeless scenes with nothing but a sarcastic eyebrow raise or a shifty glance. Woodley doesn’t do the action hero thing as well as Jennifer Lawrence does, but she’s better at looking vulnerable: when she’s in pain or letting out a heartened battle cry, her voice shakes and then cracks a bit, kind of like Sia when she belts out the chorus of “Chandelier”.
Though their performances feel uninspired across the board, the older actors lend the film some gravitas. Winslet plays Jeanine as a straight-up sociopath authority figure, showing no remorse for subjecting innocent Divergents to her evil experiments (though technically, the city’s founders designed The Box and how to open it, so are they evil too?), and Naomi Watts shows up as Four’s thought-to-be-dead, insurrectionist mother and leader of a group the heroes fall in with called the “factionless” (they’re essentially the opposite of Divergents). What’s strange is—and forgive me if this sounds lewd—Watts (who looks insanely good for her age) seems to have more sexual chemistry with James than Woodley does, despite playing his mom. Just throwing that out there. Octavia Spencer pops up for a second as the leader of Amnity, but she’s quickly forgotten before she can make an impression.
The visual effects are impressive, especially during the inevitable simulation set pieces, though the digital effects team seems to have a strange fascination with floating rubble (tons and tons of frozen-in-time rubble). What stands out more is the tangible stuff, the fight and action choreography, which is way better than it has any right to be. A nighttime Erudite vs. Dauntless ambush sequence is the best moment in the entire series, as it actually convinces you that there are human lives at stake (instead of miraculously dodging a zillion bullets, people actually get shot).
Without spoiling too much, I will say that the forthcoming two entries in the series, the Allegiant two-parter, have hope of not being bogged down by the same nonsensical premise as the first movies. But as far as Insurgent is concerned, it’s still stuck in the muck. The reveal of what’s inside “the box” is so dumb it hurts to think about. It simply doesn’t make any sense, which seems to be this series’ unintended overriding theme. Funny thing is, during the climax, Woodley actually says, “I know it doesn’t make any sense, but you have to trust me,” to Four as he stares at her quizzically. That was worth a chuckle. If you’re able to push aside the confused machinations of the larger plot during the scenes of flashy violence, you may be able to find a bit of enjoyment in Insurgent. Beyond that, there isn’t much nice to say.