Insurgent (2015) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Naomi Watts, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim, Ashley Judd, Octavia Spencer, Zoe Kravitz, Jonny Weston, Tony Goldwyn, Ray Stevenson, Maggie Q
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback (based on the novel by Veronica Roth)
Review published March 22, 2015
The Divergent series is like that stick of chewing gum you popped into your mouth before a big meeting that you keep chewing on long, long, long after the flavor has gone. You want to spit it out, but don't have the opportunity, so you're stuck chewing on a flavorless wad that gets more uncomfortable and less savory to deal with by the minute.
The makers of Insurgent try, mostly in vain, to bring that flavor back into series by upping the special effects and high-octane action sequences, and another Oscar-nominated actress on board in Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) to go along with Kate Winslet (Labor Day) and Octavia Spencer (Black or White), but no amount of spit, polish, and résumé credentials can cover over the fact that this property is adapting a series of books that wouldn't (and shouldn't) have ever been green-lit into motion pictures were it not for the rabid success of the more popular dystopian future series for teens, The Hunger Games.
A word of caution: do not attempt to watch Insurgent without seeing the first film, as there is no recap to get you up to speed with this peculiar insular city housing the five factions, nor, really, does it re-explain much about what the factions comprise of, or what a 'divergent' means. In the screening I attended, one woman tried to explain to her friend just what's going on every step of the way and eventually was angrily shushed, then derided by those around them who were trying to enjoy the movie without overhearing persistent commentary. You will be lost without at least reading a synopsis of Divergent -- trust me on this. This movie's on a shark-like mission to keep moving forward without getting bogged down; there's no looking back.
Continuing right after the events of its predecessor, Tris (Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard) and her other Divergent allies find themselves fugitives from the city leader, Jeanine Matthews (Winslet), who is looking to weed out the herd of these mongrel menaces to her two-hundred-year-old society. Instead of killing them outright, however, she's corralling them for a nefarious purpose, perhaps to unlock a secret of how to deal with the Divergents, that involves someone of Divergent skills to carry through.
Replacing director Neil Burger is Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D, RED) -- here I want to note that BOTH the Hunger Games and Twilight trilogies changed directors after the first film -- no doubt brought in to try to rev up the excitement through wildly over-the-top action sequences, particularly during the film's climax that plays around with lots of virtual-reality test simulations. Yes, all that excitement you saw in the film's electric trailer is not real action you're seeing, though it would be disingenuous of me to claim there are no stakes involved, at the very least. However, the one surprise Schwentke brings to the piece is to not homogenize the heroes to the point where every violent action is due to self-defense. There are a number of assassinations on the part of 'good guys' in this film, and though they are PG-13 bloodless, it's still an area, along with a non-explicit but mildly racy love scene, where genuine risks are taken to separate it from family-friendly entertainment.
I like Woodley, and she does nail a couple of emotional scenes, which could have allowed the film to soar if we actually gave a lick about Tris, or, really, any other of the film's cardboard-plied characters. There are attempts to have Tris wracked with guilt for all of the damage and death that seems to follow her around, but given how death seems a common occurrence in general in the way the corrupt government conducts its business, there's really not much need to wail about it as much as she does. None of that stops her, in the middle of fighting for their lives, from sparking up the heat in the romance with Four, so she can't really be that fixated on it.
But what I really don't like about the Divergent series thus far is that it seems like it's trying to force its way to blockbuster franchise status. It's like that girl you're dating who seems great on paper, but the chemistry's not there for some reason, and she's insistent you'd be good together because she's such a great catch, or so she keeps telling you. It smacks of a studio looking at popular trends and a lot of box-checking to what has worked before. You want more Hunger Games teen girl who saves the world from dystopia? We've got this. You want Twilight's romance with a troubled guy with a mysterious past? We've got this. Oh, so the first one was a hit because of coat-tail riding on these other properties people are excited for, but it's not the cultural phenomenon that gets magazine covers despite carbon copying their formulas and marketing to a tee? Well, how about we toss in a bonus of throwing these characters into an explosion-fueled, glass-shattering, live-action video game (complete with achievement unlocking) to sweeten the deal? Like Beyoncé once sang, the Divergent series achingly ponders, "Why don't you love me, when I make myself so damn easy to love?"
Despite a very good set of actors and what appears to be a sky's-the-limit budget for effects, Insurgent will probably please very few but the fans of the first film. Given that I didn't care much for the first chapter, that doesn't include me. It certainly feels like a better effort all around, at least from a technical perspective, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that I wasn't overcome with stone-cold boredom for most of the film's 2-hour run time. If it's just action you're seeking, you'll get it, but without the vested interest in the story at large, it's not much more engaging than the more talky first entry. The movie sets up for the adaptation of the third book in the series, "Allegiant", which they're planning to be, in yet another blatant effort to carbon-copy the Twilight and Hunger Games series, split into two parts. I suspect that, given how hell-bent the creators of this series are to emulate whatever else is working at the box office lately, that extra time is going to be needed in order to introduce an all-American soldier, a misunderstood fairy-tale villain, a shape-shifting robot, and a dancing tree.
©2015 Vince Leo