Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015)

The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015)

Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language

After I found myself pleasantly surprised by Divergent last year, seeing in it quite a bit more than the derivative young-adult adaptation/Hunger Games ripoff I was expecting, I marked my calendar for its sequel, The Divergent Series: Insurgent. I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up, because despite a talented cast, some quality moments, a heap of visual style, and a toning down of the first film's weak romantic angle, Insurgent fails to fulfill the promise of its predecessor. It was exactly the sort of film I was expecting out of its predecessor, a ridiculous sci-fi action flick burdened by a plot that plays out like the fantasy of a high school outcast desperately seeking approval from the "cool kids" while simultaneously resenting them for being so popular.

This film follows on directly from the last one, with Beatrice "Tris" Prior (Shailene Woodley), her boyfriend Tobias "Four" Eaton (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter Hayes (Miles Teller) on the run from the oppressive government running the dystopian future Chicago. Tris and Four are both "divergent", meaning that they fail to fit into the rigid faction system that the people of Chicago has been grouped into, a system that the government insists is necessary for keeping the peace. (For more info on the faction system, see my review of Divergent, linked above.) While on the run, they meet with the remaining members of the Dauntless faction, who were all but wiped out during the events of the last movie, and hope to organize a resistance with them, the Candor faction (led by Daniel Dae Kim as Jack Kang), and the "factionless", a band of hobos led by Four's mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile, the head of the Erudite faction, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), has established an "emergency" rule over Chicago and placed the city under martial law, hoping to track down Tris, Four, and any other divergents while also using the power that they have to open a strange box taken from Tris' now-deceased mother (Ashley Judd). This box contains a message from the founders of the faction system, which Jeanine feels will be the key to ending the brewing unrest and establishing peace.

I'll give Insurgent credit for this: on a technical level, it's an exceptionally well-made film. The action scenes are far better than they have any right to be in a film like this, courtesy of director Robert Schwentke delivering a mix of fistfights, intense shootouts, and big-budget destruction in the simulations during the finale. Post-apocalyptic Chicago never looked so good as it does here. Shailene Woodley also once again kept things grounded as Tris, proving herself capable of both kicking ass and carrying the film's drama no matter how ridiculous it got. If I can take one thing away from this series, it's that Woodley desperately needs a better blockbuster to star in, because this girl is well on her way to the A-list. The rest of the cast also turns in commendable work, with Kate Winslet especially getting some time to shine in the third act after essentially being a glorified cameo in the first film.

Now that I've got the good out of the way, let's get to the bad. By that, I mean the writing, because oh does it suck. Whereas the first film managed to make the narrative around Tris and the other divergents palatable and even interesting, here it falls into exactly the sort of "look at me, I'm so special!" wish-fulfillment that I feared from that movie. The film does little to make being divergent stand out from any number of "chosen one" fantasies, with the only real characteristic that comes from being so unique being the fact that The Man wants to hunt you down and kill you because of how special you are. This movie couldn't have been more blunt about it if it suddenly started playing Good Charlotte's "The Anthem" out of nowhere. Being divergent means that you're cool, kind, selfless, smart, honest, and of course, totally badass, and it's explicitly shown multiple times that it's something you're born with, not something you learn how to do. Seriously, there's a scanning device in this movie that can tell precisely how divergent somebody is in just a few seconds, right down to the percentage, and I don't even need to spoil who's 100% Grade-A Divergent, because she's the girl on all the posters. Whereas the first film merely made it a case of not fitting into the system for whatever reason, this one takes the idea into the realm of the most extreme biological determinism, to the point where I'm now surprised that skull measurements don't figure into the faction selection process. It also has the side-effect of rendering many of the side characters in this film literally one-dimensional, even despite capable performances from them all around. It's Special Snowflake Syndrome as a plot device, and my God does it get insufferable.

It also doesn't help that so much of this film feels like narrative wheel-spinning for the third part of the trilogy, Allegiant (which, in true greedy Hollywood fashion, is being split into two films). We get a lot of, uh, divergences into stuff meant solely to set up the events of Allegiant, most notably Naomi Watts as the factionless leader Evelyn who gets little to do beyond literally pull the trigger on this film and end it. Again, just like the last film, I'll give this one points for its ending being an actual, solid ending instead of a cliffhanger, with only a sequel hook in the last minute. However, I'll very quickly revoke those points for how so little in the rest of this film makes sense without the next film in the series. If this were a standalone film, it would've been a lot shorter; many of these scenes should've been better integrated rather than left to lead into the sequel. That said... aaargh, reading the plot description for Allegiant really has me interested in seeing how this ends. Spoiling as little as possible, this film ends with The Revolution pretty much successful, while Allegiant focuses on the fallout and the new leaders' rule over the city, which turns out to be awful in its own unique way. Revelations concerning the backstory also help smooth over a lot of the more problematic elements of the series' world. At the very least, it has me hopeful for a return to form with the next film.

Score: 2 out of 5

Solid production values and Shailene Woodley aside, this is a fairly disposable sci-fi action flick whose weaknesses in the writing department bring the whole thing crashing down. Recommended only for fans of the books.

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