Film Review – Insurgent
When last we saw Tris (Shailene Woodley) in last year’s Divergent (2014), she was on the run with her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), love interest Four (Theo James), and all around smart ass Peter (Miles Teller) from the evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and the clutches of the Erudite class. As a refresher: this universe is broken into different “factions,” where each person is designated a role based on their personality and skill set. Tris – as it were – is “divergent,” meaning she has qualities of all five factions. This does not bode well for good ole’ Jeanine, who make it her personal goal to take down all divergent people to maintain order in this dystopian society.
And so we arrive at Insurgent (2015) picking up right where the last one left off. Robert Schwentke takes the director chair this time, relieving duties from Neil Burger. Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback all take credit in adapting Veronica Roth’s novel. For the most part, the tone and style of the first film has carried over. If you liked the first one, chances are there will be a lot to like this time. For me, I was lukewarm with Divergent, and so my reaction here is about the same, maybe less so. In a time where YA adaptations have run seemingly out of control in theaters, this franchise has made a grievous error in not establishing its own identity. Its biggest weakness is its inability to stand out from the pack, resulting in a story that feels bland and lifeless.
It also doesn’t help that it is the middle section of a continuing series. Insurgent has the difficult task of being the second act, without the convenience of a satisfying beginning or ending. The plot jumps in on the run, with Tris and Caleb trying to find and recruit other members of the badass Dauntless faction to fight against Jeanine and the rest of the Erudites. Their journey has them coming face to face with the “Factionless”: a group of ragtag hooligans that don’t belong to any particular group. No, no, they’re not divergent like Tris. Instead of having bits and pieces of all other factions, the Factionless don’t belong anywhere. That’s got to suck; not only do they have to deal with not belonging to the greater society, they also have to come to grips with not having any legitimate skills to work with…or something like that.
There are a lot of good actors working here. Shailene Woodley is a talented young actress, Kate Winslet is one of the best actresses of her time, and Miles Teller is fresh off of Whiplash (2014) one of last year’s best films. And yet, the material assigned to them fall well below their standards. Of the ensemble, Teller is perhaps the most memorable if only through his onscreen charisma. He gets a number of laughs throwing quips out the side of his mouth. Woodley does what she can to carry the story, trying to breathe life into her character even when everything is pushing against her. And Winslet – who has been the franchise’s main villain so far – remains a closed book. We learn nothing about Jeanine outside of her blind hate for divergents and her desire to capture them for her own purposes.
At the very least, Schwentke had the opportunity to highlight this entry with stylized action. Because we’ve already been introduced to this world, there is more of an emphasis on fight scenes, chases, and shootouts. Schwentke infuses a propulsive momentum; there are very few moments where he keeps still. The first half showed promise with its relentless nature. As tensions mount, we see both sides gear up for a big showdown. Sadly, that promise is never fulfilled as the narrative takes a sharp turn halfway through and ignores everything it has built up. I can’t get into detail without giving away spoilers, but I’ll say that it involves Tris finding her inner strength and capability. I had very little interest in this, since we saw the exact same thing happen the first time. In fact, I was more engaged with what everybody else was doing instead of Tris’ personal self-discovery. Is it too much to ask an action movie to include some decent mayhem at the climactic moment?
In most adaptations, filmmakers have to deal with taking the source material and truncating it down so it can be coherently translated on screen. My feeling is that this series went in the opposite direction, where the material had to be expanded to fit multiple films. Insurgent runs almost precisely two hours long but has only enough material for half of that time. I wish there was more to say, but for something that does very little to distinguish itself, there isn’t much more to add. If one were to see this and call it an accomplished sci-fi action adventure, I would suggest watching more sci-fi action adventures.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actor Jai Courtney.