Divergent is a film that I initially skipped last year, having been unimpressed by the trailers and lack of any buzz generated by its release. Judging from the marketing alone, it seemed safe to make the assumption that it had nothing to offer…nothing that made it stand out from the glut of young-adult, book-to-movie adaptations currently available. 2014 continued onward and Divergent vanished from my radar without a second thought.
So I was surprised a few months ago when Divergent’s sequel, Insurgent, began its marketing campaign. I was intrigued by the effects-laden insanity on display in the trailers, and how drastically different this appeared from the first film. Why was the heroine leaping and swinging across a desolate cityscape, chasing after a woman encased in a floating house? My curiosity had been sparked in ways other YA adaptations (Percy Jackson, Mortal Instruments, and Beautiful Creatures) had not. I wondered if this movie could actually live up to the gonzo scenarios and high-ideas promised by its trailers?
Well, no. It doesn’t.
Insurgent picks up only days after the end of Divergent and has our heroine, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) dealing with the aftermath of the former film’s conclusion. Tris and her companions find themselves being hunted once again by the political figure, Jeanine (Kate Winslet). This time, instead of killing the “divergents”, she wants to use them to open a magical mystery box, which she believes will be the solution to solving the “divergent problem” once and for all. This basic premise leads to the plot often seeming exceedingly simplistic and slight, while also being overly complex and busy – most notably in the Insurgent’s first half. The story is nothing new or groundbreaking, and plays it relatively safe using well-established tropes.
Having not read any of the books that these films are derived from, there are a lot of character motivations that seemed underdeveloped and rushed. Even the central conflict between Jeanine and the “divergents” isn’t fully realized. In Divergent, it is made abundantly clear how dangerous “divergents” can be, but no one is able to articulate why in either of the two films.
It leaves me to ponder: What exactly drives Jeanine’s contempt for the Divergents? What harm comes from Divergents blending into a faction they don’t fully belong to? At least in The Hunger Games, it is clearly conveyed that the motives of the “bad” guys revolve around keeping the commoners oppressed in order to allow themselves the privilege of leading rich and decadent lives. It’s the commonly understood “bad guy” trope of greed that drives them. Judging solely from what is presented in Divergent and Insurgent, I am left clueless as to why “divergents” are being persecuted to an extreme extent.
In addition to lacking true personal motive, Jeanine proves to be a very bland and underwritten character, giving Kate Winslet nothing to do in this role of generic villain. You could swap her for any other actress and the results would be the same. It’s a forgettable role that spawns an equally forgettable performance. I am thoroughly convinced that the only character note for Jeanine in the script was “cold demeanor”.
Faring much better, are Shailene Woodley (Tris) and Theo James (Tris’ boyfriend, and ally Four) who are both remarkable in their respective roles. There is a palpable chemistry between the two that sells the flimsily-written romance. You can tell the two actors are giving everything they have to their roles. Regrettably, Theo James isn’t provided much depth to work with, ultimately bouncing between two notes: the ever-adoring boyfriend and the quick-tempered hothead.
The rest of the cast is filled with talented actors such as Octavia Spencer, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim, and Naomi Watts, though most of them could be considered glorified cameos. It could be assumed most of them appear in Insurgent to serve as placeholders for what will be bigger roles in future films. Miles Teller is another solid addition to the ensemble as Tris’ frenemy, Eric, who seems to be the only one allowed to have any fun.
Most of the criticisms I had with Insurgent are among the same broad criticisms I have with young-adult adaptations, in general: 1) They often feel thinly scripted, making it necessary for a viewer to have previous familiarity with the original literary material. 2) They showcase a number of cookie-cutter characters. 3) They contain plot-servicing dialogue lacking flavor, levity, or wit. 4) There is often an abundance of absurd, laughable names that are hard to follow, and 5) Many YA adaptations seem to be nothing more than slight variations of the same stories and plotlines, over and over.
Insurgent’s dialogue, story, and (I assume) its source material have been holding the series back from being great and noteworthy. Its middling story did manage to catch me off guard with some last-minute twists and turns in the climax. The film unexpectedly veers away from its connect-the-dot story beats in the final act, which left me hopeful for future installments.
Something else I appreciate is the willingness for the story to delve into darker themes, exploring some really twisted places. During the second act of the film, a group of kids brainwashed by Jeanine attempt to lure Tris out of hiding demanding she turn herself into the authorities. In order to tug at her conscience (a known trait of her original faction, Abnegation), they threaten that more casualties will follow, right before leaping to their own deaths. This is downright shocking for an adaptation aimed at younger audiences, but really helps the series stand apart and feel unique. Moreover, these moments lend the film higher stakes and allow the audience to feel more invested in the material.
One of my chief complaints with Divergent was that it felt a little bloated. Thankfully, Insurgent trims off most of the fat and moves at a much brisker pace, allowing you to easily forgive the generic dialogue and standard story beats.
Neil Burger’s direction in Divergent was competent enough, though only the dream-like testing sequences made any lasting impressions. Love it or hate it, Robert Shcwentke has stepped in as the replacement director, and the imaginative visuals he brings to Insurgent are memorable, and in my opinion, a drastic step-up from Divergent. While it may feel a little too inspired by Inception at times, the visual effects are better than they have any right to be. This feels like an actual big, blockbuster movie, with more intricate set-pieces and better set design. The sets all look fantastic and offer something unique in comparison to each other. The judicious Candor faction’s sleek and sparse building design is radically different compared to the Amity’s cobbled-together, nature-centric commune.
Overall, Insurgent manages to be an improvement over its predecessor, though sadly it’s not the drastic uptick in quality needed to make this a classic, or even a great movie. Nevertheless, there is a level of care felt in all aspects of the filmmaking and acting that can’t be denied. It is evident that everyone involved desperately wants this series to prevail in a marketplace crowded with YA adaptations. Luckily, Insurgent succeeds more often than not, leaving me intrigued and cautiously optimistic for the final chapter in the Divergent series. Fingers crossed that we don’t get another uneventful and meandering “Part 1” (I’m looking at you The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1).