Read it and weep, Divergent fans (Initiates? Divergettes?) – the only uprising that Insurgent could ever incite might be in its audience, leaping out of their seats and making a beeline for the theater doors. They’d be justified in doing so; after all, no fan, however faithful, likes the sensation of being cheated, and this stale, stagnant sequel, with its premium on special effects and failure to pull any genuine emotion out of its muddled plot, is a large-scale con job. Tonally confused, thematically misguided and blatantly cobbled together from other dystopian YA franchise pics, it makes a strong case for retiring the increasingly oversaturated genre.
The first Divergent movie was not, contrary to popular opinion, a simple Hunger Games clone. Predictable, yes, and bland, in places. But despite its shortcomings, the film boasted a strong female protagonist (Shailene Woodley’s gutsy Tris Prior) aware and in control of her mind and body, and that was enough for this reviewer. Tris’ self-possession and relatability, coming on the heels of Katniss Everdeen, an expert archer with supermodel looks who’s always someone’s pawn, was frankly refreshing.
So, it’s doubly crushing to report that Insurgent has buried its franchise’s most important and individual component – Tris herself. Gone are the moments of inner fire and fierce intelligence from the character. Gone, too, are the progressive gender politics and any nuanced treatment of her independence. Lamentably, Tris has become a bystander in her own franchise, a passive damsel in distress perpetually reliant on buff beau Four (Theo James) to save her from the machinations of evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the political leader who wants her dead for not fitting into societal factions. It’s a dismaying and devastating slide backwards for the series, one that suggests Lionsgate and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, Brian Duffield and Mark Bomback never understood the appeal of Veronica Roth’s books to begin with.
Their script picks up soon after the explosive conclusion of the first film, in which Tris and Four fled the city after preventing Jeanine from carrying out a cull of the Abnegation faction. Fugitives from the law, the pair are as disturbed by Jeanine’s continued rise to power as they are frustrated by their inability to stop it. When Jeanine comes after the Divergents once more, searching for someone powerful enough to open an ancient message container (read: MacGuffin) she believes holds the secret to purging all the Divergents, Tris, still scarred from being forced to kill a friend who was under Jeanine’s control, realizes she must bring the fight to her before it’s too late.
If that description sounds vague, that’s because it’s pretty difficult to describe the plot of a movie in which seemingly nothing happens. Insurgent suffers from sequel syndrome, unfolding as a leaner, darker, more protracted continuation of its predecessor. And although action abounds (some of it surprisingly brutal, from forced suicides to a central character’s execution at the hands of another), it can’t hide that, as the middle film in the franchise, it has no real purpose outside of maintaining the first film’s pace and setting up for the next two (God help us). For all the sprinting, jumping, punching, kicking and shooting on display, Insurgent feels like it’s running in place.
It doesn’t help that, with the exception of a perfectly devilish Miles Teller (as the duplicitous Peter), the performances here are resolutely solemn. Woodley continues to serve as the franchise’s guiding light, bringing conviction and complexity to her protagonist. James, meanwhile, perfects his bad-boy smolder. Any heat between them, unfortunately, is lukewarm. In smaller roles, Ansel Elgort snivels, Jai Courtney snarls and Zoe Kravitz scowls, and they all look weary of their one-note parts. Why the long faces? For a teen-targeted dystopian action/adventure, Insurgent is often too brooding for its own good, never acknowledging the fantastical, escapist nature of its premise.
Some in the supporting cast try to add a spark of life to the proceedings, from Octavia Spencer’s predictably sage Amity leader to Winslet’s ice queen villain. None can stand against Insurgent‘s deluge of special effects, though. The film is narratively slight, and director Robert Schwentke tries to compensate by pulling Tris through some impressively rendered but intrinsically pointless simulations, designed to test her Divergence and administered by Jeanine in hopes of opening that aforementioned container. As expensive as a lot of the CGI looks, it proves a disastrous waste of the budget, fluffing up the movie in ways both distracting and stunningly dull. When all the blockbuster action is happening inside Tris’ head, it turns out, the stakes feel near nonexistent. It’s hard to get invested in the actions of a character who you know is going to wake up at any minute.
Even when Tris is wide awake, though, her lethargy is off-putting. Whereas the character previously demonstrated a strong autonomy and agile mind, she has been essentially declawed, demolished and reassembled into a meeker, wimpier protagonist, unable to do much of anything for herself – forget saving her whole society, Tris is more than busy enough struggling with her own self-perception. It’s a crushing blow to fans that the dull-as-a-doornail Four has somehow succeeded Tris as a heroic badass. The guy cuts a commanding figure on screen, for sure, and he dispatches opponents with all the ease and emotion of a Terminator, always arriving just in time to safely extricate Tris from whatever bind she’s gotten herself into. But that a capable and complicated action heroine has been knocked down to a supporting role in her own franchise – as Four takes on an entire army of heavily armed soldiers, Tris’ biggest struggle is in her own head – is as dispiriting as it sounds.
A newcomer could be forgiven for thinking that the Divergent series is about a tattooed, hulking heartthrob and his tremulous, traumatized and danger-prone girlfriend. That’s what’s so damnably disappointing about this sequel – on top of messing with viewers’ heads enough to deflate any investment in the narrative, supplementing its thin plot with obnoxiously over-the-top special effects and even failing to stand on its own, Insurgent makes the fatal error of sidelining its real star.
The only uprising that the regressive, repetitive and recycled Insurgent could ever incite might be in its viewers, rising up out of their seats and making a beeline for the theater doors.