Directed by Robert Schwentke, written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback, from the novel by Veronica Roth.
Insurgent is a dull, big-budget misfire.
What was silly but ebullient in the first film, Divergent, feels heavy-handed and irritating in its sequel. Characters who formerly seemed appealing now come across as insipid. And a storyline that stretched but didn’t break the bonds of its own internal logic now leaps headlong into ridiculousness.
Divergent was helmed by Neil Burger, director of compelling entertainments like The Illusionist and Limitless. This one is courtesy of a Schwentke, the German-born filmmaker who gave us the abysmal Flightplan and RIPD. If you’re looking for someone responsible for the downturn, it’s likely him.
In this future YA dystopia, a decaying Chicago is ringed by an enormous wall, its denizens mostly teenagers, split into factions based on their true inner qualities: honesty, intelligence, peacefulness, selflessness, or bravery. The idea that people could be somehow divided up into these groups for the sake of a peaceful coexistence is the silly part, but the first film found some imagination in its bleak if implausible vision, and lead Shailene Woodley’s charisma went a long way to making the movie, if not believable, at least watchable. Her character, Tris, is identified as Divergent, containing in her heart portions of all the five factions.
The story is really about choosing your own identity (along with the fight against fascist authority), and that’s fine. But, as I pointed out in my review of the previous movie, this is the future as seen from high school, imagining everyone in life divvied up into cliques. I was willing to indulge that cloying simplification because the first film had a certain amount of verve, but here the narrative thrust is so much more sluggish.
Tris (Woodley again) is hiding out in rural Amity (the peace-lovers) with Four (Theo James) and the asshole, Peter (Miles Teller), who all escaped the clutches of Erudite overlord Jeanine (Kate Winslet, the best thing in the movie), and are trying to muster enough support to go back into town and incite revolution. Further complicating things is Factionless, a group of punk teens led by Four’s mother, a raven-haired Naomi Watts. Four hates her for some reason. Finding allies in Candor (the painfully honest ones, natch’) they’re attacked by the Dauntless traitorous muscle, including Eric (Jai Courtney). Tris is wanted by Jeanine and her Erudite forces to open a magic box left by the founders of the city. Apparently only a total Divergent can open this box and reveal its secrets.
Unfortunately, Woodley’s Tris is sullen and dour this time around, without the sense of wonder her character exuded in the first film. I get that her parents died and her brother (Ansel Elgort) is a total zero, but being terminally miserable and self-piteous doesn’t make her a lot of fun to be around. James’ Four isn’t much better; when he rages against his mother, he just comes off as petulant.
Schwentke stages a few passable action sequences—Four’s leap past a locomotive is impressive, as is the fight on the train, though Tris defies the laws of physics on more than one occasion to save someone hanging from a high place by grabbing onto their hand as they fall, even though she’s probably 90 lbs. soaking wet. The action star requirements are beyond her, another problem with Insurgent.
At the core, Schwentke can’t overcome the contrivance plotting with any kind of genuine directorial flourish: characters are led around by the nose, puppets in a predetermined plot of convenience where stuff happens and the audience just has to go along with it, whether it actually makes any sense or not.
Any suspense feels accidental, because the stakes—revolving around a 3D simulated reality in the last act—feel about as high and gripping as doing your driver’s test in a video game. Maybe the teenagers who this film is aimed at will relate, but I somehow doubt it.