The Divergent Series: Insurgent is the clumsily titled second entry in one of the more recent attempts to spin a series out of a YA dystopia. Its predecessor introduced us to a crumbling future Chicago, the populace divided into a small set of job-based factions – lawyers, farmers, police, and do-gooders – that seems unworkable practically, theoretically, politically, economically, logically, and grammatically. No matter. These YA worlds aren’t so much real fantasy spaces as extended metaphor. Take Hunger Games, with its impactful allegory stew churning with war, propaganda, and inequality, or Twilight, a monster mash dating game cautionary tale. Divergent, on the other hand, is mainly an overheated high school analogy. No wonder the adult authority figures are universally played like patiently exasperated vice principals.
The hero is a teenager who threatens the status quo by being too awesome for any one clique to claim. Last time, our protagonist Tris (Shailene Woodley) stopped Kate Winslet’s evil plan to take over the city, but as a result had to flee to the wilderness, a hidden hippie commune run by Octavia Spencer. This time, Tris and her Factionless buddies want to get enough resources to fight back. But they don’t know Winslet has found a gold box she thinks will clinch her control over the other factions, if only she could open it. Tris, by virtue of being the single most important very special perfect super talent in all the factions, this time with the bar graph to prove it (“100% Divergent!”), is probably the key to opening it. So there’s some conflict for you. There’s not much there, just a reason to run into some chases and gunfights in between conversations with overqualified cast members.
Maybe we should think of this YA series most of all as a sort of Hollywood finishing school. It puts promising younger performers in scenes opposite great veterans who, in turn, get to be on set for only a day or two each. Woodley, along with stoic Theo James, subservient Ansel Elgort, and charm overdrive Miles Teller, hold their own against effortless screen commanding by Winslet and Spencer, Mekhi Phifer, Naomi Watts, Daniel Dae Kim, and Janet McTeer. The screenplay, cobbled together from Veronica Roth’s book by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback, wisely backs off the flimsy worldbuilding and just lets these talented people do the best they can at selling the nonsense. They lean into the adolescent motivations. It is a story about how it’s totally stressful to be too awesome. They believe it, and that’s half the battle.
Helping out is director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, R.I.P.D.), who moves the camera and provides proficient crosscutting to gin up routine action suspense in the moments when our heroes are forced to flee armed baddies. Later, he does decent work with the swoopy blinking lights and assorted vaguely familiar sci-fi trappings in the interiors. There are special effects moments involving psychological tests – virtual nightmares the must be conquered to unlock the MacGuffin – creating worlds of dissolving buildings, shattering glass, a rotating floating flaming house, and a man who evaporates into silvery fragments. Those are neat, and are tied to Woodley’s performance in some mostly effective ways. A close connection to a female protagonist is what sets Insurgent’s blandness above crushing masculine banalities of other YA competitors like The Maze Runner.
It’s overall an improvement over Divergent, a far more confident and open film, and far more watchable, too. Not only lifeless formula, it often manages to feel like a real movie hobbled by some deeply inconsequential source material. It’s watchable dreck that starts nowhere and spins its wheels, a narrative with nothing to do. Scene by scene it might work, but moments don’t connect or grow or build. The society it assembles only works as a perfect environment for narrativized teen angst, and is as tedious and impenetrable for an outsider as the real thing. If the crux of adolescent problems is the cognitive dissonance between feeling like the most important person in your world and the nagging knowledge you’re not, then this series finds the least interesting solutions.