Movie Review: “Insurgent”

Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer
Robert Schwentke

No movie franchise embodies the term “meh” better than the “Divergent” tetralogy, because although the second installment is a competently made sci-fi thriller, it suffers from many of the same problems as the last movie – namely, a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion. You’d think the fact that “Insurgent” isn’t bogged down by the same tedious exposition would allow the film to dig deeper into its characters and mythology, but you don’t learn much more about the main players by the end of the movie than when it began. That might be forgiven if author Veronica Roth’s universe was the least bit interesting, but the whole faction concept is so silly and contrived that it’s a wonder no one thought to question it sooner. And to think there’s an entire faction dedicated to intelligence.

“Insurgent” picks up several days after the events of the first film, with Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) denying involvement in the attack on Abnegation, instead placing the blame on Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James) and the rest of their sympathizers, who have since sought refuge with Amity. When Jeanine recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she sends bulldogs Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer) to round up Divergents to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris and Four unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – which is led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that “special one” Tris is the key to unlocking the film’s MacGuffin, which apparently doesn’t even appear in Roth’s novel, because there isn’t a single original idea in the movie. The generic plot device doesn’t serve much purpose, either, other than to keep Jeanine busy and provide a staging ground for the special effects-heavy final act that puts Tris through a series of virtual reality simulations designed to test her aptitude in all five factions. The problem, however, is that with the exception of the final 20 minutes and a few small character moments, “Insurgent” doesn’t do enough to progress the overarching story to warrant an entire film. The big reveal at the end will undoubtedly change the direction of the series going forward, and hopefully for the better, but the real question is whether anyone will still care by that point.

Unlike some of the more successful YA adaptations (“The Hunger Games,” Harry Potter), the “Divergent” series has never been very appealing. The world is boring, the characters are boring, and even the action feels safe and sanitized. In fact, the only thing it does have going for it is the fantastic cast. Woodley and James deliver solid performances as the two leads, while Winslet and Miles Teller (as the calculating Peter) are smartly given bigger roles this time around, with Teller, in particular, adding some much-needed levity to the proceedings. Watts, Octavia Spencer and Daniel Dae Kim are also great additions to the cast as various faction leaders, but their involvement means even less screen time for actors like Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson and Zoe Kravitz, who have maybe a dozen lines of dialogue between them.

Unfortunately, no amount of talent can disguise the numerous issues plaguing the film, especially when it wastes so much time doing nothing. Though Tris and Four are constantly moving from one location to the next, they don’t really accomplish anything of value, like students who are assigned busy work by a substitute teacher. The end of “Divergent” seemed to point towards a move outside the walls surrounding the dystopian Chicago, and yet the entirety of “Insurgent” is set within those very walls, suspending its characters in narrative limbo in order to slog through a whole novel of mostly filler. Director Robert Schwentke, who should consider himself lucky that any studio would hand him the keys to a major franchise after the disastrous “R.I.P.D.,” tries to raise the stakes by putting Tris in a perpetual cycle of danger, but due to the nature of these book-to-film franchises, you already know that she’s going to be safe. After all, it’s only the second movie, and there are still two more to go.

“Insurgent” could have been the “Catching Fire” of the “Divergent” film series, building on the original premise in bold and fresh new ways, but instead, it’s more like “Mockingjay: Part I,” a sluggish, twiddle-your-thumbs chapter that’s more about the setup than the payoff. Then again, that was the excuse for the first movie, and with the third and final book (“Allegiant”) being split into two films, it’s hard to imagine the same won’t be said about the next installment as well. For a series loaded with potential, it’s been nothing but a disappointment thus far, because while “Insurgent” does get a few things right along the way, they’re completely overshadowed by the general dullness of the rest of the movie.