"Insurgent" is a Directionless Heroine’s Journey

Young adult novels have remained fertile ground for film series ever since the Twilight series began in 2008. While there have been numerous notable failures in the years since, Hollywood has found new life in a subgenre of this subgenre – the post-apocalyptic young adult novel. While The Hunger Games remains the crossover flag bearer of the genre, The Divergent Series is making waves in its wake. But the series has some clear issues that keep it from being a real success. Most of these weaknesses are on display, if not exacerbated, in the sequel Insurgent.

Based on the second book in the series by author Veronica Roth, Insurgent follows Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) as they run from Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and the faction that is trying to take over post-apocalyptic Chicago. Tris and Four are Divergent, meaning they fit into more than one of the five factions that people are separated into based on their personalities and can overcome mental simulations that can control others. Now they are fighting to save their own lives, stop Jeanine, and protect the many people who may be targeted in her path toward domination.

The world of Insurgent is meant to show the power of Divergents and their unique nature through dream simulations, high stakes, and strange technology that is based on thoughts and fears. It makes for a strange blend in an ill-defined world where sometimes people shoot each other with real bullets. Other times it’s with knock-out injections. Sometimes everything is a dream. Sometimes it’s a simulation. Above all, the themes of becoming a unique individual and the importance of growth are what these films seem to be centered on in the end. However, the narrative, characters, and overall quality of Insurgent is simply not strong enough to make these themes hit home.

The first film in the series was primarily focused on Tris coming to understand herself and develop a relationship with Four. While Divergent did end with a battle to save the city, its strongest parts were in the little character moments, which easily trumped the only passable narrative of the story and world. Insurgent swaps out the vast majority of those character pieces for fast-paced action and dream sequences drowning in slow motion CGI. It’s not that these sequences are poorly done, although they certainly don’t set new bars for film action, it’s that they aren’t particularly interesting in the narrative scope.

While the central idea may be about understanding yourself and becoming an individual, the concepts in the story end up being quite silly to the point of standing out like a sore thumb at times. If Tris and Four are on the run, why don’t they leave the city to stay safe from Jeanine? If there are so few people left in the city, how come every divergent hasn’t already been caught? How come Tris can’t dominate every simulation she is forced into since she’s divergent and showed in the first movie that she can manipulate her simulations? Since one or two factions seem to control all the weapons, why are the other factions not worried about a hostile takeover? If Chicago is all that’s left of the world, why don’t people go out and explore or expand? Why do so many people trust characters that just scream untrustworthiness? Who is Jeanine yelling at in so many sequences when no one is around her? Will this movie ever stop begging me to question its central logic?

It doesn’t help that the driving force of the narrative is one giant MacGuffin in the form of an old box that must be unlocked by a Divergent. It goes unexplained for almost the entire runtime, leaving the motivations for both villains and heroes alike to be frustratingly malformed. While MacGuffins are classic movie tropes that insight action, such as The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the narratives and characters that surround them are thrilling and fully formed. The same can’t be said for the meandering trials, truth serums, and tribulations that make up much of Insurgent.

Speaking of villains and heroes, almost every character in Insurgent is stuck in either good or bad mode. While most of the actors put in fine performances, there is little to work with. Which is why anyone with at least a little depth stands out among the crowd. Tris is a good heroine and is nicely portrayed by Woodley, who makes her into a proactive, if somewhat reckless, protagonist. The devious Peter is also a standout, not only because he has a more dynamic character arc than most, but because he’s brought to life by Miles Teller, who is clearly one of the best actors in this series. He may have far less screen time than Four, but he’s not saddled with a stoic and rather boring character.

In addition, the emotional beats and characters arcs found in Insurgent are half baked. While the main characters are meant to be dealing with the fallout from the first film, which saw many friends and family members killed, there is little depth to it all. Instead of seeing Tris, Four, and others struggle with their trauma, they simply state what they feel in moments that are crammed between pieces that continually push the story forward.

Like many films, the plot is also filled with nifty coincidences and last minute saves. I lost count of how many times a person was saved from being shot at the last moment possible from a timely interruption. Knock-out injections get turned into mind controlling devices and just happen to be seemingly irremovable, only to be removed in time for another last minute save. It’s all so convenient that it just screams to be noticed by audiences. The script notes are showing in Insurgent, and that’s never a good thing.

It’s not that all of Insurgent is a slapped-together or broken piece of film making. In fact, there are some fun developments that show why the series has gotten a loyal following. It’s just that there are far too many pieces that could be so much better if given more thought.

Without spoiling anything for those who have not seen the film or read the books, Insurgent ends with some developments that alter the world of the series and change the players who will factor into the two-part finale. But is completely upending the basis of a series two-thirds of the way in a good move for narrative flow and cohesiveness? For a series that has sold itself as a four-part installment, there’s nothing that leaves you desperate for answers or waiting with bated breath for the final installments. With so little to truly connect with and care about, it’s difficult to find interest in the continuing adventures of Tris and her compatriots in The Divergent Series.

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