VOD film review: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
Mark Harrison | On 05, Aug 2015
Director: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Kate Winslet
Watch Insurgent online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Wisely new-to-the-franchise screenwriters Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback decide to start Insurgent with a recap of Divergent’s utterly unmemorable mythology for those who are just joining us. We open on arch-antagonist Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) explaining the young adult saga’s high school clique-writ-large dystopia to camera.
In short, this society groups its citizenry into factions based on their dominant social and personal traits, named for fancy synonyms for basic traits, including Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Abnegation and Candour. There are also Factionless rebels who travelled beyond the government’s reach rather than be classified, or Divergents like Tris and Four, who are pursued because they are smart and brave and kind and selfless and honest, instead of just one of those things. Basically, it’s what might happen if a Zimbio personality quiz took over the world.
When the action picks up, it’s three days after the end of the first film and Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) has just seen her parents killed during an attack on her home district of Abnegation. On the run with her love interest, Four (Theo James), her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and snivelling collaborator Peter (Miles Teller), she’s chased out of the peaceful district of Amity onto a train headed for Factionless territory.
There, she discovers that Jeanine is hunting down all Divergents because she needs one of them to unlock a box that contains a message from the city’s founders that she hopes will help to eliminate the Divergence problem. She sets her sights on Tris, who, as an unusually balanced young lady, might be the only one who can pass all five of the tests required to retrieve the message.
That synopsis should tell you right away that the film is labouring under the most convoluted story imaginable. Even with nowhere to go but up, though, Insurgent does represent a marked improvement over its flavourless predecessor, in part because it seems to have a better handle on its own nonsense.
The first, most immediately obvious improvement comes in the production value. Summit is the house that Twilight built and yet the fans of that series were never rewarded for the massive profits made on earlier instalments with better-looking sequels. It appears that the studio has learnt their lesson this time around: although Divergent looked drab and lifeless, Insurgent has a little more to work with in terms of set pieces from Veronica Roth’s source material, and the harrowing computer simulations at least look more like The Matrix than ITV’s The Cube.
Equally, the entire film stands as proof of the virtues of yelling “Simplify!” when working with this source material. The three screenwriters are the ones behind the box McGuffin as a way of streamlining the book’s narrative and while Robert Schwentke, replacing Neil Burger as director, makes for a fourth pair of safe hands, the adaptation benefits from their more momentous approach.
This also gives the talented young cast some more room to act. Woodley’s whole character is based on her being special for having more than one personality trait at once and it’s only by the sheer strength of her investment in Tris that the film is even slightly worth watching. Miles Teller also puts in a decent showing as Peter, even though it’s often difficult to tell why his character is still around.
On the downside, we still have Theo James, an actor caught between looking like two Franco brothers with less than half the charisma of either of them, clunking along, and a mercifully brief role for Jai Courtney, taking a break from murdering 1980s franchises to lead the manhunt for our heroes.
The grown-up cast still linger in that cushy Hogwarts-style cul-de-sac, enjoying the retainer that comes with a large franchise without having to do too much when they do show up. Winslet makes a sufficiently bitchy villain, while incoming faction leaders played by Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Daniel Dae Kim are largely poised to play bigger roles in the two-part finale.
There are sporadic standout moments, including one particularly nasty display of power from Jeanine, involving her mind control technology and a high ledge, and the final showdown serves to shed some light on what the point of all this might be. But past the halfway mark in this franchise, there’s little distinction from any of the countless young adult adaptations that have appeared since the success of The Hunger Games, a film to which this can’t hope to hold a candle.
While Insurgent offers surprises and carves itself more of an identity than the formless first instalment, it’s hard to excuse the lack of investment in the characters at this stage, outside of Woodley’s Herculean conviction. If you’re not already on board, there’s little hope that the trendy bifurcation of Allegiant will make this a series worth revisiting in years to come.