Silver Screen: Insurgent 1/2*
It would be difficult to make much sense of Insurgent, the second installment of the Hunger Games copycat Divergent series, even if you cared, and neither the writers nor filmmakers provide any reason to do so.
In this supremely mangled allegory, the survivors of some vague apocalypse live in the ruins of a bombed-out city. In their new society, all citizens are divided into five factions— Amity, Erudite, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless— and forced to structure their existence around the rigid rules of their chosen faction. Never mind that these five categories seem arbitrarily chosen at best and in no way encompass the full range of functions essential to a thriving society. The Amity folks grow vegetables, the Abnegation clan do charity work, Dauntless kids get tattoos and run around, Erudites plot the course of civilization, and Candor types... well, they’re really honest. So who does that leave to build the improbable high-tech gadgets that serve as the movie’s endless plot devices and narrative cheats? Who makes the zip-up black-leather vests for the Dauntless crew? Might we consider adding some handy factions like Sanitation, Construction, or Water Supply Management?
Of course, in author Veronica Routh’s ill-conceived future world, these factions would be more confoundingly named: Dross, Fabrication, Deliquescence. Because while you’re neverminding, you’re also going to need to overlook the names of the factions themselves, which are a curious hodgepodge of words. Amity, candor, and abnegation are nouns, while erudite and dauntless are adjectives. You can’t literally be Amity, you’re amiable.
These little blunders are trifling compared to the gaping plotholes and dizzying leaps of logic that define the series. If this society is equally divided, how come Erudite, led by the one-dimensional villain Jeanine (Kate Winslet), has absolute authority? The series’ pivotal plot point makes even less sense. Those children born showing traits of multiple factions are called Divergent and shunned— except, couldn’t they just fit into whichever faction they choose? What possible harm can there be in a farmer who is slightly inclined to charity work... er, rather, an Amity who indulges in a little Abnegation on the side?
Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) is identified as Divergent, as is her blandly hunky boyfriend Four (Theo James), who disguises his multifaceted abilities despite having an enormous back tattoo of all five factions. What’s particularly bizarre is that these five qualities are presented as actual genetic traits that can be measured and tested. If that’s the case and people really can be divided into five groups, why fight against the system at all? Even more befuddling is a new gadget presented here in the sequel that can test exactly how Divergent you are. What does it mean to be forty percent Divergent versus eighty percent Divergent? Do some people kinda Diverge while others dabble in Diverging? Is being ten percent Divergent less threatening to this inexplicable society than being fifty percent Divergent?
This distinction mostly exists to serve Insurgent’s threadbare plot, which centers around a Macguffin in the form of a magical box that only someone truly Divergent can open. Jeanine has no idea what’s inside, but she’s certain whatever it is will help her cause, so she must capture the extra-super-Divergent Tris and force her to play an elaborate computer game to open the box. Because... well, hopefully you’ve stopped asking questions by now, unless you plan on founding an Inquisition faction.
Insurgent barely makes sense on a scene-to-scene basis, much less as an overall concept. Even within a single installment, character motivations shift without provocation. Tris’s brother (Ansel Elgort) betrayed her at the end of Divergent only to show up on her ragtag crew of outsiders at the outset of Insurgent, at least until he switches sides offscreen and winds up a villain again, though Jeanine murdered both of his parents.
The muddled, arbitrary plot would be an insurmountable obstacle even if the movies didn’t feel like store-brand imitations. The aesthetic, established by Neil Burger in the first movie and picked up here by director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife, R.I.P.D.), is a blatant knockoff of The Hunger Games’ contrast of high technology and dystopian decay. The action scenes, which at least had a little high-wire kineticism the first time around, are either humdrum shootouts with silly-looking futuristic guns, or are slathered in unnecessary computer animation to provide the illusion that something cool is happening when, in fact, nothing is happening at all.
Woodley has turned in terrific, emotionally raw performances in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but here she’s wildly miscast. Her stick-skinny faunlike form makes her a poor action star, especially when we’re expected to believe she can karate chop her way through a series of goons twice her size. She appears clueless and terrified most of the time, except when she’s trying to show steely resolve, when she looks like somebody failing to win a staring contest.
Several talented actors are similarly wasted, including Mekhi Phifer in a generic henchman role and Naomi Watts as a pseudo-revolutionary. The only performers who get to have even a little bit of fun are the villains— Winslet with her Cruella DeVil sneer, Jai Courtney oozing menace and masculinity, and Miles Teller as the self-serving Peter, the only character in the film allowed to smile or tell a joke in this grim, perfunctory slog.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.