The sequel to “Divergent” is the cinematic equivalent of the KFC Famous Bowl: a nutritionally devoid mishmash of elements and past films that somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts once cobbled together. “Insurgent” builds upon the action of its predecessor, but there are also pieces of “The Hunger Games,” “Ender’s Game,” “The Matrix,” and “Inception” threaded throughout its visuals and narrative. It has teens trying to survive a dystopian future, menacing tentacle-like cables, simulations, and dream sequences, giving it all a slightly nostalgic quality despite its futuristic lens, but none of it really satisfies. No offense, KFC.
“Insurgent” smartly assumes that its audience has seen the first film (and likely read the source material from Veronica Roth) and dives into the story with little overt explanation. It begins with a propaganda-filled monologue from Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), claiming our heroes, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James), are the ones responsible for the Abnegation massacre rather than her own corrupt faction. After a terrifying dream (the first of many in the film) featuring her dead parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), Tris awakens in Amity, where she, Four, her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) have been granted asylum by Johanna (Octavia Spencer), the head of the faction. However, they can’t stay in the peaceful community for long. Divergents are being pursued by Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer) because Jeanine believes that one of them has the power to unlock a mysterious box. Tris and Four escape to the home of the Factionless, where they discover that their leader, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), also has Jeanine in her sights. Joining Divergents and the Factionless means that they may have a way to stand against Jeanine and the traitors she has brought over to her side.
Jeanine’s box isn’t quite a MacGuffin, but the payoff surrounding it — and the related climax — deserve eye rolls that might make even a teenager embarrassed. From both a plot and dialogue perspective, the script is by far the film’s worst flaw. We’re (largely) over criticizing how the factions themselves are a silly idea, but even ignoring the society’s basic structure still leaves viewers with plenty of questions about logic and story. Characters make ridiculous decisions and spell out what they’re doing just in case the audience missed the point. If you didn’t remember who Tris is fighting against, the film has a character say, “I’m not the enemy here,” followed by a cut to Jeanine. Like “Divergent,” it alternately plods and races, leaving the audience with a case of whiplash. Though it’s overall a lesser film than its predecessor, at least it’s shorter by 20 minutes, still clocking in at about two hours.
For all its faults, “Insurgent” does succeed on three levels. The first film’s strong cast largely returns here, adding Spencer and Watts to make things even more impressive. They do the most with the dialogue and characterization the script gives them, and Woodley and Teller get the most chances to shine. She’s alternately kickass and vulnerable, doing as well with fight scenes as she does with ones that have her whimpering in physical and emotional pain. Teller plays both antagonist and comic relief here, and he brings a bit of levity to the screen when the tone veers into darker territory.
It also looks great, and we’re not just talking about the attractive young stars who drew both screams and claps from teenage fans. Director Robert Schwentke (“R.I.P.D.,” “RED“) may not be known as much for his visual style as his predecessor, Neil Burger, but with his DP and frequent collaborator Florian Ballhaus, the aesthetic here is slick. It also makes surprisingly good use of 3D, whether we’re swooping through Chicago’s skyscrapers or watching sims dissolve. Post-apocalyptic Chicago doesn’t play as big of a role as it did in the first film, but the city’s devastation and decay provide an eerie backdrop for the action. These action scenes and dream/sim sequences can be thrilling at times, propelled by largely solid special effects.
“Insurgent” would also make your women’s and race studies professors proud. It boasts a kickass, fully realized heroine who is at once prickly and admirable. As much as she values her relationship with Four, it doesn’t define her or her place within the film’s narrative. She has an inner life that isn’t devoted solely to mooning over Four and their romance, and she feels remarkably real thanks to Woodley’s performance. “Insurgent” also has one of the most diverse casts seen in a blockbuster film, with women and people of color playing roles both central and peripheral. Most refreshingly, it doesn’t call attention to the variety in its cast or characters. Instead, it’s a non-issue, particularly when compared to the strife caused by the factions.
“Insurgent” represents a step down from “Divergent,” but from the screams at our screening, it should still largely please the masses who loved the book. Its approach isn’t designed to bring in any new fans, but those who weren’t diehards after the “Divergent” won’t find themselves more passionate after this one. Sadly, this isn’t ‘Catching Fire‘ in that respect. The filmmakers were abel to skip the world-building required for first films, but they don’t spend their time on anything more interesting here. “Divergent” wasn’t the strongest entry into the teen dystopian genre shared by the likes of “The Hunger Games” and “The Maze Runner,” and this entry only further erodes the series’ position. [C]