By Preston Wilder
I’ve discovered some irrational things about myself. When it comes to messianic teen Amazons in dystopian futures, I prefer Tris in the Divergent franchise to Katniss of The Hunger Games (mostly because I prefer big-eyed Shailene Woodley to steely Jennifer Lawrence, which isn’t – or shouldn’t be – irrational), and in fact I prefer this young-adult franchise to the other, more successful one. It’s only No. 2, so it tries harder. There are more reversals, more adventure. It also goes to some dark places which I don’t necessarily enjoy but still appreciate, compared to the blandness of The Hunger Games. The first film, Divergent, posited harsh, borderline-fascist military training as a Good Thing – and now the sequel, Insurgent, has so many people executed with a bullet to the back of the head you half-expect to find a credit for Lavrenti Beria as Technical Advisor.
There’s another irrational thing I’ve found about myself: I prefer the infamous ‘middle parts’ of franchises to the spectacular climaxes (the conclusion to this one, titled Allegiant, is coming out in 2016 and 2017, split into two parts as usual). Not a lot ‘happens’ in Insurgent, in the sense of plot being resolved. Tris and ‘Four’, né Tobias (Theo James), are fugitives after the destruction of their faction, Dauntless – we’re in a world where people are divided into factions based on their personal traits, a society organised around the governing principle of a high-school cafeteria – seeking shelter with the other factions while avoiding evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and her troops. Jeanine’s found a mysterious box, containing “a message from our Founders”; she’s desperate to open the box – “however, only a Divergent can open the box,” Divergents being those rare few who combine traits from more than one faction.
That’s the plot, more or less. Jeanine’s looking for Divergents, Tris (who’s Divergent) is looking for Jeanine, declaring in so many words that she plans to kill her (like I said, the franchise is surprisingly red-blooded). Much of it feels aimless, wandering from one place to another – but, as in all ‘middle parts’, that also gives the characters room to breathe, and the actors room to shine. Chief among the pleasures is Miles Teller, the rising star who made such a great team with Woodley in The Spectacular Now (her Fault in Our Stars co-star Ansel Elgort also appears, as her brother). Playing an arrogant frat-boy type who taunts Tris – and gets beaten up twice for his trouble – but is also part of the gang, Teller brings the film a headlong energy, his snarky disdain and love-hate needling also reflecting the irreverence of an indie star in a popcorn franchise.
The actors are too good for this material; that’s par for the course. Like The Hunger Games, this is young-adult angst spiced with B-movie action – but Tris is at least more interesting than Katniss, plagued by guilt and self-loathing. One of the first things she does is to cut her long hair in a severe mannish style – then, suitably masculated (is that a word?), she sets off to battle, albeit prone to hair-trigger freak-outs whenever someone hints that she might be responsible for the death of her parents. (Parents are important in these young-adult thingys; ‘Four’ has unresolved issues with his own dad, revealed to have been abusive.) Yet Woodley, like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, also gets a couple of weepy emotive scenes, especially when forced to be candid – Candour is one of the factions – about her inner turmoil.
The tough angry girl with a vulnerable side is a pop-culture fave at the moment, ditto the twist where something is revealed as a simulation or experiment (The Maze Runner had the same twist) – a videogame structure, moving to the next level up. Insurgent is also action-packed, full of attacks and battles; the climax has Tris trying to rescue her mum from a house that’s (a) burning and (b) flying through the air – though admittedly it’s not real (it’s a “sim”, i.e. simulation), our heroine having to pass sims relating to each faction in order to prove her Divergence. It’s a solid climax, though it feels a bit rushed (the Candour sim is absurdly easy); plotting is thin in Insurgent, skimming through the saga as if always in search of the next highlight – and of course the action-movie side is clichéd. This is a film where a baddie gets distracted by a whinnying horse when about to discover our heroes, and a film where a dozen armed men somehow fail to kill (or even wound) them as they run through a field, completely exposed.
Bottom line? Good actors, dumb – but plentiful – action, picaresque plot, lots of energy. To my shame, I enjoyed Insurgent – and I don’t even care anymore that it doesn’t ‘make sense’, the whole idea that a society would hunt down (rather than exploit) its most gifted members being obviously silly. That dodgy premise got in the way of Divergent but somehow doesn’t matter so much here – maybe because any film where Kate Winslet intones “We need to find the Special One” is hard to take seriously, therefore entertaining. I know, it’s irrational.
DIRECTED BY Robert Schwentke
STARRING Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller
US 2015 119 mins