I haven’t read the Divergent books, which is a rare position for me to be in. I had read all the Harry Potters, all the Twilights and all The Hunger Games before seeing the movies, but I don’t think I made it though 20 pages of Divergent before wanting to move on to something else. That’s not a commentary on Vanessa Roth‘s prose, but a sign that Divergent is a bridge too far. This is a road we’ve been down, a story that’s been retold one too many times, and even though the details are different, they all basically add up the same whole: chosen one rebels against Draconian system and leads friends and comrades to a better future free of evil and oppression.
Divergent, as a film series, has some good things going for it, the cast being its primary asset which returns more of less intact for this second part of the series called Insurgent. Shailene Woodley is a spirited and engaging heroine as Tris, Theo James has the looks and presence of a leading man as Four, Miles Teller makes for a perfectly slimy foil for the heroes as Peter, and you can do much worse that having Kate Winslet play the villain as the ruthless Jeanine. Divergent’s setting in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Chicago is also an interesting departure from other YA franchises, which typically favor rural, rustic, or magical realms.
In the end though, Insurgent doesn’t depart much from the well-worn path of the movie series that came before it. Being the second part, the training and world building are over, and the chosen one must come to terms with her destiny, struggle with the path she’s set upon and discover the meaning of her life by solving the MacGuffin she’s inexplicably linked to in order to bring about a new, freer world. It’s not an easy journey because the chose one is almost the only one whose intentions are pure, as she cares too much about others to let them sacrifice for her. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
Insurgent begins almost where Divergent lays off. Tris, Four, Peter, and Tris’ brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are all in hiding after the intelligent Erudite faction’s coup against the socially responsible Abnegation, Chicago’s appointed leaders. Meanwhile, Erudite leader Jeanine is blaming the uprising on Divergents, members of society with elements of all the various personality factions and can thus choose their own fate. But what Jeanine doesn’t realize is that the fancy box she covets, which contains a message from the mysterious “Founders,” requires a Divergent to open it, and guess who’s the most powerful Divergent around.
Despite the problems of being the umpteenth franchise based on a highly success novel series aimed at a young adult audience, there are some appealing things about Insurgent. Woodley’s Tris at least is proactive heroine rather than feeling like something more akin to a ping-pong ball batted back and forth in her own narrative. She doesn’t want to wait it out for the right time to strike, she wants to fight, and more importantly, she wants to kill Jeanine. Even in The Hunger Games, despite the obvious malevolence and evil of President Snow, Katniss never makes it a tenant that he must die.
It’s also a nice change of pace that you get a sense that Tris and Four are true partners, equals despite the fact that he’s a veteran member of the brave Dauntless faction and she’s a recent addition. If the romantic chemistry isn’t as hot between Woodley and James, than thankful that energy is diverted to the idea that she’s not in the fight to get the boy, and he’s not in the fight solely to keep the girl safe.
On the other hand, the rest of the characters chafe under the old screenwriting deficiency of making the story serve the characters as in Insurgent the characters serve the story. What drives Caleb for instance? What makes him such a coward and so willing to constantly sellout the last remaining member of his family? Speaking of sellouts, what’s Peter’s story? He changes allegiances on demand, but to what end? Is he just trying to survive? Does he have ADD? Does he get bored easily?
While old characters remain underserved, we’re introduced into a whole new cast of characters that flesh out the world of this futuristic Chicago, if they are not necessarily fleshed out themselves. Octavia Spencer plays Johanna, the leader of the farming Amity; Daniel Dae Kim plays Jack Kang, leader of the always truthful Candor; and Naomi Watts plays Evelyn, leader of the Factionless, people who for whatever reason don’t have a group to belong. And bonus, Evelyn is also Four’s mother. It’s nice that the world of Divergent gets more thoroughly sketched out, but nothing about it feels organic or feels like it’s contributing to the development of the story or it’s themes. Oh well, time to go to Candor, just might as well be an actual line of dialogue.
Without trying to get into too many spoilers, the central plot of Insurgent hinges on a message in the mysterious box that can only be opened by a Divergent, which I gather is different from how the message is revealed in the books, but on-screen anyway, the underline basis of the concept bristles against logic. The box must be solved by demonstrating an aspect of all the Factions, and through simulations all but two of them are kind of wicked easy to pass, and the two that aren’t are drawn out only because they allow for the opportunity for vivid, over-the-top, CGI-filled action sequences.
The set-up for the Divergent series offers a lot of opportunity to discuss issues of identity and choice, responsibility and desire, stewardship and change, and along with the conceit of the gadgetry and technobabble involved, it’s also open to questions of reality and fantasy. In other words, there’s a lot of meaty thematic material that a director can dig into. I’m not sure if Insurgent refuses to dig into all that because it’s falling victim to the adaptation trap of being too beholden to the source material, but it leaves a lot just lying around the set because the main thrust of the story isn’t about the themes it raises, but about the literal struggle between the smart, the brave, the honest, the selfless and the loving.
I’d like to blame Robert Schwentke, who replaces Neil Burger the director of Divergent, an while Burger had some sense of nuance and an understanding of the social commentary in the novel, Schwentke seems more concerned about constructing a technically well-made scene and making the film a straightforward rendering of the book on-screen. The things that made Divergent stand out seem shaved away to make Insurgent much more bland. For example, the score by Junkie XL and executive produced by Hans Zimmer gave much of the action in Divergent a lot of extra energy; the score by Joseph Trapanese in Insurgent, by comparison, contains nothing memorable. Another example is the film’s opening scenes in the idyllic farm country of Amity, which sewed a little too close to Hunger Games territory for my taste.
Ultimately, the legions of Divergent fans out there will decide if the saga is more likely to go on than critics, and besides the point, the two-part final movie is already pencilled in for 2016 and 2017 release dates. I will say that I’m *slightly* intrigued about what happens next because the climax seemed more like something that would be saved for the final part of the trilogy and not the second part, so the end of Insurgent does leave the door open to big possibilities and implications. On the other hand, with what we’ve seen so far and the eminent return of Schwentke in the director’s chair it seems unlikely that the finale will be anything challenging or anything willing to break the mold for these types of movies.