From the beginning, women have been the heroes, villains, role models and leaders in Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series, so it should come as no surprise that its year-later sequel, “Insurgent,” advances the paradigm, adding a formidable new character in Naomi Watts’ Evelyn — albeit one with not much to do until the next installment. Just as the exposition-heavy “Divergent” promised big things to come, director Robert Schwentke’s like-minded follow-up remains squarely forward-focused, but lacks the moment-to-moment thrill of puzzling out versatile protagonist Tris Prior’s place in a society designed to categorize its citizens into one of five rigidly defined factions. Here, Tris knows her role, and instead spends most of the movie coming to terms with the casualties already on her conscience, making this entire deja vu episode feel like a hurdle the franchise must clear before moving on to its two-part finale.
Though marketed as a kid sister to “The Hunger Games” franchise, right down to its optimistic four-film release strategy (which suddenly feels a bit riskier after the slight dip “Mockingjay” experienced at the B.O.), Summit’s “Divergent” series boasts a significantly different narrative arc from that of Suzanne Collins’ girl-power trilogy. Rather than building up to a massive insurrection, Roth compresses the overthrow of her dystopian police state — what remains of Chicago, now encircled by a high-powered electric fence — into book two, while laying the groundwork for a whole new set of secrets and surprises to follow.
At this point, the series’ big mystery seems to be just how divergent the next two pics will be from Roth’s vision, especially considering a certain permeability in the way “Insurgent” redefines the protective barrier surrounding the city. Tris (the wonderfully relatable Shailene Woodley) and her b.f./bodyguard, Four (Theo James, who’s more man than the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” hunks combined), appeared to be riding a train directly toward that wall as the credits rolled on “Divergent,” and yet the sequel takes place entirely within its confines, ending with a revelation that could allow the forthcoming “Allegiant” movies to go in an entirely unexpected direction, if the producers were so inclined.
Meanwhile, true to its source, “Insurgent” opens in Amity, where the peace-and-love faction is sheltering those on the run from the power-hungry Jeanine (Kate Winslet), whose intelligent Erudite class has ousted the selfless members of Abnegation and seized control of the city, mobilizing the brave Dauntless faction as her private police force. Ostensibly the most cunning human being alive, Jeanine makes several grave miscalculations in her plans for how to control the perceived threat — starting with her faulty assumption that Divergent citizens (those, like Tris, who don’t fit into any one group) necessarily represent a threat in the first place. More foolish still is her conviction that a locked box hidden by Tris’ now-deceased mom (Ashley Judd, resurfacing in dreams and flashbacks) contains a message from the city’s founders that will somehow justify Jeanine’s ruthless dictatorial control.
The box, which was invented by the screenwriters to provide a handful of cinematic sequences for the movie, can only be opened by a Divergent strong enough to pass five “sims” — tests calibrated to the skills of each faction. Packed into the film’s last half-hour, these setpieces represent “Insurgent’s” best effort at re-creating the surreal excitement of the first movie, allowing Tris to perform such superhuman feats as chasing a burning building across the sky and crashing through a bulletproof control-booth window. But that misses the point, since it wasn’t merely the visual effects that made “Divergent” exciting, but the vicarious way director Neil Burger and his screenwriters (all of whom have been replaced for the sequel) invited audiences to discover the rules of this unfamiliar sci-fi world alongside their lead character.
To an extent, that earlier film was as much like “The Matrix” as it was “The Hunger Games,” teasing the imagination with virtual-reality training environments, nested dream-within-dream illusions and talents that defy physical constraints. But instead of pushing deeper down the rabbit hole, as the Wachowskis did with their sequels, “Insurgent” actually backtracks and opts to build out the “real world” in which it takes place. Instead of adding layers to the ensemble (such young talents as Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney and Zoe Kravitz are all but wasted, providing one-dimensional opposition), this strategy offers a chance for Schwentke’s below-the-line crew to excel, as they seamlessly expand upon what Burger and his team established.
Whereas “Divergent” split its time between Abnegation and Dauntless, the new film attempts to give equal time to the other classes, including the aforementioned Amity (which looks like a hippie farming cult, overseen by Octavia Spencer), honesty-loving Candor (whose chief justice, played by Daniel Dae Kim, subjects Tris and Four to a trial by truth serum), and those who simply don’t fit in — the factionless, overseen by Watts’ duplicitous queen, Evelyn. Dangerous and feral, the factionless pose a far greater threat to Jeanine’s regime than the Divergents do, as the ruthless despot will realize too late.
Although her villain has genocidal intentions, Roth demonstrates a far different attitude toward violence than Collins did in “The Hunger Games,” which encouraged a certain bloodlust with its “Battle Royale”-style premise. By contrast, Roth’s characters must deal primarily with the emotional consequences of their actions: Tris is haunted by the three deaths she carries on her conscience, and somewhere along the way, one of the film’s three writers (Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback) came up with a rather poignant scene in which she finally manages to forgive herself.
While it doesn’t necessarily excuse gun battles so brutal you can’t always keep up with the body count, this attitude lends a certain sense of responsibility to the action, which still feels clumsier than a franchise of this caliber deserves. On multiple occasions, Tris opts to spare her adversaries outright, suggesting that perhaps she truly does represent a more evolved form of the violent humans from whom she descends. And then there’s the matter of how the film handles a major character’s “death” — one of those possum feints that fools no one in the audience, but somehow dupes the film’s smartest character. Suffice to say, there’s nothing Erudite in the way that whole situation plays out.
Considering that “Insurgent” is meant to represent the series’ great civil war, it all comes across feeling like a tempest in a teapot: a glorified rehash of what came before, garnished with the promise of what lies in store. Evelyn has been introduced, but barely used; Tris got to confront her guilt while redemonstrating her Divergent skills; and the central couple has inched just a little bit closer to crossing that mysterious wall. Perhaps instead of splitting the third book into two movies, they should have considered combining the first two into one.