Film Review: ‘The Divergent Series: Insurgent’

insurgent kate winslet Shailene Woodley

With another year to go before things get really interesting in the 'The Divergent Series,' this sci-fi sequel rehashes much of what we already learned in the first movie.

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.

Film Review: 'The Divergent Series: Insurgent'

Reviewed at Gaumont Ambassade, Paris, March 11, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate release of a Summit presentation of a Red Wagon Entertainment, Mandeville Films production. Produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian. Executive producers, Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Barry Waldman, Neil Burger. Co-producer, Tina Anderson.

Crew

Directed by Robert Schwentke. Screenplay, Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback, based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Camera (Fotokem prints, Technicolor, widescreen, 3D, Imax), Florian Ballhaus; editors, Nancy Richardson, Stuart Levy; music, Joseph Trapanese; production designer, Alec Hammond; supervising art director, Alan Hook; art directors, Jay Pelissier, Kathy Lucas; set decorator, Kathy Lucas; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Peter J. Devlin; sound designers, Jon Title, Harry Cohen; supervising sound editors, Dave McMoyler, Wylie Stateman; re-recording mixers, Michael Minkler, Christian P. Minkler; visual effects supervisor, James Madigan; visual effects producer, Erika McKee; visual effects, Double Negative, Double Negative Singapore, Animal Logic VFX, Method Studios, Milk Visual Effects, Lola VFX, Capital T; special effects supervisor, John Frazier; special effects coordinator, Brun Van Zeebroeck; special makeup effects KNB, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger; stereoscopic supervisor, Scott Willman; stereoscopic producer, Heather Wilman; 3D conversion and visual effects, Legend3D, Gener8; stunt coordinator, Darrin Prescott; second unit directors, Madigan, G.A. Aguilar; associate producer, Julia T. Enescu; casting, Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani.

With

Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Octavia Spencer, Zoe Kravitz, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, Naomi Watts, Keiynan Lonsdale, Daniel Dae Kim.

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  1. rattyandmole says:

    Is the rumor true that the 3rd sequel will be call “Regurgent” ?

  2. shan says:

    Why did you trash The Hunger Games so much?

  3. Honestly, if most viewers knew how this series was going to end, they’d be as ticked off as at least half, probably more, of those who invested in the books and absolutely hated Allegiant. I would love to know how much of the audience read the book, and how many haven’t.

    I can only tell you that if my girlfriend knew where this was going, she wouldn’t invest another minute. Try googling Allegiant backlash or muddling through the Amazon Reviews. Talk about backlash. It would seem the only ones who really like the idea are the actors and crew making these movies.

    So I’m left scratching my head as to why they thought it was a good idea to split that travesty known as Allegiant into two parts. It was the worst received, worst reviews of the series. We’ll see what happens.

  4. Adam says:

    Meh, the movie is still going to make a ton of money at the box office irrespective of any reviews.

    • Lex says:

      I don’t think it will make a lot of money considering the first one didn’t. This could be another example of a franchise ending before it is starting, like The Percy Jackson series.

    • Judy says:

      True. This franchise has a large and fervent enough fanbase where the business is almost review-proof. At most, negative reviews would affect just the portion of the general audience who didn’t necessarily like the first movie all that much and might not bother to check out the second if they hear it’s not any better.

  5. irwinator1992 says:

    I guess all the potential the first Divergent had just flew out the window. I was in the minority that liked the first film. Veronica Roth needs to take lessons from the likes of Christopher & Jonathan Nolan on how to write a good story, and Zack Snyder on how to make good action.

  6. IT 2 IT says:

    They say people DON’T read much anymore.

    It shows. . . .

  7. This is nonsense: “which suddenly feels a bit riskier after the slight dip “Mockingjay” experienced at the B.O.”

    Slight dip? It was the second highest grossing film from 2014 (and not by much) and yet you guys keep trying to push the narrative that it was a failure. Ridiculous.

    There may be problems ahead, but it has nothing to do with The Hunger Games. Really, get over it. You couldn’t bring The Hunger Game Series down so just give up.

    • Judy says:

      Mockingjay had a 20% drop from Catching Fire, which sounds like a lot in general terms, but in the context of how much money those movies bring in that 20% decline really doesn’t mean anything. Oh boo hoo, it only made $120 million opening weekend when it used to open to $150M! Yeah. They can afford to drop that much. The Divergent movies, not so much. That’s the article’s point. These movies don’t bring in the kind of money where they can have a 20, 25% decline in the later installments, and it likely will simply because that seems to be the pattern with these kinds of movies – even a powerhouse like Hunger Games. And that would be problematic in this case because their ROI can’t really support that. You don’t spend over $100M (I’m only guessing that Insurgent cost more than Divergent, as will Allegiant) on a movie to have it open at $30-something million.

      • Cris says:

        exactly. and Mockingjay was also only released in 2D and it still managed to be the highest grossing film in 2014 (yeah yeah American Sniper technically, but only by a hair) . Insurgent might get a bump from its 3d and imax tickets, but it’s still currently tracking to make the same as it did in it’s opening weekend for Divergent, and usually these projections are ballooned. divergent was projected to make 80m same time last year, but only managed a mid-50s intake. Plus March/April is more competitive this year than it was last year.

  8. NotTris says:

    this review is confusing to follow on what the movie is really about, so i guess that’s a reflection of the quality of this film. Definitely not Catching Fire.

    • Non-Divergent says:

      I found it confusing too then read the premise on another site & fully understood it. I think it may be this reviewer who is struggling to paraphrase the plot.

  9. Hannah says:

    Unless it’s different in the Insurgent film, which is unlikely seeing as it was said in the Divergent film, the Amity fields and compound are located outside of the fence (not wall), and that was where they were heading on the train at the end of the first film.

    • Judy says:

      Which never made any sense to me. If people aren’t supposed to leave, why is the one group located outside? Poorly thought out worldbuilding.

  10. MN says:

    Drag this low-rent franchise!!

  11. equipmentguy says:

    Wow. This movie sounds like too much work! Give me LOTR movies any day.

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