The first instalment of a big film franchise is a lot like a TV pilot. The first episode of a series isn’t always a great episode, or even a great indicator of what the show will be – the burden of introducing characters and building a world tends to make crafting an interesting story fall by the wayside. There are, of course, always exceptions, but that’s beside the point. Where I’m going here is that great series have come out of so-so pilots…
And so was my hope with the Divergent trilogy, Veronica Roth’s series of young adult novels. The first book in the series did not make a strong movie, but it also had to bear the brunt of all that world building. By the end, there wasn’t much left but a stilted romance and a pretty generic power struggle. The world it built though, while containing its fair share of silliness, seemed like a decent enough platform to move forward from.
Insurgent begins right where Divergent left off. Tris (Shailene Woodley), her soldier-boyfriend Four (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and all-around trouble maker Peter (Miles Teller) have just escaped the ruined city of Chicago by train. Jeanine (Kate Winslet), leader of the brainy Erudite faction who have just seized power, quickly blames the murder of the previously ruling Abnegation faction on a small band of divergents as an excuse to institute martial law.
Now if you had trouble understanding most of that last paragraph welcome to the experience of watching the first 20 minutes of the movie. If you forgot the names of these quirky factions you’re going to be lost pretty fast, because Insurgent does not ease you into it.
Tris and the gang quickly find asylum with the Amity faction (the peace loving faction, in case you forgot). There she struggles to cope with her memories of the people who died trying to protect her, not to mention the brainwashed friend she was forced to kill in order to escape the city. In her grief, she does the most drastic thing she can do… and cuts her hair.
Of course, their stay with Amity doesn’t last long, as Jeanine and her thugs continue to chase them to different locales within the walled-in city. Tris and Four meet the Candor (truth telling) faction and the factionless (it’s what it sounds like) as they try to elude her clutches.
That all ends up being what I find most disappointing about Insurgent – it’s still obsessed with fleshing out every angle of a premise that doesn’t really stand up to a whole lot of further scrutiny. For the first two-thirds or so of the movie, we’re just touring through the factions Roth couldn’t get to in the previous instalment of the series. And the final act? It’s dedicated almost solely to opening an extra special box that requires more of the same faction themed virtual reality mind games that dominated Tris’s first outing.
There’s no attempt to move the series forward in any meaningful way. The faction system may be the hook of this particular dystopian future, and I can see why Roth would want to build around that, but this whole concept of divergents being this society’s menace gets increasingly difficult to comprehend. By the time Tris has demonstrated her aptitude for each faction (aka just being a normal human being) the idea has basically worn itself out.
Likewise, the romance between Tris and Four is still ridiculously cloying and very much at the forefront. It’s a YA novel so that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, but seeing as the two of them are caught in the middle of a paradigm shifting rebellion it would be nice if the movie kept their focus a little more on that. Or even just made their relationship more than one running after the other whenever they’re in danger. Obviously this is an element that’s important to the fan base, but other YA franchises have executed it far better.
This is particularly problematic for Four. He’s an absolute empty shell of a character outside of his relationship with Tris, and all attempts to make him more than that fall so miserably flat you almost wish they’d have just kept him one dimensional.
Tris makes out a bit better thankfully. If Insurgent has one saving grace, it’s the brief glimpses into her psyche over the course of the movie. It’s the film’s most emotionally satisfying arc. Unfortunately, “brief” is the telling word there, and it’s not nearly enough to sustain the movie over its two hour running time.
When Insurgent finally does hit its twist ending it ends up being more confounding than anything, in one sense stale and predictable and in another remarkably vague, a tease for the next instalment. Once again, the Divergent series leaves us with the promise that the best is yet to come. Thing is, eventually it’s got to deliver.