March 18, 2015 by Bill Johnson
The second movie in The Divergent Series is a whole lot better than the first, weighty and serious and exciting.
Though the teen girls in my audience were scurrying around the theater in delirious fugue states before the start of Insurgent, the sequel to last year’s Y.A. adaptation Divergent, I found it hard to muster much excitement. The first film was such a perfunctory chore, plodding and dutiful with little vision or imagination. I wasn’t terribly eager to reenter that world, a future Chicago where the remnants of civilization have been sorted into clunkily named factions, and frankly I didn’t remember much about it.
But, as is typically true of life, I was wrong and the teens were right. As it turns out, Insurgent, much in the same way that Catching Fire improved vastly on The Hunger Games, is a far superior sequel. Though the rules and mythology that author Veronica Roth has cobbled together still don’t quite work for me—they’re just so forced and inorganic—director Robert Schwentke (R.E.D.) and the screenwriters Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback, who I’m told made significant changes from Roth’s book, have crafted something that’s often compelling, startlingly violent, and yet graceful, too.
Probably the biggest improvement is that Insurgent doesn’t have to fuss with all the training stuff that Divergent spent so much of its energy on. Everyone loves a good academy narrative, from Harry Potter to last month’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, watching kids or young adults learn how to be heroes. But in Divergent, it was too hard to discern the stakes of the story to get invested in whatever these kids were preparing for. In Insurgent, though, Schwentke doesn’t give us much time to wonder what everyone’s so keyed-up about. His film moves along quickly and muscularly, from one serious action scene to the next, to the extent that it almost stops mattering what the particulars of this conflict are, just that various twists and obstacles are set up engagingly.
Maybe that’s a defeatist, “Eh, what does the story really matter” kind of shoulder shrug, but I enjoyed Insurgent without really knowing or caring much what it was about.
The plot involves the further machinations of main baddie Jeanine (not a terribly scary villain’s name, is it), played with icy smoothness by Kate Winslet. Winslet was sort of wasted in the first film, but here she gets to show the full breadth of Jeanine’s wickedness, all glare and controlled megalomania, and appears to be having a good time doing it. Jeanine’s dastardly plot involves turning all the Divergents—weirdos who fit into more than one faction—into public enemies, so she can round them up and perform an experiment on them. See, Jeanine has found some kind of box, she calls it, that’s akin to the magical stones in The Fifth Element. She believes it contains information from the founders of the civilization that will help assure its survival by presenting a cure to the Divergent problem. (Or something?) Trouble is, she needs a Divergent to open the dang thing.
Meanwhile, our Divergent heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley), is on the lam with some other rebels, trying to . . . well, it’s unclear what their main objective is, beyond survival. Tris, who’s angry and has cut her hair into a highlighted pixie cut as a sign of that anger, wants to kill Jeanine for causing the death of her parents (and for forcing Tris to kill one of her brainwashed friends in the last movie). But everyone else is just kinda running around to run around. We first find them in the farmlands occupied by the kindly Amity faction, a picturesque place that, with its vintage wooden tables and wildflowers in mason jars, looks like someone opened a farm-to-table restaurant in the Hudson Valley and then let it sit for a few years, a dystopian Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Soon enough, though, the gang has to flee, which leads to the movie’s first bracing action sequence. There’s a speeding train, a hail of bullets, and Ansel Elgort, playing Tris’s meek brother Caleb, running like a goof.
The movie doesn’t relent much after that, zipping toward the inevitable moment when Tris realizes her true role as chosen one and the contents of the mysterious box are revealed. And it’s a plenty rollicking, respectably grim go of it getting to that point. There are too many fake-outs involving dreams and scary simulations (which take on a much grander scale with the resources allowed by Insurgent’s bigger budget), but otherwise Schwentke creates a steady sense of build and momentum that results in a rather stirring final few minutes. Insurgent trades Divergent’s dreamy alt-pop music for a swelling score by Joseph Trapanese, who collaborated with big-name electronic acts on the Tron: Legacy and Oblivion scores. His music, as it booms and crescendos, lends a crucial weight to the film. We don’t quite feel Hunger Games-level, fate-of-all-humanity importance here, but Insurgent at least makes an aesthetic case for caring in a way that Divergent never did.
Read more: Insurgent Is a Surprisingly Superior Sequel