Insurgent falls short of hitting the bar set by superior YA film adaptations but is a step in the right direction for the Divergent series.
Part two of the Divergent series, subtitled Insurgent, continues the story of Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) - "Divergents" who do not fit into post-apocalyptic Chicago's five faction ruling system: Abnegation (the selfless); Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent). In the aftermath of Divergent - specifically Erudite's subversive attack on Abnegation - Tris and Four, along with Tris' brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Dauntless member Peter Hayes (Miles Teller), are living in exile within the Amity community, biding time until they can team-up with former friends and allies to take-on Erudite's calculating leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).
However, when Jeanine discovers an ancient artifact with ties to the "founders" (men and women who established the faction system two centuries earlier) she declares martial law - combining Dauntless and Erudite resources to hunt down Divergents and force Tris and Four out of hiding. No longer safe at Amity, the pair must appeal to Divergent sympathizers as well as those who wish to see the faction system abolished entirely.
The second book in Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy storyline (not including the short-form e-book collection Four) is the second film in Lionsgate's Divergent tetralogy - taking a page from Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games by splitting Roth's final book Allegiant into two movies (to be released in March 2016 and 2017, respectively). Insurgent succeeds as the next step in that four part journey, improving upon the first film in certain areas (most notably visual spectacle and world-building), but remains tethered by young adult melodrama that previously limited Divergent's cross-demographic appeal (read our Divergent review). As a result, Insurgent should give established franchise (book and movie) faithfuls an engaging continuation of the Divergent story; still, one that is not likely to win-over series skeptics (or give reason for uninitiated non-fans to play catchup).
In spite of several undercooked character arcs, Insurgent's main plot successfully builds on the foundation established in the first chapter - delving deeper into factions that were sidelined in round one while fleshing out the primary cast of characters with a bit more background and detail (especially Four). Several characters and core threads remain painfully thin - providing on-the-nose caricature and forced twists rather than nuanced drama and genuine surprises.
Nevertheless, where other young adult franchises often linger on romantic encounters and petty melodrama (without advancing the series plot), Insurgent moves at a steady pace and makes bold moves to ensure future installments keep Tris and Four moving in fresh directions (that is, when they aren't reiterating how much they are in love). Where Tris took center stage in Divergent, educating moviegoers about post-apocalyptic Chicago, as the fresh-faced initiate explores navigates her place in the faction system (especially the Dauntless community along with the corruption that has poisoned society from within), Insurgent places a much heavier emphasis on Four.
Tris is still the main character but, this time, the Divergent lovers share responsibility in moving the plot forward - allowing director Robert Schwentke (RED) to interweave Four's mysterious backstory with the introduction of new players and an entirely unexplored aspect of the five faction construct. James is saddled with soap opera dialogue, yet his portrayal of Four successfully transcends the muscly (and bland) dream boats of competing young adult franchises - albeit only slightly.
Unfortunately, Woodley is given less to do in chapter two - and, even though she's instrumental to the larger plot (and, unsurprisingly, the Founders' mysterious device), Tris spends the majority of Insurgent crippled by post-traumatic stress from her actions in Divergent (still a slight improvement over the prior entry's doe-eyed romance/pining). On paper, and in a 500 novel pages, there's plenty of time to develop and payoff Tris' guilt, self-loathing, and terror; yet, in a 119 minute film, the character arc rarely delivers emotional or thought-provoking drama.
At its core, Insurgent is a story about self-acceptance and forgiveness but the Divergent world is packed with too many twists, characters, and mind-altering tests to truly explore Tris' pain. Instead, though Schwentke checks all of the necessary boxes for a standard story of overcoming grief, Insurgent is a classic example of telling rather than showing - with very little nuanced drama dedicated to unpacking Tris or her deteriorating mental state. The lack of actual character development is especially disappointing after Woodley's memorable turns in The Descendants and, more recently, The Fault in Our Stars. Insurgent succeeds at improving certain aspects of Divergent but the series has yet to make memorable use of its high-quality lead.
Even when Tris and Four are underserved, they're still much more defined (and affecting) than the supporting cast ;which, with the exception of Winslet, is little more than set dressing - or, at best, catalysts that drive the story. Teller and Elgort both show signs early-on of more impactful arcs but are abruptly funneled into predictable and vanilla story beats that reveal very little about their characters or the series' thematic through lines. Fans of Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, or Mekhi Phifer will also find the actors' respective roles have been reduced to brief lines of exposition and background cameos - offering little access to how supporting characters have been changed in the unraveling faction system.
The same can be said for Winslet as Jeanine. Despite more screen time in Insurgent, the villainess is still a spiceless caricature that (for the smartest person in the smartest faction) rarely says anything insightful or particularly entertaining.
As mentioned, beyond expanding the mythology of Divergent's world, Insurgent also drastically ups the quality and impact of its onscreen spectacle - with some very sharp and unique visual set pieces. Viewers will likely predict many of the film's attempts at surprise but where twists fall flat, slick visual effects add a sense of scale and imagination that was sorely missing from the first installment.
To that end, Insurgent is playing in (post-converted) 3D and IMAX 3D theaters. The majority of the film is contained inside dusty barns, grungy warehouses, and futuristic laboratories, but the action set pieces (specifically those set within the "sims") are worth added ticket cost - at least for established fans.
Like Divergent before it, Insurgent falls short of hitting the bar set by superior YA film adaptations but is a step in the right direction for the Divergent series - and still far better than the genre's more notorious melodramas (read: Twilight). Still, though the Divergent sequel isn't a significant jump for the series, or reason enough for non-fans to give the franchise a shot, Insurgent includes noticeable refinements that make for an all around higher quality film product - while forging an intriguing new direction for the series.
That said, with the story barreling towards movie one of a two part Allegiant finale, it remains to be seen if Divergent can further improve - not to mention avoid the mistakes of prior young adult franchises that stalled in their penultimate chapter.
The Divergent Series: Insurgent runs 119 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language. Now playing in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our Insurgent episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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