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Review: Insurgent Continues The Bland And Nonsensical Divergent Series

Is "Apathy" one of their personality types?


As a general rule, I would always rather see a movie that tries hard and comes up short than one without a sense of ambition or purpose. When a movie tries to create something new or express something personal, it almost always has enough behind it to hold my interest; and even movies that fail can at least sometimes spark interesting conversations. But when a movie tries to do nothing more than to “not offend” audiences, I get mad – because they foster apathy.

That apathy exists throughout Insurgent, even more noticeably than the last time we set foot in the poorly-constructed world of the Divergent series. I read part of the first book before seeing the first film, and was pretty disappointed. I can see the appeal of a lot of young adult sci-fi, but these books sit on a foundation of uninspired, basic ideas which are used as window dressing for tired action-adventure and romance. Even the logic of Divergent doesn’t make much sense to me… why, in a tyrannical world that can test citizen’s personality types, would people have a choice in picking the group they belong in? And why would you have a growing population with more freedom than those following your laws? And why give confusing names to the group if everyone’s they are being defined by their personality types? I genuinely forget which group they were talking about until they are on screen and I see their color schemes.

Basically, the entire Divergent series of books and films are built on flimsy premises, and the filmmakers have no desire to improve or even to simplify these concepts. They are made for a narrow group of audiences, with filmmakers hoping to capture that lightening in a bottle which is The Hunger Games. And though I don’t love Hunger Games, Divergent shows that, at the very least, Katniss and co. hold stronger ideas and characters than here.

For one, we have President Snow and President Coin in The Hunger Games (Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore) vs. Divergent’s Jeanine and Evelyn (Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts). While Snow and Coin at least suggest a warped sense of righteousness when first introduced, I have no idea what Jeanine and Evelyn’s intentions are. Why do they want control? Simply because they’re power-hungry? The obvious similarities make it all the more noticeable that the Divergent films want too desperately to appeal to the Hunger Games crowd, and are simply creating a paint-by-numbers movie, which isn’t very engaging or compelling filmmaking.

Joining Watts and Winslet is fellow Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as Johanna, leader of the pacifist group Amity. She has one solid scene, but she’s wasted in the movie overall, and if she returns I’ll be shocked. All I could think about was how great she was in Snowpiercer with that metal pipe, and how much I wanted to see her do more of that here. I’ll also be genuinely surprised if Miles Teller returns for the next two films, because he seems a bit checked out; and while that might make him interesting to watch compared to our whispering heroes Tris and Four, I sense it was the actor’s cockiness coming through rather than an intentional performance choice.

There is a frequent problem of “not committing” to this movie, and Shailene Woodley is a big offender. She doesn’t seem to connect to Tris, so she often just looks dazed on screen. She and the production team have made no effort to develop a fight style to sell the number of times she attacks and saves people and it’s laughable when she goes after Jonny Weston on a moving train. I think Woodley is a good actress, but it’s also clear that this was not the right franchise for her to get saddled with at this point in her career.

One of the big problems the movie has is that, according to storytelling logic, Four (Theo James), not Tris, should be the main character we follow. Tris is “the chosen one,” but Four chooses to be a hero and has to overcome something significant in his life. It would also make sense that he could be a leader because he comes from a family of (abusive) leaders, and is seemingly much older than the teenagers surrounding him. Additionally, Tris and Four don’t work as a couple because these two actors have no chemistry; that’s why the audience has to constantly be told that they love each other, rather than seeing it for ourselves. In the same way, we’re also constantly being told that Tris has all these wonderful qualities as a Divergent (and I still don’t really understand how Divergents are different from Factionless, but to be fair, I also don’t really care).

Insurgent, despite the money this franchise makes, looks cheap. I know the books are set in Chicago and there is supposed to be commentary about gang life in the projects and the way the city and suburbs are divided; but, being someone from the area, they really don’t this up in these films. Some of the clothing looks good on the actors (Watts, Spencer, Winslet and Maggie Q have especially nice wardrobes), but they could all be walking around today in the same clothing without raising an eyebrow. Which would be fine, if the teenagers didn’t all look like high school clichés.

This movie is in 3D, and for the life of me, I don’t know why – besides the obvious opportunity to make a few extra bucks off 13-year-olds. When there are obvious 3D effects, they are annoying (stop with the lens flairs in 3D!) and the rest of the time they simply can’t justify the costs. We have plenty of pixelated images flying at us in the end, but they all look like sophomoric attempts to recreate the magic of the original Matrix, and they still fail to capture the same shine and polish of a movie from 1999. Even the city, created mostly with CGI, shows no real world-building or sense of geography. Insurgent is just an excuse to have a bridge film in a series to sell.

This movie isn’t bad because it is aimed at 13-year-olds; every group should have entertainment that appeals and speaks to them. But what I find so frustrating is the fact that the people behind these movies think so little of their target audience. They don’t think teenage girls are smart enough to create smart philosophical sci-fi, and they clearly have no ambition to develop their taste.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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