The war against Jeanine – for real, the enemy’s name is Jeanine – rages on through Insurgent, the second chapter of the moderately engaging but inevitably deteriorating Divergent series. Replacement director Robert Schwentke (Red, Flightplan) surrounds series leads Shailene Woodley and Theo James with awards-pedigreed co-stars, and maintains an energetic, action-heavy pace. But it’s not enough to fully break Insurgent free from the drab, grey tropes of the YA film genre and its dystopian, “chosen one” formula.
Veronica Roth’s Divergent world, first realized in her bestselling books, is a strange place to visit. As mentioned, there are the now-familiar YA beats that have propped up franchise from The Hunger Games and The Giver to The Maze Runner: burned-out future society; communities classified and divided into factions; a reluctant savior destined to tear down the barriers and lead survivors into a brave new world.
But Divergent and its new sequel go an extra mile to embrace an abnormal (without being silly) mythology and commit to it, fully. Because I don’t religiously track the world of Divergent, I frequently was lost following the plotting of Insurgent, but because the movie careens from one noteworthy sci-fi set piece to the next, I was entertained while still scratching my head. (And yes, I saw the first Divergent, but after absorbing so many YA adaptations, they’re all one monotone blur by this point.)
Think I’m exaggerating? The jargon in this brief Insurgent plot rehash may make your head spin. Tris Prior (Woodley), labeled a Divergent because she doesn’t fit in any of the established factions, remains a fugitive after attacking Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and the powerful Erudites. Pursued by several Dauntless soldiers – led by the vanilla Jai Courtney – Tris, Four (James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller, the only one in the cast with personality) retreat to Amity, a safe haven outside the decrepit ruins of Chicago. Martial law has been declared back in Tris’ home city, but Jeanine needs the powerful Divergent for a different reason this time out. It appears Jeanine (for real, she needs a scarier name) uncovered a box in the ruins of the home once occupied by Tris' dead parents, and the icy ruler requires a Divergent to open it so she can unlock the object’s secret, protected message.
Did you follow all of that? Then you likely either devotedly read Roth’s novels, or recently watched Neil Burger’s 2014 movie that kick-started this teen-centric series. In addition to the dour denizens of the initial Divergent, Insurgent adds an array of extremely talented actors in roles that don’t utilize their skills. Octavia Spencer spends a few minutes on screen as Johanna, the benevolent leader of Amity who fails at protecting Tris. Naomi Watts joins the fray as Evelyn, a character with many secrets who, I believe, will become more important in Allegiant -- the two-part continuation scheduled for 2017 and 2018.
Behind the camera, Schwentke does an admirable job constructing new areas of Roth’s peculiar universe and keeping the action moving. Early on, Insurgent adopts a breakneck pace, with chase scenes and gunfights bleeding right into multi-person fistfights on a speeding train. He also seamlessly handles the virtually reality aspect of the film’s benchmark sequence, which is Tris’ five cyber challenges needed to unlock Jeanine’s mystery box. These effects looked incredibly cheesy in the marketing for Insurgent, but achieve the desired sentiment in the context of the film. Insurgent borders on exciting, even if you aren’t exactly sure why certain characters are doing the strange and violent things that they are doing.
This, then, might be a personal beef for me regarding Insurgent. After two films, it hasn’t yet done enough to establish itself as anything more than a YA clone hoping to entertain lazy teens who sort of enjoyed the Hunger Games and don’t mind paying to see something similar. Woodley has given better performances outside of the Divergent series. Winslet mails in what’s required of her here. And Insurgent seemed to be drawing to an acceptable conclusion before a Hail Mary twist in the final scene, setting up Allegiant. Which is fine. I won’t mind seeing where this story goes, but I’m less than thrilled this narrative – already straining to engage over the course of two films – is going to try and stretch itself out for the duration of two movie feature-length movies. That’s the definition of unnecessary.
Want to know whether or not you should see the movie in 3D? Check out our To 3D Or Not To 3D review!
Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.