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THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT Movie Review – More of the Same, Except Different

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Déjà vu: The unshakeable, unmistakable feeling that you’ve already seen the adaptation of the popular Young Adult (YA) dystopian novel you’re currently watching in a crowded movie theater. In other words, Insurgent, the second book/adaptation in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series (a trilogy soon-to-be expanded into not three feature films, but four), doesn’t just borrow heavily from every YA adaptation that’s come before, especially those of the science-fiction dystopian bent, but specifically The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (the third book/film in the series) and the character arc for its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, from remorseful, guilt-ridden post-traumatic stress-order (PTSD) sufferer to fully empowered world-beater and all-around savior of her downtrodden people, not to mention (but we’ll mention it anyway) a generational struggle (idealistic, principled teens vs. corrupt, corrupted adults). It’s the same Hero’s Journey/Chosen One we’ve seen before countless times in the past, albeit with a female character at the center, not, as usual, the periphery.

Insurgent essentially picks up where Divergent left off. Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), Tris’ mentor/boyfriend, Four (Theo James), Peter (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now), and Tris’ brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), are on the run from the order-obsessed, autocratic ruler of future Chicago, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), and her supporters, including most of Dauntless, one of the five, personality-based, factions that future Chicago’s founders created as the basis for social and political stability. The five factions, Dauntless (bravery), Candor (honesty), Amity (friendship), Erudite (intellectualism), and Abnegation (selflessness), make as little sense (i.e., none) in Insurgent as did in Divergent, but hastily or poorly conceived world building isn’t new to YA fiction (even the superior Hunger Games series suffers from serious, not easily overlooked world-building problems). Luckily, world building isn’t a primary or even secondary priority in Insurgent, but the five-faction system, the hide-in-plain-sight Divergents of the series (multi-trait future Chicagoans considered an existential threat by Jeanine), and the Factionless (the unfortunate losers in the faction system) remain a buy-in or check-out feature for readers and moviegoers alike.

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The suppression of the Abnegation faction orchestrated by Jeanine and her Dauntless cohorts left countless future Chicagoans, including Tris’ parents, Natalie (Ashley Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), dead and Tris and her allies hunted down as traitors to future Chicago. Divergent also spent an inordinate amount of time in training mode as Tris underwent the rites and rituals, not to mention the training sessions, to become a full member of Dauntless, the city’s law enforcer. Like Katniss in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, most of Tris’ training took place in a budget-saving underground setting. The sequel mixes up the locations, taking Tris and her allies to Amity’s rustic, outdoor compound before moving on to Factionless HQ — where Four and his long-lost mother, Evelyn (a too-young Naomi Watts), do everything except repair their broken relationship — before seguing to Candor’s gleaming, modernist HQ, and eventually back to the Erudite HQ (Jeanine never leaves or changes clothes) for additional time in the Matrix-inspired simulation chair.

It all feels rote and routine — because frankly, it is — but director Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D., RED, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Flightplan) can’t be faulted for the usual, time-wasting problems associated with the middle film in a trilogy. Schwentke handles the relatively bloodless action scenes typical of PG-13 rated action films with surprising fluidity and dexterity, if little to no visual style that can be traced back to him. Whether a consequence of the still limited budget (higher, but not Hunger Games high), a paucity of imagination, or both, Schwentke’s go-to visual effect, crumbling, disintegrating buildings repeated ad nauseum and ad infinitum, becomes increasingly tedious and tiresome, not to mention stakes-free (because it’s a simulation and we know it’s a simulation).

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Whether fans of Roth’s series will care about crumbling buildings or inelegant simulations, of course, anybody’s guess, but they might have problems with the major book-to-film changes the three credited screenwriters, Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback, implemented, including compressed or eliminated subplots (and characters), and more importantly, a near talismanic object of desire not present in the series. To their credit, that object helps immeasurably in pulling the various narrative threads together while keeping the final revelation about the Founders and the five-faction system remains essentially the same. Duffield, Goldsman, and Bomback, however, fare worse where character motivations are concerned. Not one, but two characters pull 180s, making decisions contrary to their personalities and instincts for survival. In short, their decisions are plot-driven, not character driven. Add to that a static romantic relationship — it’s hard to root for a couple who repeat the same lines over and over to each other — and the reductive handling of Tris’ PTSD and the result, while almost always watchable, rarely rises to the level of memorable.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.