Echoing the Mockingjay

The Divergent Series: Insurgent
(USA, 119 min.)
Dir. Robert Schwentke, Writ. Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer.
Theo James as Four and Shailene Woodley as Tris in The Divergent Series: Insurgent.
eOne Films.

It’s once more unto the breach for Young Adult fiction. The Divergent series continues with Insurgent, which is a mostly satisfying second instalment of the series based on the books by Veronica Roth. This film sometimes improves on its predecessor now that all the exposition is out of the way—Divergent lays a lot of groundwork—but the fast-paced Insurgent requires full knowledge of the film that came before it. Brush up on why Tris (Shailene Woodley) and company live in a world divided into Factions—Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Abnegation—and you’ll be fine. Tris, a renegade Divergent who embodies the qualities of multiple Factions, is poised to lead the revolution against the oppressive forces of social determination.

Subtract the element of the five Factions and Insurgent strongly resembles the first instalment of Mockingjay that marks the beginning of the end for Divergent’s fellow teen-lit franchise The Hunger Games. Much like Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inspires the insurgents of the rebellion led by Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) against frigid President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Tris inspires the warriors of the Factionless led by Evelyn (Naomi Watts) in the fight against Erudite ice queen Janine Matthews (Kate Winslet). They’re all gunning for the promise of a better future that lies outside the walls (literal walls for Insurgent) of these dystopian worlds with a spunky heroine and a morale of social (dis)order.

If Insurgent echoes the Mockingjay too strongly, however, it mostly feels a little late joining in on the chorus of “The Hanging Tree.”The Divergent series simply moves one step behind The Hunger Games and it always will. It’s more daunting than dauntless to overcome such a strong precursor, and the few divergent elements that Insurgent brings to the YA table aren’t its strongest facts. The division of Factions often proves confusing and it lends an inherent stiffness to the film as each character assumes a rigid mould—even the Divergent characters who all appear as fallible guardian angels—so there’s an evitable ongoing derivativeness to the franchise as it tries to find an original voice within its own Faction.

Insurgent, however, brings an unexpected hopefulness to the world of YA adaptations in its quick finale until a surprise doozy of a twist leaves one eager for round three. As Evelyn, Four’s mom, Naomi Watts makes a welcome addition to the franchise. She spearheads a brewing civil war that seeks to overthrow Janine and the Faction system, and the film lingers with tension as Evelyn and Tris both vie for leadership. The smart pacing of this instalment brings an anti-climatic bent to the uprising of the Factionless army, and the surprise turn of events before the climax keeps the fight going. (Insurgent has a surprising amount of resolution of a middle act.) Other new cast-members, such as Octavia Spencer and Janet McTeer, bring a range of power to the film, and their sizable presence hints at a larger and better battle to be hard in chapter three. It’s nice to have a break from the darkness and bleakness of the YA world, and Insurgent builds the need for another round as it quickly snuffs out the hope in its finale.

Insurgent still delivers as an entertaining feat of escapism, though, thanks to the swiftness with which director Robert Schwentke (Red) provides the action. Insurgent is better than Divergent as an overall production: it has better pacing and a superior hand at creating a dystopian world that feels relevant to the world of today. Some intense chases, set pieces, and elaborate fights provide a mix of old-school action and cutting-edge entertainment, although there isn’t any reason to splurge on 3D glasses except to be dazzled by a few shards of glass. Throw in some simulations to test the force of the Factions, and Insurgent wraps its action around its convoluted premise rather nicely as each burst of adrenaline tests Tris’s ability to lead.

The gist of this part of the series is that Tris’s leadership makes her a target as Janine’s steely power is stronger than ever. Janine she puts Divergents in the crosshairs and subjects them to detainment and fatal experiments after she finds a fabled box (held in the house of Tris’s late parents), which she believes it to contain vital information about Divergents. Janine, being an Erudite, blinds herself with the quest for knowledge like an academic arguing a thesis that’s already proven false. Janine remains a worthy adversary this time around mostly thanks to Winslet’s cool demeanour. She’s also not afraid to show her character’s cowardice, and lets the villain’s belief in the rigidity of the personality divides inherent in the Factions be her character’s fatal flaw.

Also feeling rather cold, but not for the better, is the chemistry between Woodley and Theo James as Four. The pair lacks the spark of the first film—Woodley especially (and surprisingly) and the lack of fire from the female lead underscores how vitally Jennifer Lawrence’s screen presence makes The Hunger Games franchise so strong. Woodley is a terrific actress, but she’s better suited to the drama of The Descendents or The Fault in Our Stars than to the haywire act of Insurgent. Insurgent reminds audiences that Tris’s soft Abnegation heart is her weak spot, and Woodley is at her best when Tris wrestles with her guilt and range of skills. There’s room to grow as the series heads into Allegiant in which Woodley can recapture some of the renegade spirit of the first film and come into her own as the series looks to the light. Pardon the candor, but diverging from the crowd often makes a film a winner, right?

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Insurgent opens in theatres March 20.

How would you compare Insurgent to Divergent?