There are at least two ways to look at Insurgent, the second installment in the planned four-movie Divergent series.
Taken on its own terms, this second chapter remains a disappointingly familiar helping of young adult sci-fi with a story built on a rigid caste system that divides what remains of the world’s population into distinct personality groups — the smart, the honest, the aggressive, etc.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Those stumbling into Insurgent with no prior knowledge will find a passable if not especially novel addition to a genre — dystopian sci-fi — that’s best when it’s a bit more brainy.
But if one allows for a little relativism, and places the movie in the context of a franchise with two more movies remaining, it’s possible to argue that Insurgent marks an improvement over a far more tepid first installment.
With new director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, RED and R.I.P.D.) taking over from Neil Burger, this second helping emphasizes action and special effects, some of which are truly dazzling.
In this edition, the evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) wants to capture heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley). A full-fledged divergent, Tris possess genes from all of the five personality types into which this futuristic society has been divided.
Tris also has the power to open a mysterious box that contains a message from the group that originally set up the factional system that’s supposed to ensure that peace prevails.
Although the screenplay by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback remains laden with jargon, Insurgent feels a bit freer and looser than its predecessor.
The movie opens with a quartet of rebels on the run. Tris, her boyfriend Four (Theo James), Chris’s brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller) are all fleeing the evil regime.
Early on, the movie’s quartet of refugees seeks sanctuary among the greenery and quietude to an Amity village, Amity being the faction dedicated to a total lack of conflict, as well as to what appears to be a grimly wholesome vegetarian diet.
The head of Amity (Octavia Spencer) eventually decrees that the interlopers must be expelled from the Amity Eden.
We quickly learn that Tris has become mired in guilt from the last movie. She blames herself for the loss of her parents, a bit of torment that provides Woodley with a chance to add psychological depth to a character who also struggles to contain her most violent impulses.
Bland in the first installment, James adds a bit of welcome color to his portrayal, but the characters in Insurgent hardly qualify as memorable.
Sporting a brunette dye job, Naomi Watts makes an appearance as Four’s mother, a woman he neither trusts nor loves. Watts’s Evelyn leads a group called Factionless, misfits who may become a necessary part of the alliance that’s required to overthrow Winslet’s Jeanine, as much the tyrannical ice princess as ever.
The story builds toward scenes in which the captured Tris is hooked up to a device that causes her to hallucinate and puts her character through the severest of tests.
I don’t know precisely what to make of it, but Tris’s torture prompts the movie’s best visual accomplishments, including a vertiginous sequence in which Tris imagines that she must rescue her mother from a burning house that’s uprooted and careering through the ruins of what’s left of Chicago.
And, yes, this is another movie in which someone could have gotten rich by cornering the rubble market.
I can’t imagine that anyone but devotees of Veronica Roth’s trilogy of novels will be enthralled, but that group seems large enough to create a seasonal hit.
Roth’s final novel, Allegiant, is scheduled to be broken into two films. Listen, cynicism comes easy for me, but this time, I choose to be optimistic.
Despite its obvious liabilities, the Divergent series at least seems to be trending positive.