Movie Review: 'The Divergent Series: Insurgent' (2015)

Few sequels in recent memory have been as big a letdown as “Insurgent”, the second installment in the “Divergent” franchise. After an unexpectedly fantastic debut film, expectations for a strong follow-up were high, only to be met with crushing disappoint. Never understatement the impact changing directors can have on a movie and especially a franchise. They set the tone for the entire film. From the way it is visualized to the way the cast performs the material.

Where “Divergent” director Neil Burger displayed a firm grip on the movie’s emotionally available female heroine, the central coming-of-age motif, the storyline’s sci-fi and romantic symmetry and the handling of dystopia without veering into overburdening despair, “Insurgent” helmer Richard Schwentke accomplishes the exact opposite.

“Insurgent” opens shortly after the events of its predecessor as Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Peter (Miles Teller) and Tris’ brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) have taken refuges in the peace-centric Amity community. It does not take long before their briefly realized sanctuary is disrupted by the evil Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).

Matthews sends her minions to test for Divergents so that one of them might unlock a four-sided box believed to contain an important message from the city’s founders. What follows is Tris and company attempting to outrun Jeanine as Tris simultaneously attempts to personally outrun the inner demons haunting her from the fallout of the previous movie.

The bubbly, sensitive, romantic and likable Tris from the original film has been replaced by a sullen, angsty, emo version whose misery quotient is off the charts. Her depression is understandable. She wants to avenge her parents' deaths and is consumed with taking down Jeanine, the arch nemesis she holds accountable. It’s an enmity between heroine and villainess that to the franchise’s credit features far more personal stakes than that of its genre peers.

Tris’ vendetta is a reasonable response that rings with a much greater truth than anything “The Hunger Games” offered as Katniss’ rebel motivation. Tris’ thirst for revenge is appropriate and as in a lot of movies, castigated. To the story’s credit it demonstrates the erosive effects of chasing such goals, underlining the loss of spirit Tris undergoes thanks to her fixation. It also acknowledges the righteousness of her outrage and to an extent, supports her efforts. That is about all “Insurgent” gets right.

For all of its accurate ruminations on revenge, it blocks out the light romantic whimsy that comprised its original outing. For no clear reason Tris has lost her enchantment with Four, who she yells at and constantly challenges. Similarly vacant for no apparent reason is Four’s role as the quiet, confident and respected leader he was in "Divergent". Tris may be sporting zero in the well of self-confidence but she seems certain of her unfounded distrust towards her paramour.

Their romantic interlude is disrupted and fractured to the point; it might as well be a forgotten plot point altogether. What had made the original so endearing was that Tris had been depicted as a young woman swept up in a tender first-time romance, who did not bother to hide her blossoming feelings. She wore them proudly. You could have never guessed that from seeing “Insurgent”.

As the movie introduces a rash of new characters (it delves into with shallow depth) it gets caught in sequel-itis. The condition in which a sequel believes a larger cast and bigger action sequences can enhance what was never necessary to make its predecessor successful.

For instance, Four’s mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts) is introduced and only given 5 minutes of screen time to address a character arc that requires more than double that time to give a more rounded understanding of not only her existence as a singular entity but her strained dynamic with her son.

The movie just skims over that part and wastes the incredible talents of its casting triumph in the process. Why bother casting an actress as fine as Watts for such a thankless role? Such is the cross other actors have had to bear in these sort of franchises.

Watts is not the only actor who gets the short end of the stick. Shailene Woodley has to play a disorienting incarnation of Tris, resulting in a performance that is all over the place. Thanks to the script Theo James’ previously smoldering performance is regressed into that of a silent drone, whose devotion to a thorny girlfriend is hard to muster or tolerate. Miles Teller turns in another charismatic performance as ne’er-do-well Peter; sparking his frequent co-star Shailene Woodley to her best moments in the movie.

The question of Peter's loyalty provides the movie’s sole tension and the over reliance on said plot provides another massive hindrance to the movie's already struggling momentum. One can't help thinking the movie should have evolved past this plot point early into this installment.

Adding to the overall disappointment is the highly anticipated face/off between Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts, marking the first time the actresses have shared the screen together. Their fleeting interaction marks yet another letdown in the movie’s already long list.

As Tris and company convolutedly plot their takedown of the evil empire, all of the heart and soul that should comprise their mission flames out. One frustrating action sequence after another, peppers the screen like the cache of bullets unleashed by its mustache-twirling villains, all failing to hit their desired mark as readily as the actual movie does. One cannot solely rest the blame on director Robert Schwentke, who gave audiences’ the fantastic actioner “Red”.

There were other behind-the-scenes changes that played a significant role in "Insurgent's" downfall, most importantly the replacement of the screenwriters who adapted "Divergent". The alteration proved to be profoundly detrimental and as has happened with other franchise’s, the lacking consistency in the voice of its writers had a piercing effect that was as costly as the film’s budget.

Rampant throughout "Insurgent" are a deluge of off-putting dream sequences that constantly call into question whether a character is living in reality or not. Regrettably, viewers never get the chance to wake up to a better movie. Rating: 4/10

To listen to Britt’s guest spot on the InSession Film podcast episode covering “Insurgent” click here

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