I love an ambitious science fiction spectacle, even if it’s a bit messy and flawed, and Robert Schwentke‘s Insurgent delivers an often visually striking playground for just that kind of movie. It offers an action-packed trek through both simulation-induced scenarios and reality, which holds the viewer’s interest even if it suffers a little from a middle-child-of-a-trilogy slump in its plot advancement.
Insurgent seems to be garnering mostly lukewarm to negative response from critics, but I found it likeable. The second installment in the film adaptations of the popular young adult dystopian sci-fi novels in The Divergent Series by Veronica Roth, Insurgent comes with the tagline, “One choice can destroy you.” This theme certainly applies to reluctant heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) as she struggles with her decisions and their consequences. The faction system of a post-apocalyptic Chicago has begun to fall, and war is brewing. Tris’ emotional progression amid the chaos serves as one of the highlights of the film, and the charismatic and compelling Woodley carries much of the story’s heart with her magnetic performance. Insurgent is about the aftermath of her decisions, the meaning of sacrifice, and self-forgiveness.
On that front, this flick tells a better story than its novel of origin. The plot is a little contrived, but then again, so is its source material. Notwithstanding, Insurgent excises some of the more tiresome teenage angsty fluff of the novel in favor of an action-packed story of Tris pursuing a more central goal of self-forgiveness and of sacrifice, ultimately protecting others so as not to let anyone else, in her words, “die because of me.”
When we last saw Tris and Four (Theo James) in Divergent, they had hopped the train to escape the chaos of the Erudite faction’s mind-control takeover of Dauntless. We rejoin the story just days later as Insurgent opens with Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) instead blaming the Divergents for the previous massacre of the Abnegation.
Dauntless traitors turned Erudite lackeys find a box engraved with symbols representing each of the factions, which it turns out can only be opened by a very strong Divergent — and who else but Tris could be this Chosen-One Divergent?! Jeanine plans to hunt her down and use her to open the box containing a message from the founders of the city, which she believes will help complete her goal of eradicating all Divergents.
Insurgent finds Tris and Four branded as fugitives, on the run from Amity, to the Factionless, and to Candor headquarters, always hunted by the Erudite and the Dauntless traitors. While taking refuge among the various factions, Tris is constantly haunted by the events of Divergent, struggling with feeling responsible for the deaths of her parents, and with the fact that she shot and killed her own friend, Will, while he was under mind control. She’s tormented by the blood on her hands, and the fear that everyone will see her as she sees herself: deadly.
Continuing a theme from its predecessor Insurgent shows Tris struggling with the idea of fitting in, even going so far as to say “I don’t want to be Divergent anymore.” Before, she was told that Divergents were dangerous, and that she shouldn’t reveal herself to anyone. Now in addition to her grief for her parents and her friend, she fears that maybe Divergents really are to blame for what’s happening in her society. Tris ultimately has to confront her feelings of guilt, both for her own personal growth, and to complete her task of opening the box.
Aside from the story of Tris’ emotional growth, there’s no shortage of action, and quite a lot of great performances by an excellent cast. Woodley’s badass Tris and Winslet’s ruthless Jeanine lead a host of women in leadership roles, all with their own strengths and flaws. Other notable performances include Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother Caleb, who establishes himself soon as a coward and a weakling in comparison with the Dauntless lovebirds, and Miles Teller as Peter, ever the intelligent but cunning asshole.
The main fault here is the sheer scope of this franchise. There are simply too many characters to meet, that we either hadn’t met in Divergent, or simply aren’t fleshed out enough in Insurgent in order for the audience to understand the importance of even meeting them. While the story is pared down mostly to Tris and Four and the crumbling of the factions, some of the others’ character development feels incomplete.
Nevertheless, I still like Insurgent better than I liked the novel. If you enjoyed the books, you’ll enjoy the movie. But regardless of your knowledge of the franchise, Insurgent isn’t likely to bore you if you’re into sci-fi action fun. It’s often thrilling, the cast is wonderful, the simulation scenes are visually remarkable, and for the most part the story is unified. The overarching plot of the series is intriguing, and viewers certainly want to know the actual message in the box, and what’s beyond the fence. Insurgent successfully sets up the remainder of the story for the two-part finale, Allegiant, Parts 1 and 2 due in theaters in March 2016 and 2017, respectively.
PG-13 for “intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language.”