The Divergent Series: Insurgent
The YA sequel has its virtues
Release Date: OUT NOW!
12A | 119 minutes Director: Robert Schwentke Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort
Last year’s Divergent
opened to lukewarm- to- negative reviews, and solid but unexciting box office. Its takings were less than half those of Hunger Games, to which it’s often compared; both depict teen girl heroines in violent future worlds, with brutal regimes and endless fighting. It’s unlikely that Insurgent, Divergent’s sequel, will pick up many new converts ( like many franchises, it makes no allowance for newbie viewers), and the parallels to the Hunger Games films are actually more obvious this time round.
That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Divergent itself was underrated, more interesting and entertaining than many reviewers allowed. Both it and Insurgent are based on the YA books by Veronica Roth, set in a future Chicago that’s apparently civilisation’s last enclave on a ruined Earth, with society divided into factions based on virtues. The first film followed heroine Tris ( Shailene Woodley) who’s appalled to learn she’s a “Divergent”, an unclassifiable menace to society. It climaxed with a violent coup engineered by ruthless governor Jeanine ( Kate Winslet), who’s hellbent on exterminating Divergents. Tris survives, though both her parents die saving her.
The sequel, directed by franchise newcomer Robert Schwentke ( The Time Traveler’s Wife), carries straight on, with Tris now a fugitive together with her boyfriend Four ( Theo James). Still pursued by Jeanine’s goons, they hide out among various parties, none of whom seem inclined to confront Jeanine except for the Factionless, a ragtag group of social rejects led by Four’s long- lost mother ( Naomi Watts). Meanwhile, a centuries- old message is found in Tris’s family home; Jeanine believes this will cement her power and justify her Divergent murder programme. But there’s a snag. A supremely powerful Divergent is needed to open the message…
Like many of the serialised franchise films of recent years, Insurgent suffers for the want of a strong shape and structure. There’s a lot of to- ing and fro- ing, and the familiar irritant of no clear goal for much of the duration. However, this is mitigated by a series of strong character payoffs in the last act ( as well as by some serviceable plot reveals); and, more importantly, by the fact that it’s exciting and edgy. Whereas Divergent dealt with gruelling regimes of physical and mental training – more Ender’s Game than Hunger Games – Insurgent is packed with chases and fights, often with adrenaline. One character must leap across the path of an oncoming train, while another is pursued by ninja- like attackers on zip- lines, swooping down from the night onto a skyscraper roof.
Some viewers will complain that it’s all reheated leftovers. The scenes in Naomi Watts’s ruined lair- base can’t help but feel familiar if you saw Mockingjay Part One a few months back, with Watts evoking Julianne Moore’s matriarch in that film. Other scenes recall Star Trek TV episodes of the ’ 80s and ’ 90s, with sterile hi- tech décor and screens, and trials in VR environments – though these allow for Insurgent’s most impressive, visceral images. One VR setpiece with Woodley chasing after a burning house being lifted high in the air is splendidly imagined, with the low- tech creative spirit of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Throughout the film, there’s a sturdy emotional strand – Tris’s devastation at losing her parents, who reappear frequently to haunt her, and her fear that Jeanine’s campaign is actually right; that Divergents are social menaces who leave destruction wherever they go. It may be elementary, but this strand increasingly ties the film’s story together, better than many other “serial” films. ( Tris’s angst will also play well to the teenage demographic.) Shailene Woodley is strong again; as in Divergent, she plays Tris not as an iconic heroine like Katniss, but rather as an uncomfortable girl besieged by guilt, never secure with who she is –
The parallels to the Hunger Games films are obvious
something reflected in the way she gives herself a brusque, hair- cropping makeover at the start.
Of the other characters, Theo James’s Four has the usual passively reactive boyfriend role you get in this kind of film, entirely upstaged by Watts as his sinister mum. ( There’s a super- awkward “I love to watch him sleep” moment between mother and girlfriend, playing shamelessly to the fanbase.) Other supporting characters have good arcs, especially Miles Teller as the slithery Peter, who shifts with every breath of wind, and Ansel Elgort as Caleb, Tris’s painfully useless brother. Winslet brings glamour to the film, for all her character’s evilness – and Jeanine is far more hands- on nasty than The Hunger Games’ urbane President Snow.
Indeed, Insurgent helps establish new, potentially controversial, levels of violence in 12A- rated films, even though that trail was blazed by The Hunger Games ( and superhero
movies like The Dark Knight). There were more individual violent moments in Mockingjay ( also a 12A), but Insurgent has a startlingly sustained edge of viciousness and savagery, including head- butting and slamming; the shooting of unexpected characters; brainwashed youngsters throwing themselves off buildings; and Winslet herself performing deadly experiments on young test subjects, with overtones of Josef Mengele. Even the last- minute coda is violent.
The end also promises the world will change for the next film, Allegiant Part One. By the time that comes around the Hunger Games films will be over; will the Divergent series finally be able to emerge from Katniss Everdeen’s shadow?
“You were such a dick in The Inbetweeners Movie.”