Review: Insurgent

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First, a disclaimer: when I went to see Insurgent I had neither read the books nor seen its prequel, Divergent. However, tellingly, at no point did I feel that my total lack of context or background knowledge left me at any disadvantage. This was not due to my incredible intuition as a film-viewer, or because I felt the director was making a particularly concerted effort to rope us first-timers into the franchise. No, this was because I happen to have watched The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series and the myriad of Young Adult adaptations that have come out over the last few years. The Divergent series is so derivative and departs so little from the rubric of its predecessors that at times I felt almost a sense of déjà vu, as if I had watched it before while half asleep on an airplane. Post-apocalyptic world: check; society divided into groups based on abilities: check; a despotic leader concerned with the ‘greater good’: check; and a hero(ine) with a predilection for martyrdom and self-sacrifice: check.

For fellow initiates to the franchise, only a very brief introduction will be necessary. In this case, the heroine with the bleeding heart is Tris (Shailene Woodley). In Tris’ world there has been a terrible disaster that has decimated the human race, leaving only the inhabitants of the crumbling city of Chicago, who are protected from the unknown of the post-apocalyptic world by high city walls. In order to ensure peace, people are divided into factions based on personality and ability. These factions are pretty self-explanatory: Erudite (intelligent), Candour (honest), Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), and Dauntless (brave).

Tris is enemy number one of the despotic government because she is ‘Divergent’, which means she does not fit into one faction but rather embodies them all, making her a threat to the status quo.

The whole premise of the Divergent trilogy is rather difficult to buy into. Does the faction system mean that everybody apart from the Divergents only have one personality trait? Tris’ status as one hundred percent Divergent also essentially means that she is perfect in everyway, which is uncomfortably Messianic and frankly rather boring.

While the first film was presumably dedicated to setting the scene and character development, Insurgent is solely concerned with plot and action as Tris and her boyfriend Four (yes, like the number) try to overcome the evil leader of Erudite, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), as she attempts to take over the known world and destroy Divergents. This means that while there are some moments of breath-taking, chair-clenching action and spectacular Matrix-esque special effects, the characters appear as dull as dishwater, which makes it hard to care about their life-risking exploits. Shailene Woodley does her best with her heroine, but she is so excruciatingly virtuous and lacking in any sense of humour that Woodley’s natural charisma, seen in The Descendants (2011), has little chance to shine.

While presumably trying to channel chillingly calm matron of evil à la Nurse Ratched, Kate Winslet ends up more dull headmistress who looks like she has a ruler clenched between her bum cheeks, no doubt contributed to by being straightjacketed in some extraordinarily tight dresses.

The only glimmer of much-needed cynicism and acerbic wit comes from the star of Whiplash, Miles Teller, as Peter, unprincipled enemy-turned-ally-turned-enemy. A little more of Peter might have done much to alleviate a film that is weighed down by its own earnestness.

It is true that like a lot of other YA series, the Divergent trilogy deals with many of the important themes of adolescence, such as finding your identity, not fitting in, and self-acceptance. It also continues the welcome trend of self-possessed, talented and fully clothed heroines. However, the plot, characters and setting are all too familiar and the themes are about as subtle as the characters’ gimmicky tattoos. If you can’t wait for the next Hunger Games to come out and you need a stop-gap, Insurgent might temporarily fill the void, but if you’re in search of anything more substantial, I suggest you look elsewhere.

PHOTO: Summit Entertainment/Allstar