A film review by Craig J. Koban March 29, 2015



2015, PG-13, 119 mins.


Shailene Woodley as Beatrice 'Tris' Prior  /  Theo James as Four  /  Ansel Elgort as Caleb  /  Miles Teller as Peter  /  Naomi Watts as Evelyn  /  Maggie Q as Tori Wu  /  Kate Winslet as Jeanine  /  Jai Courtney as Eric  /  Zoë Kravitz as Christina  /  Ray Stevenson as Marcus Eaton  /  Octavia Spencer as Johanna

Directed by Robert Schwentke  /  Written by Brian Duffield and Akiva Goldsman


I honestly can’t tell if the awkwardly titled THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT is a bad film or one that I just simply didn’t care about.  

Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.  

This new film – a sequel to 2014’s DIVERGENT, based on the first in a literary trilogy of novels by Veronica Roth – should have at least attempted to take the characters and premise from its antecedent in new and refreshing directions.  Instead of feeling like a fully realized continuation of DIVERGENT’s narrative, INSURGENT feels like a step backwards in terms of building to something momentous and rewarding.  Despite the thankless presence of Shailene Woodley back at the helm, INSURGENT not only lacks palpable tension and excitement, but it also does little to distinguish itself apart from the first film and other young adult literary adaptations altogether. 

Perhaps one of the problems with THE DIVERGENT SERIES is that it utterly pales in comparison to, say, THE HUNGER GAMES, another post-apocalyptic film franchise (based on celebrated and popular novels aimed at youth audiences) that Roth clearly was attempting to emulate for mainstream success.  Both franchises involve plucky and headstrong female protagonists thrust into the limelight of leading a rebellion against fanatical powers-that-be in an oppressive Orwellian post-war America.  THE HUNGER GAMES proved – after a somewhat middling and shaky introductory film – that you could create a series of headstrong and robustly confident sequels that radically expanded upon thematic material, character depth, and narrative scale.  THE DIVERGENT SERIES, by direct comparison, feels more mournfully content with regurgitation than true ingenuity.  That, and considering that the film contains multiple Oscar nominees in the form of Woodley, Kate Winslet, and Naomi Watts, it’s pretty remarkable how little I felt invested in any one particular character’s plight in INSURGENT. 



You may recall that DIVERGENT introduced us to a futuristic Chicago that has had massive walls erected around the city to segregate it apart from the rest of what’s left of western civilization.  Citizens have been systematically delegated to five distinct personality types: Dauntless (rough and tough), Erudite (smart and ruthless), Amity (Peace loving hippie types), Candor (honest Abes) and Abnegation (selfless).  Now, before you put your pen and paper away, you may want jot this down as well so you don’t get confused: There are also the Factionless (pretty self explanatory) and Divergents, a small minority of those that possesses the attributes of all of the aforementioned classes.  There is a former Erudite leader now secretly a dictatorial tyrant named Jeanine (Kate Winslet, in pure paycheck grabbing mode) that wants to hunt down the only being with 100 per cent Divergence…Tris (Shailene Woodley).  It’s never revealed what her midichlorian count is…but never mind. 

Anyhoo’, INSURGENT takes places mere days after DIVERGENT, during which time Tris and her freedom fighter boyfriend (Theo James, brooding more than acting), Peter (Mile Teller, wildly underused, but bringing an unpredictable level of mischief that the film desperately requires) and Caleb (Ansel Elgort) have fled the city and Jeanine’s clutches and have settled into life with an Amity faction camp.  Predictably, a vile Dauntless enforcer (Jai Courtney) has been assigned to find Tris and bring her to Jeanine, whom wants to use her Divergence-ness to help open a special box thingy that she hopes will unveil secrets that will keep her in power indefinitely.  While on the run, Tris and company hook up with Four’s estranged mother Evelyn (Watts), the underground leader of Factionless that hopes to form an alliance with Tris and others to wage war on Jeanine.  Unfortunately for all, Tris finds herself in Jeanine’s clutches and is coerced into a series of digital “sim trials” that Jeanine hopes will open her box…even if it means killing Tris in the process. 

Okay, let me be frank: THE DIVERGENT SERIES would be pretty unendurable without Woodley spearheading the charge.  She single-handedly manages to rescue these films from being yet another in an awfully long line of insipid young adult/teen melodrama/post-apocalyptic thrillers.  She brings genuine warmth, compassion, grit, and tenacity to an otherwise flavourless and dramatically inert film.  She occupies, of course, two of the film’s more compelling scenes, the first showing her being forced to go on trial after being injected with an uber truth serum that makes her answer questions she otherwise would not want to.  The second – coming during the film’s final climatic act – has her engage in mentally torturous and taxing trials in the aforementioned simulated virtual reality world.  The fact that Woodley is able to help ground her character amidst all of the wanton preposterousness around her is a testament to her as a committed actress; she’s crazily above the material she’s been given. 

INSURGENT was directed by FLIGHTPLAN's Robert Schwentke (replacing DIVERGENT’s Neil Bruger), and he seems more than competent in the areas of visual effects and production design (INSURGENT clearly looks like it benefited from a larger budget this go around) not to mention that he had the foresight to make INSURGENT leaner than its predecessor, which was an endurance testing two and a half hours long.  There’s no doubt that, visually at least, INSURGENT is proficiently made with the right requisite polish, but for all of its stunning vistas of a war ravaged and secluded Chicago and those nifty CGI-heavy sequences of Tris battling herself (figuratively and literally) in those trippy sim sequences, INSURGENT never populates its world with characters we feel for and want to root on to final victory.  The film is so utterly devoid of humor, authentically likeable characters, and an intriguing plot that all we are pathetically left with is a lot of obligatory oppressive imagery and production artifice in desperate search for dramatic and thematic depth.  INSURGENT is a darker, more violent, and definitively more action packed film that what came before…but it’s also paradoxically feels more tedious and perfunctory.   

There are kernels of strong ideas at play here in the DIVERGENT universe, like the nature of repressive regimes that subvert individuality and basic human dignity, but we’ve encountered these themes so many countless times before that they frankly are starting to lose any semblance of freshness of approach.  DIVERGENT engaged us in exhausting exposition to introduce us to its world, so you’d at least think that INSURGENT would come running right out of the gate and more dutifully explore the trials and tribulations of its determined hero and her journey towards self-actualization and becoming a bona fide savoir figure.  By the time INSURGENT reached its conclusion – setting up what’s sure to be multiple follow-ups – I was left more in a state of apathy than I was euphoria and anticipation for what’s coming next.  I found myself surrendering to THE HUNGER GAMES and the continuation of its enthralling multi-film storyline.  If INSURGENT is the last film in THE DIVERGENT SERIES that I ever see then I'll be wholeheartedly content.  

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