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Insurgent | Review

Rebel Heart: Schwentke Usurps Plebeian YA Franchise

Robert Schwentke Insurgent PosterIn many ways, Insurgent is an easier film to watch than its 2014 predecessor, Divergent, in which we were forced to wallow through a bloated pabulum of post-apocalyptic YA mush that laid out its very specific ground rules for a brave new Fascistic society so generically fashioned it may has well have been plucked directly from any number of other glossy tent poles from a theme currently all the rage.

The weak kneed origin story of Beatrice (Tris, if you please) Prior is replaced with this battle cry that deflects its significant shortcomings with action distraction, a trend often evident in the general mid-chapter  franchise treatment. Director Robert Schwentke takes over for Neil Burger with an adrenaline punch of a film that streamlines its stunted narrative into cascades of fisticuffs. However, you’re bound to keep asking, for what purpose exactly? Our heroine is left to struggle with inner turmoil concerning the demise of her parents from the saga’s last chapter, revamping her image with a chic yet sensible new hairdo, weakly juxtaposed with the growing factions banding together against the ruling Aryan-inspired Erudites.

Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) are still on the run through the ruins of Chicago, endlessly pursued by Erudite leader Jeanine’s (Kate Winslet) main minions Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer). With the other members of their Dauntless crew (a faction the Erudites sought to destroy in the last chapter) hiding out in the Candor faction, the fugitive Divergents have sought the help of the Amity leader Johanna (Octavia Spencer), who reluctantly allows them refuge. But group in-fighting between Tris and Peter (Miles Teller) has Johanna reconsidering her hospitality. The presence of Jeanine’s troops sends them on the run once more, bringing Four into contact with a secret from his past in the realm of the Factionless.

Hardly the worst of these end of times YA adaptations that keep getting churned into franchise properties thanks to the success of The Hunger Games (a series that will breathe an overdue last gasp later this year), Veronica Roth’s Divergent series isn’t able to overcome its rampant similarities to a multitude of other examples, including titles like The Giver and The Maze Runner (both of which were hobbled, in part, by the generic CGI landscape of vague visual landscapes).

Our favorite blue-eyed blonde Nazi played by Kate Winslet gets joined by an even more impressive force of validating supporting names such as Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer, and so continues another similar trend amongst these types of films where actresses of a particular age are offered blandly commanding leadership roles (and our new faces join the ranks of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Patricia Clarkson). And while the increasingly outlandish, silly sounding character names from The Hunger Games are a continual distraction, so are Roth’s elementary monikers here. At one point Jai Courtney barks, “Tell Jeanine we’ve found it!” in reference to the sadistic ruler he blindly serves. Yet her name evokes a certain hollowness, a bland, vague name that sounds evokes the visage of control freak in charge of a swap meet, not a power hungry tyrant. Likewise, other faction leaders are outfitted with names like Johanna and Evelyn—and perhaps this is because they are mere simulations of types instead of actual characters.

Look no further than this chapter’s ‘ultimate’ challenge, which finds Tris being abducted by the Erudites to unlock a secret box with a secret message from their world’s ancestors for a series of plot holes and wan storytelling. A nifty bit of new technology (somehow created in a technologically compromised, walled off world) is able to ascertain the percentage of divergence in any given individual, and Tris is rated as 100% divergent, which makes her a prime candidate for opening this sacred box that includes a tasking of completing five simulations (one for each faction), before the message will be presented. But if she’s truly 100% divergent, there shouldn’t be any tension, logically. Yet, her character is written as having marked difficulty in at least one area, that of Amity. But then that’s the whole folly of such a narrative—there cannot really be the ‘one,’ at least not as a ‘perfect’ specimen. These adolescents, male and female, as Christ-like saviors of worlds gone haywire, feel like a tiresome folly unto themselves.

As civil war looms between the factions, Insurgent, boiled down, is a series of near escapes, featuring a bevy of incredibly violent incidents for something considered worthy of a PG-13 rating, including having characters getting shot point blank in the head (though the oozing blood and brain detritus drips off screen). And the inescapable solemnity of Tris’ predicament makes much of this laughable, a pity considering Shailene Woodley seems grimly determined to make this characterization work, gamely gnashing her way through the same pane of glass more than once. She’s surrounded by a trio of male actors she’s romanced in other films (Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now; Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars) and for the purposes of this film, Theo James, all representative composites (nemesis, brother, love interest). Only Teller seems comfortable with this gamey dialogue.

To see actresses like Watts and Winslet wallow through such shallow material is the film’s profligate sin (to her credit, Spencer’s few moments on screen allows for a bit of warmth that isn’t sandwiched by the clear cut cliché of her co-stars). German director Robert Schwentke (who started directed studio system fare in 2005 with Flightplan and hasn’t looked back), has a checkered track record outside of the surprise hit RED, and while this may be easier to stomach than the execrable R.I.P.D., not even the presence of Oscar winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman amongst of trio of writers seems able to spin re-used glitter into gold.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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