A step-up from Divergent, if nothing else, Insurgent still isn’t compelling or really any good.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I can remember nothing about Divergent. I remember that it was terrible and boring, and that a character in it voluntarily calls himself “Four” which makes any scene in which somebody calls out to him resemble that of an overly emotional balloted deli counter, but I don’t remember any specifics about the film. I couldn’t tell you any character names besides Tris and Four – and, look, I’m sorry, I really did try taking his name seriously this time, but I just can’t, I can’t – I couldn’t tell you any plot points, I couldn’t tell you any personality traits of any of the characters, I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the finale that, direct quote from my review, “is practically the film ticking off the last free spots on its [genre] bingo card in quick succession”. Nothing.
That, I think, might be the biggest problem with Divergent. It’s a bad boring movie, but it is so utterly blandly forgettable that I cannot remember a single damn thing about it besides its bizarrely strong cast and the feeling of having had my time wasted. It didn’t even have the decency to be interestingly or entertainingly bad, with the exception of the ridiculous and mostly inexplicable nature of the Faction system that its world is based around, because it was too busy blandly cribbing from every single successful, and even some of the non-successful, Young Adult franchise ever in the hopes that money will magically fall from the sky and into the studio and filmmakers’ laps. Unfortunately for all, it did (sorta) and so now here’s Insurgent, soon to be followed by Allegiant, Parts 1 & 2 because, hey, why not also steal the “unnecessarily split your last book into two separate films for twice the cash money” part too, eh?
Actually, I’m being unnecessarily mean. If nothing else, Insurgent is a far better movie than Divergent ever was. Where that movie plodded and dragged onwards with no end in sight, Insurgent moves with some semblance of a pace and clearly builds to a logical end game that doesn’t feel like it takes multiple goddamn days to reach. The scope expands – which stretches the already thin narrative credibility to beyond breaking point – which managed to keep me somewhat engaged, even whilst the film mostly just loops back on itself constantly, and with the exceptions of Kate Winslet – who was already checked out in the first film and who is acted off the screen by Ansel Elgort in a sentence I never thought I would ever type – and Shailene Woodley – whose patience for this series visibly drains the further into the film we get – the cast is still trying their damndest to make the crap they’re given work.
I mean, it’s still not a good film, I cannot make that more abundantly clear, but it’s not offensively boring, this time. You know when you’re watching something on TV and you’re not bored but you’re also not completely engaged? Like, you don’t connect emotionally in the slightest with what’s going on and you’re really not bothered about what happens, but you also have absolutely no urge to change the channel or check your phone excessively or what have you? That’s the level that Insurgent is operating on, which is at least a step up from Divergent’s mind-numbing boringness, even though it’s got so little going on and is spread so narratively thin that it’s basically the final third of Divergent that was withheld because DOLLA DOLLA BILLS, Y’ALL!!
The big problem, the thing that continues to kill this series the further along it goes because it becomes more and more apparent, with its refusal to even attempt fixing it feeling even more like a deliberate act of pure laziness, is that Insurgent still has no characters. None of its cast have any definable personalities, nobody goes on any real arc, and most beings (which is the best way that I can describe these lumps of mould) have no consistency at all. Characters hot-foot between allegiances as the plot demands with no adequate explanation, many characters are excessively angsty for no particular reason, and the finale of the film occurs as if Tris is being told off-camera in-universe that she needs to do something real stupid because otherwise the film won’t have an ending.
It’s all best encompassed by Tris herself, our nominal protagonist, who is less a character and more a blank slate who has a whole bunch of emotional problems that the story’s target audience might have thrown onto her. Unlike, say, Katniss Everdeen, Tris’ near-total lack of agency, with the exception of maybe two instances late on in the film, has no narrative or thematic reason other than lazy-ass storytelling, that only serves to call attention to the fact that I have no idea what she wants or who she is as a person outside of the plot pushing her forward. I have spent two films and nearly 4 and a half hours in her company and I still have absolutely no idea what makes her tick or what makes her so special – the film’s constant repetition of “She is the one! The special one!” feels more and more like attempted indoctrination the further and further on it goes.
She is a cipher, nothing more. This is especially problematic as the final third of the film, which is where Insurgent’s big and incredibly cheap-looking CG action sequences reside, is all about her working through her emotional baggage, her insecurities and fears. Not one moment of it resonates, though, because it’s all artificial, conflict thrown onto a character without any true grounding through prior character work or actions. Tris has survivor’s guilt from the last film but it only manifests when the specific sequence of film calls for it, compared to Katniss’ survivor’s guilt which informs her entire character, ditto her desire to not be Divergent and “special” which literally only comes up in one extremely ham-fisted sequence during the film’s first climax before being unceremoniously punted off-screen.
When a character does manage to make an impression, it’s either down to themselves being the equivalent of Saturday morning cartoon villains – Miles Teller, who is better than Hollywood, has a noticeable blast indulging his inner-Draco Malfoy, whilst Sam Worthington Jai Courtney is well-cast as an entertainingly smug prick that the film shuffles off Stage Left way too early – or the actors and actresses just happening to be actors and actresses who have inexplicably decided that this is where they want to pick up their paycheques for a year or two – notable newcomers this time are Daniel Dae Kim as the leader of Candour, Naomi Watts as the leader of the Factionless and also Four’s long-thought dead mother (because OF COURSE), and Octavia Spencer who is the leader of Amity and is third-billed despite being on-screen for about 428 seconds max. Otherwise, it’s just people-shaped husks doing stuff that’s apparently important but that I never once truly cared about.
Incidentally, if you’re coming to Insurgent in search of more of that sweet insipid stupidity that powered Divergent, then you will get more than your money’s worth by the finale. It’s the kind of finale that purports to explain things, specifically why The City is ran in the idiotic faction system and why the Divergents are such a big deal, but doesn’t actually explain anything, instead offering the illusion that answers and explanations are being given whilst actually skirting around everything in favour of a separate reveal that is unbelievably stupid.
It also poses the exact opposite problem of Divergent’s ending: where that left more loose ends than a police corruption investigation headed by a corrupt cop, this one leaves no loose ends. This is An Ending, in the most definite sense one can manage, where everything is tied up and there is really nothing else to do. The final shot of the film even does what should have been done in the finale of the first film, for crying out loud! Like, I do not know where Allegiant could go for barely 2 minutes, let alone two 2 hour films! I also can’t really say I’m excited by this prospect either cos, well, I really don’t care about any of these non-entities masquerading as characters that I’m supposedly supposed to give a crap about. So, all we’re really going to be doing is coming back to line Summit Entertainment’s pockets with even more cashola.
Again, I don’t strongly dislike Insurgent. It’s OK. In its best moments, I could sit and pretend like I was watching a better Young Adult adaptation or sci-fi film – Teller’s Malfoy impression calling to mind Harry Potter, Tris’ occasional extremely unconvincing (can we launch a Kickstarter to rescue a genuinely miserable-looking Shailene Woodley from this franchise, please) rage against the machine reminding me that Mockingjay, Part 2 is out in just 8 too-long months, the simulations being a bargain-basement Matrix – than this Frankenstein’s Monster of a series, and shaving off 20 minutes and having a clear end goal does wonders for the film’s pacing. However, the plotting is still a mess, the world is still stupid, and there are still no characters, which makes being emotionally invested in anything that goes on a completely fruitless endeavour.
It’s a baby step forward and nothing more, is what I’m getting at. Making the presentation less drearily dull without actually fixing the underlying problems that caused that symptom. The equivalent of putting a child’s Band-Aid over a gaping shotgun wound. The Divergent Series still has given no adequate reason as to why it should exist, other than to give some studio execs, a seemingly creatively-bankrupt novelist, and otherwise talented actors a nice large steady paycheque for four-or-so years, and Insurgent gives no evidence of that changing any time soon.
But, hey, I wasn’t bored stiff this time. That’s progress, I guess?
Callum Petch will kiss the ground where you kneel. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!