Insurgent is a relentlessly exasperating sci-fi film made, miraculously, with a half-baked imagination, a slaughtered wit, and insufferable direction by Robert Schwentke, the man who supplied 2013 with one its biggest flops, R.I.P.D.
You know something’s gone very wrong when a blue dress outacts Kate Winslet in this adaptation of Veronica Roth’s second novel in the bestselling Divergent series. Ms. Winslet is not at fault alone here. I own a Swingline stapler that makes more of an impression than many of her costars, especially Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Daniel Dae Kim.
(This non-acting by the way-over-30 crowd in teen-oriented, “the future-doesn’t-look-so-hot” epics seems to be trending. Other recent examples include Meryl Streep and Katie Homes in The Giver and Harrison Ford and Viola Davis in Ender’s Game. Here’s possibly a ploy to win over the hearts and dollars of the prepubescent by reaffirming their belief that adults are nonessential, characterless joy killers.)
Moving on, since sequels are usually inferior to their predecessors (Godfather 2 excluded), and the original Divergent was pretty much panned, the forecast for this offering was little better than inclement. Clearly, one could pretty much quote from the 2014 reviews to critique its 2015 sibling. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, for instance: “In all candor, and with all the amity I can muster, Divergent is as dauntingly dumb as it is dauntingly long.” Or Rolling Stone’s Pete Travers: “The only terror Divergent roused in me was that the drag-ass thing would never end.”
Embarrassingly, I rather enjoyed the introductory episode, but then I was watching it on TV with the gentile-side of my family on Christmas day, a little bit soggy from eggnog.
Where was that eggnog now when it was really needed?
Well, the alcohol-buzz-free Insurgent begins with a lengthy voiceover from the film’s major villain Jeanine (Winslet), the vicious leader of this post-apocalyptic society that has been divided into five factions, each representing a specific personality trait, such as Abnegation for selflessness. On this broadcast, Jeanine accuses Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) -- both Divergents who fit into no faction category -- of undermining their society with actions that might lead to a reoccurrence of the desolation of the past. She’s lying though. They’re the good guys.
The basic plot from here on is that Jeanine has a special box that contains a message from leaders of the past. This box can only be opened to receive that communication by securing a pure Divergent to it with numerous wires that hold the victim up in midair. The wrong Divergent will die, so who’s the right one? Tris, of course. And what is the crucial message? My lips are sealed, more from ennui than from not wanting to spoil things for you.
Anyway, getting to the above point in Insurgent is a dystopian trek for the viewer. Tris and Four have to run a lot, and dozens of malfeasants are always shooting at them and missing. For example, Tris stands tall in a field during an onslaught and still doesn’t get shot. A near-sighted pigeon couldn’t miss crapping on her, yet trained soldiers falter.
Then whenever our heroes are about to be decimated, instead of running for their lives, they chat a bit. I guess the screenwriters, Brian Duffield and his buddies, felt that they had to supply excessive verbiage to prove their worth, all for naught. Every time there are at least four uninterrupted lines of dialogue, you’ll find your mental faculties shutting down.
Worse, when a depressed Tris decides to chop off her long hair by herself, she winds up with a sophisticated pixie cut a la Jean Seberg in Breathless. The back is even slightly layered. Have you ever tried to layer the back of your head by yourself? Let me tell you, it ain’t easy, especially in a dystopian society with not a blow dryer in sight.
To be fair, this 3D film livens up immensely in the final half hour when Tris is finally connected to the aforementioned box. Suddenly, there are first-rate imaginative visuals, and Insurgent becomes quite engrossing. And whenever there’s a slight lag, you can always focus on that blue dress. It’s lovely. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.