In the run up to Spiderman 2 being released, I remember watching an amazing feature length interview of Stan Lee by Kevin Smith (the stuff geeky wet dreams are made of) on Sky Movies. One of the many great things they talked out was why Marvel comics always featured story recaps with each issue when their rivals often didn’t. Stan the Man’s answer was quite simply the golden rule why any series or franchise should always remember; “it’s always somebody’s first comic”. While you should respect and cater for your existing fan base without being suitably accessible to newcomers your viewer/reader numbers can only head in one direction. It’s sadly something that the Divergent Series has chosen to ignore. While it’s far from a perfect sequel or film ,its real downfall is being far too dependent familiarisation with its first outing. Just like its heroine, its biggest battle is against itself.
With the five faction system strained following Eurdite leader Jeanine’s (Kate Winslet – Titanic, Labour Day) attacks, the divergent rebels of Tris (Shailene Woodley – The Descendants, The Fault in Our stars) and Four (Theo James – The Inbetweeners Movie) are on the run. The hunt for Tris only increases when she’s revealed as the key to the secrets of the faction system.
Now there are plenty of individual elements to like and even enjoy here. Firstly the film does expand on its world nicely by spending significant time with the two less prominent factions of the first film: the peaceful farming hippies of Amity, and the always honest Candor. Each has a fitting and great looking set location that both elaborates on their core values and probes their logic. The passivity of Amity is presented negatively in the face of looming conflict, and an interesting scene with Candor’s leader (Daniel Dae Kim – Lost, Hawaii Five-0) examines the difference between telling the truth and not lying. It also boasts some good action and effects sequences. Even though some feel rather nonsensical, they still look visually stunning as buildings smash and shatter all over the place. In some cases they even slip into good trippy territory as we and Tris confuse the lines between simulation and reality. These include the heavily trailer featured burning floating house (don’t ask), and even some good old fashioned face punching action like a great early on-train beat down. Then there’s the cast itself. Since not overly pressing during Divergent last March, the young likes of Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort have all shown their quality in subsequent films and their confidence has definitely increased. Woodley, in particular, is genuinely giving it everything and does succeed in elevating any scene that stops desperately trying to explain everything for long enough to let her show what she can do. She brings the added depth of guilt and self-conflict over her actions when many around her are all too bland. In fact Insurgent does have a lot of good ingredients to it. The trouble is it just chucks them all in a bowl and pokes them a bit hoping they’ll sort themselves out.
The main plot is borderline non-sense that’s entirely focused on being a means to an end via a mysteriously injected McGuffin within the opening minutes. It’s centered on the idea of the five faction system, which the film fails to keep feeling anything but floppy as certain characters can jump ship whenever it becomes plot-relevant. This means it has to spend so much of its time frantically stapling over the ever emerging cracks and in fairness, it makes a valiant attempt and in a number of places even succeeds. It just sacrifices the content of the film to do so as the story scrambles to tell itself in the remaining time. Elements like the factionless rebellion feel very underdeveloped; we’re left to assume much about them from their genre hand-me-down costumes. The shiny 3rd nipple/sim injections waste their vast potential for character control and boil down to a rather sloppy staling device. Many character relationships feel devoid of chemistry as they can’t achieve relevance in the odd scenes and exchanges they’re given to prove their worth. Most notably Four’s reunion with his not dead mother/factionless leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts – King Kong, Birdman) goes nowhere, while the fault in our siblings of Tris and Elgort’s brother Caleb goes somewhere, but we really don’t care. Jai Courtney’s T1000 running impression is funny for all the wrong reasons, and his fellow goon squad turns into worse shots than stormtroopers when it matters. Insurgent shows all the pride and regards for its franchise and characters of exec board meeting deciding that “f*** it, we’ll make money anyway”. Fans from many factions will be angered and have every right to be.
Insurgent isn’t great but if didn’t have such an outstanding lead in Woodley there would be Sony Spiderman level panic and rescheduling going on right now. Irrelevant of all else around her, she’s determined to make Tris feel a real character. She does this much better than the first film, and raises Insurgent to passable territory. Theo James is encumbered by the mandatory teen lead male brooding requirements, but is likeable enough and ever convincing in the action department. Miles Teller is apparently the only person capable of loosening up. So much so that his wise-cracking moments are a hurricane of fresh air and would have fared better in an expanded role. Kate Winslett is never bad but neither does she inspire here. Jai Courtney makes another poor addition to his increasingly lopsided career and the likes of Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Maggie Q are all feel utterly wasted.
So what we have here is less a diminished sequel and more an unbaked one. If the same approach carries to the mandatory two-part final adaption it will find our elegance severely wavering. While there’s nothing here that couldn’t be improved with the right approach, for now the Divergent series is broken and somebody needs to fix it.
Recommended for those that watched and enjoyed the first film only; or those genuinely concerned about what to do if their house caught fire and floated away.