Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy — in both book and film form — is based on one central idea: think for yourself, and don't let anyone else make your own decisions. Unfortunately for Roth, and even more so for the movie-going public, that inspiring credo doesn't apply to the film adaptation of Divergent, nor to its forced, expository sequel Insurgent, which whizzes into theaters on Friday, March 20.
Director Robert Schwentke and screenwriters Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback adapted Roth's sequel to film — a completely different team from the first film. Though director and writers have changed, Roth's world remains largely intact.
We're back in a future in which everyone is divided up based on their personalities, virtues, and strengths and sorted into clans with names like Dauntless, Candor, and Erudite. Everyone in these clans obediently acts in lockstep with their clan's virtues and values. Amity, for example, believes in love, peace, and organic yams, which is why its members look and act like enthusiastic, earnest members of a Santa Fe yoga retreat.
Tris (Shailene Woodley), who fits into all of these different clans, is Divergent. And she's plotting her revenge on Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the power-hungry head of the Erudite faction that seeks to control the city of Chicago. How did Chicago become such a glimmering prize? Well, it's a dystopian future. Chicago will do nicely.
Tris wants to get out from under the thumb of the government. Jeanine wants more power and more control. Four (Theo James), Tris' love interest, wants more justice. The vast majority of this movie is about the characters wishing to be elsewhere (it is future Chicago, after all). And the movie's audience will, after 119 long minutes, almost certainly relate.
In Insurgent's dystopian future, characters always tell us how they're feeling and what they're going to do next
Insurgent spends roughly half of its running time showing its characters — heroes and villains alike — explaining and telegraphing their every single move and motivation. It spends the other half doing showing those characters doing what they said they would do.
People are sad, people are mad, people are bad, and people will say exactly how they feel any chance they get. It's like a Bond villain crafted specifically to destroy whatever mystery still existed around the inner angst of young adult stories.
Here's a brief sampling of dialogue sprinkled throughout the movie:
- "If you think you got lucky, you're wrong."
- "I know nothing else."
- "I am the lesser of two evils. Is that it?"
- "I've been assuming all Divergents are the same."
- "What's the plan?" "We depose those in power."
- "Let me guess, Erudite?"
This strategy makes for a jarring experience. It's as if the movie doesn't trust its talented ensemble cast to portray basic emotions or convey the characters' ambiguities.
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" Tris asks during a dinner featuring a new, mysterious character introduced just for this film. And, sure enough, rather than letting the mystery simmer, a lengthy explanation ensues.
This kind of writing sets up the audience for a lot of waiting. Plans are announced, but the audience is left treading water until the next sequence in which the characters explain what happens next. The action sequences, as crisp and kinetic as they are, seem like a hollow means to an even more hollow end.
This overreliance on explanation might be due to the film's dependence on its own clunky mythology. Interspersed throughout the film's dialogue are constant references to Roth's source material and the factions of this society.
"You can take the girl out of Abnegation, but you can't take the Abnegation of the girl," Peter (Miles Teller) tells Tris, alerting viewers to the fact that she just did something Abnegation-esque.
The movie's writers clearly don't trust the audience to remember these cribbed SAT words. Instead of letting an Erudite or Abnegation action speak for itself, those actions must also, like the characters' plans and feelings, be explained.
Kate Winslet, Octavia Spencer, and Naomi Watts are fantastic. But not fantastic enough to save this movie.
In one scene, Winslet's Jeanine hurls dark, barbed insults at Tris. Jeanine's salty diatribe sucks all the air from the room, and she spews increasing amounts of scalding vitriol, including an insult that dances on Tris' dead mom's grave.
Winslet gives Insurgent a frozen heart that makes this dystopia spin. You can feel the menace in her bones as she glides into icy, minimalist rooms and fires off chilly, clinical glares. When she speaks, her sentences snap and shimmer with a bespoke viciousness. Winslet, it would seem, could make cooking pancakes seem menacing.
But Winslet's not alone. Veteran actresses Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer combine with her to become the movie's best assets, easily showing up the younger members of the cast, including Woodley, James, Teller, and walking pout Ansel Elgort. Watts is beguiling as Evelyn, underplaying in a manner that hints there's much more beneath her seemingly brittle surface. And Spencer's Johanna is a quiet, thoughtful force.
However, the three are underused. They're here to stand aside, and get out of the way of the film's bright young things. Too bad.
Insurgent isn't your typical YA love story
Wrapped in this story of overthrowing the government and finding justice is an oddly quiet romance.
Tris and Four love each other, but they mostly show it by saving each other from physical violence or holding each other's faces. Their romance feels wrapped in cotton, muffled, soundless. It's strangely safe for two poreless beings who supposedly have hormones raging through every inch of their bodies. In fact, the most scintillating glimpses of their relationship occur when one or the other is sleeping or presumed dead.
Tris and Four's cold romance is understandable. They've both witnessed more than their fair share of death. She's suffering from PTSD. He's paranoid, and when he's not, he's crushing people's bones. Perhaps this is meant to be a portrayal of having nothing left of yourself to give to someone you love.
This muted romance is the most organic and fascinating component of the movie. Sadly, the movie doesn't seem aware of it in the slightest. But maybe that's better. After all, if it were, it would probably go to great pains to explain each and every emotional beat.