Insurgent picks up almost directly where Divergent (2014) left off: in post-apocalyptic Chicago, walled off from the supposedly devastated outside world, the community of remaining humans are divided into castes based on personality traits, but the balance has been disturbed and the commune seems bound for civil conflict. Trained “Dauntless” warriors Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) are on the run, fleeing the coup engineered by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) and her cabal of brainiacs in the “Erudite” faction. The two lovers drag in their wake Tris’s brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and fellow Dauntless, the smarmy Peter (Miles Teller), and hide out in the community of the friendly “Amity” faction, overseen by the stern but understanding Joanna (Octavia Spencer). But soon the goons taken from the ranks of Dauntless supporting the new regime, led by fascist bully Eric (Jai Courtney), arrive in search of the rebels. Jeanine has a new project: she’s recovered a sealed box kept hidden by Tris’s murdered parents in the “Abnegation” village, a relic that legend holds contains a message from the founders of this isolated community. Jeanine hopes it will contain a mandate for Erudite to take over in case of the breakdown of the faction system, but finds it can only be opened by a “Divergent” person with the full gamut of faction traits, a breed who have been treated up until now as dangerous free radicals. Whilst fleeing their enemies, Tris is rocked by guilt for the lives she’s had to take in the course of fighting for her own, blaming herself for her parents’ demise, and quick to break into murderous rages fuelled in large part by self-loathing. Four has his own problems, as the rebels meet up with the ragtag army of factionless citizens, led by Evelyn (Naomi Watts), Four’s mother, whom he long believed dead. Four’s fulminating anger against her for abandoning him to his abusive father’s mercies makes him reject her aid out of hand even as she offers a natural alliance, as he suspects her of harbouring dictatorial desires herself. Instead he and Four turn to the “Candour” faction, famed for their truthfulness and trustworthiness, to be tried and have their own account of the coup proven true – but this demands taking a truth serum. This is something Tris has good reason to avoid, as she's trying to keep the fact she killed the boyfriend of her pal Christine (Zoë Kravitz) during a battle secret.
This adaptation of the second novel in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series confirms the feeling I began to have in the last third of the opening instalment: this series, dismissed at first as a cash-in on the popularity of The Hunger Games, is swiftly proving the much superior article, and indeed out of the few franchises still standing amongst the wastes of current blockbuster cinema, it is one of the more agreeable. Much of the praise The Hunger Games films have received feels now more praise for the idea of their existence than for what they have actually accomplished, managing to become with each episode even more visually bland and dramatically stodgy, its supposedly great zeitgeist-pleasing heroine Katniss Everdeen infuriatingly castrated on screen, to the extent where she spent all of the last instalment, Mockingjay: Part One (2014), fretting over her boyfriend, detached from political motivation. Tris Prior on the other hand is such a dedicated ass-kicker that Insurgent depicts in large part her attempts to control and tether her violent impulses, her place at the centre of the story is organic, and Woodley can actually emote whilst never seeming frail or indulgent. If the great problem with Divergent was the excessively long immersion in a very familiar militarist training program for the young Dauntless crew, Insurgent hits the ground running and manages to keep moving at a steady clip for two hours, overlong but not painfully so. The fluent, colourful visual palette Neil Burger utilised for the original has been taken up and rendered more confidently by helmsman Robert Schwentke, who made the mildly diverting RED (2010) and here is bouncing back from the calamitous reception to RIPD (2013) to offer a pleasant-looking swathe of widescreen pizazz, avoiding shaky cam, muddy filters, and other common tropes of pseudo-authenticity. To see a slick action blockbuster willing to admit it’s a slick action blockbuster is refreshing. Although the kind of vivid directorial invention that makes obvious precursors like THX-1138 (1971), Rollerball (1975), or Logan’s Run (1976) still beloved is absent, Schwentke offers sights like a holographic Four dissolving byte by byte at Tris’s touch, or Tris jumping around the exterior of a burning room that floats like a balloon, with a clear eye for mysteriously precise and matter-of-fact surrealism.
Many of the usual problems with middle instalments in multi-volume films are apparent in Insurgent: the story is a mere bridge from set-up to big finish and repeats elements from the first entry, and much of the narrative is devoted to completing a tour through the different factions and their sensibilities started in Divergent. But this time around a bigger budget means that the evocation of a crumbling Chicago is more convincing, urban zone turned into a wilderness, the Chicago River a dried-up moat amidst the shells of skyscrapers. Like too many of these recent movies exactingly adapted from literary sources, Insurgent still lacks truly inventive concepts for staging action: the way the first episode set up the ziplining skills of Dauntless remains a promise for high-flying thrills no-one seems interested in delivering. Tellingly, the most visually jazzy sequences in the film are the simulated tests Tris is subjected to in Jeanine’s Apple boutique of pain. But the film is dotted with entertaining fragments of invention, from ninjas swooping down from the tops of skyscrapers like some lost reel from Escape from New York (1981), to communities living on trains zipping back and forth on the city fringes in a manner reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s dystopias. I liked how the Amity faction live in a place that looks awfully like the dome of the similarly pacific, bovine Eloi in The Time Machine (1960), whilst the Candours live in a skyscraper and affect a lifestyle that suggests a possibility horrifying to many: that lawyers, like cockroaches, can even survive nuclear holocaust and prosper. Although hardly as outrageous or intellectually provocative as David Cronenberg’s early work, something about the look and setting of Insurgent, the way everything unfolds in defamiliarised, repurposed urban zones, recalled to me Cronenberg’s evocation of a haunted, decaying future eked out in fortresses of modernist architecture in Crimes of the Future (1970).
If Divergent took too long to get around to its bluntly enjoyable melodrama, Insurgent leaps into the fray with plenty of action, real and simulated, if bloodless in a way I’m not sure is actually that moral: the toll of violence is emphasised here repeatedly, but can’t be realistically visualised. Courtney’s happily hissable bad guy Eric is dispatched in a surprising moment of forthright punitive action from Four, who apparently didn’t get the memo telling him heroes are supposed to leave asshole villains alive because that would “make us just like them,” thus justifying their continued threat. Insurgent even has a bit of sex, although carefully blocked to avoid naughty bits, but it’s still nice to see a movie based on YA fare that’s not preeningly antiseptic, and even acknowledge something like the real world of extreme passions teenagers live in. Insurgent could be criticised for essentially building up to repeating a motif Divergent already slogged its way through, the sub-The Matrix (1999) business of Tris passing through digitised tests of her personality traits to see if she’s a strong enough Divergent to open the relic. The finale offers a conceit handled well in Superman III (1983) (indeed, perhaps the only thing handled well in that) and sent up mercilessly at the end of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2011) as Tris has to battle herself, leading to the fascinating spectacle of a Shailene Woodley twincest catfight. Interestingly, Tris’s status as The One depends not on her possessing an array of superhuman gifts but in fact on her attaining a state of perfect median humanity – that is, utter normality.
The pay-off for all this is a revelation that explains much that was frustratingly vague and unlikely about the social set-up at the core of the series, and offers new vistas for the final instalments, if also bringing the film to a close right at the point it might rightly be said to be getting going. The annoyingly faux-populist anti-intellectualism underlying the series’ basic set-up is still present, but in essence the Erudite villains could be any cabal of technocrats, and the key to the story evokes Planet of the Apes (1968) as it depicts the construction of false limitations on communal life for motives posing as cant but hiding reasoned ends. The Divergent series is essentially a mid-1990s TV series writ large, the kind they used to show for teens in the afternoon after school, but that’s a point in its favour as far as I’m concerned, maintaining something of that zippy ethic and finite blend of the naïvely metaphoric and the forthrightly conceptual. The cast is again a great plus here. It might be cause for dismay for many to realise that Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd (who plays Tris’s mother, who, for a dead lady, manages to be unnervingly present), and Naomi Watts are now playing the maternal generation to the heroes, but Winslet’s goading aggression as a pinstriped Ilsa is still worth a million hours of CGI and Watts lets the audience see rat-like cunning and egotism squirming behind Evelyn’s protestations of motherly interest. It’s fitting that the last scene, in a series notably defined by a strong element of matriarchal power and conflict, sees ones actress pleasantly and casually shoot the other in the back of the head, raising the question of which oppressor is preferable, the cruel but purposeful, curiously idealistic oligarch or the damaged, self-righteously nihilistic. There is, too, an effective use of mirroring here, as we’ve already seen Four do virtually the same thing to Eric: mother and son might not be so different after all. Mekhi Phifer’s in there somewhere, playing Jeanine’s head goon, whilst Spencer wields her usual effortless gravitas, her eyes pools of expressive humanism. Amongst the younger actors, James is increasingly engaging, Elgort logy, and Teller amusingly pusillanimous.