By Kyle G. King. Quicker, tougher, and more action packed than its predecessor, Insurgent, the second helping of films based on the young adult book series by 26 year-old Veronica Roth, picks up almost immediately where it left off with last year’s Divergent. Shedding the skin of exposition and backstory, Insurgent sees Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Peter (Miles Teller), and Caleb (Ansel Elgort) hitting the ground sprinting from hordes of brainwashed soldiers out for blood in the faction-based futuristic world of post-apocalyptic Chicago.
Director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan and R.I.P.D.) is perfectly capable of injecting energy into the action sequences that require it, but the sequel displays the same ill-fated symptoms of phoned-in drama that Divergent suffered from. Beautiful visuals (in both 2D and 3D formats), can’t obscure poorly executed content, and the three screenwriters in charge (Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback) – who all come from disparate genre trappings – were perhaps brought together in an attempt to affix the film’s many genres at play. That becomes problematic, especially when so much of the film’s dialogue seems to have skipped a solid proof read by someone with a basic understanding of cinematic dialogue. (Example: antagonists should never enter a scene holding a gun with a casual “hey.”)
What reads much better is Woodley’s blonde haired, leather clad heroine, Tris. With a little less hair on top and a lot more confidence inside, Tris is now a leader to be reckoned with by almost every challenger she encounters, especially Four, who takes a backseat to her throughout a lot of the film (James is too good looking to not be kept on screen). Still plagued by the repercussions of the actions that killed her friends and family, Tris’ silent suffering and repressed feelings turn into fervent emotional upheavals, all carried with agile strength in Woodley’s approachable and humane performance. But the more subtle moments of self reflection and the English-as-a-second-language dialogue land with a hard thud, making a lot of Tris’ character development fall short of impressive. As for everyone else (Four, Caleb, and even Peter) progressive strides in character development all severely lack any sense of well-orchestrated style, as if the film is saying its demographic doesn’t deserve the inclusion of thoughtfully developed characters.
Insurgent doesn’t lose its sense of style, as most of the film is populated by well dressed counter-culture runway models (sharp costume design by Louise Mingenbach, responsible for the look of almost every X-Men movie). But it seems that these soldiers never took their eyes off the mirror long enough to learn how to shoot a gun (or even hold one for that matter), which leads to scene after awkward scene of poorly choreographed shooting sequences. Fortunately, better (and more surreal) action is found in the simulated dreamscapes of Tris’ mind, which are trusted to Woodley, Schwentke, and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (who worked with Schwentke on action-pics Flightplan and Red). Insurgent always retains a rich sense of jackbooted Matrix-esque coolness (often favoring frame symmetry beyond evocative camera movement), but in an extremely loud and impossibly clean approach. There’s no grit, little dirt, and next to zero matte finish to this post-apocalyptia.
In order to not read as cynically opportunistic, sequels demand higher stakes and deeper themes to elevate its characters to another level. Insurgent is aware of this destructive studio con job (two more movies are on the way), but it doesn’t take any risks in order to reward its paying fan base. New costumes, new haircuts, and a PG-13 sex scene can’t quite make up for an unutilized Naomi Watts or Octavia Spencer, or distract you from the various plot holes that come with 119 minutes of 17 year-olds with a tenuous grip on reality.
Although the world of Divergent and Insurgent is at least logistically realized from a production’s point of view, the film only resonates when it spells things out for us. Its sense of danger may be well-attired, but it’s nowhere near as threatening as its rival, The Hunger Games (or the trendsetter of the teenagers-killing-each-other genre, Battle Royale). Higher body counts, adult themes, and more complex storylines have a pattern to appear later into a series of book-to-movie adaptations (watch the Harry Potter series and grow more with each one), and while Insurgent shouldn’t deter you from seeing the next film, it will leave you demanding smarter content from the movies to come.