'Insurgent' doesn't stray from the well-worn YA adaptation path
The two 'Divergent' movies are curiously content to eke out a rigid, lifeless fable in drab futuristic environs and 'Insurgent' has the tale largely spinning its wheels.
Given that conformity is the scourge of the "Divergent" series and much of its young-adult ilk, it's a shame that the films, including the new "Insurgent," do so little to stray from well-worn YA paths.
For a series that waves the banner of individualism, they make a poor case for it. Instead of throbbing with a teenage spirit of rebellion — or things like youthful wildness, humor or sex – the two "Divergent" movies are curiously content to eke out a rigid, lifeless fable in drab futuristic environs.
The answer, here, to the question of what are you rebelling against isn't "Whaddya got?" but the slightly less visceral "An elaborate, highly metaphorical dystopian system of militaristic control."
But even faint, fantastical whiffs of teen insurrection carry enough potency to drive feverish young audiences. Why? Much of it has to do with the stars.
Say what you will about YA movies, but they've been an efficient star-making machine that's produced Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, and Shailene Woodley. We should be happy to have them: good actresses all, who easily lead their respective films over their male counterparts.
The YA men aren't as fine a bunch but here include the hunky Theo James and the excellent Miles Teller. Predictably providing "Insurgent" with its only lively, comedic moments, Teller looks as if he didn't get the note that all must be sullen and serious.
A quick summary. Based on Veronica Roth's trilogy of best-selling novels, the "Divergent" films are set in a walled, post-apocalyptic Chicago, where survivors are ritualistically sorted into five factions. Every 16-year-old is tested for which faction suits them, and then must choose one and remain there forever.
Tris (Woodley) chose Dauntless, who are known for their bravery and, it seems, their proclivity for train hopping. But her test revealed her to be "divergent" – someone who has no dominant characteristic but a plethora – and this makes her uncontrollable. In "Divergent," Tris came to embrace her fate, find a boyfriend in Dauntless leader Four (James, who has a natural chemistry with Woodley), and stop a plot by the city's overlord, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), to make zombies of its citizens.
"Insurgent," the full name of which is the suitably clunky "The Divergent Series: Insurgent," finds the tale largely spinning its wheels and features many redundant confrontations. Along with an underground revolutionary leader played by an underused Naomi Watts, Tris and Four organize a revolt against Janine.
Allegiances are in constant flux; Teller's sarcastic operator switches sides with the wind. The plot (which includes Tris' brother, played by Ansel Elgort, and Jai Courtney's burly enforcer) progresses less in a forward motion than in a repetitive cycle of escapes, surrenders and rescues, often taking place in the same hallways. Executions at gunpoint and frequently threatened suicide add to the cheery atmosphere.
Much of the drama of "Insurgent" takes place in a virtual reality in which Tris frequently faces various simulation challenges, forcing her to reconcile her guilt in the death of her parents, as seen in the first installment. These "sims" are where "Insurgent" flashes its fanciest effects, but this dream state just further removes the film from any tangible reality. "Insurgent" is already an allegorical fantasy.
The way of many YA adaptations is to make the first film cheaply and then, once its popularity has been proven, boost the production value in subsequent sequels. That's the case with the 3-D "Insurgent," where director Robert Schwentke ("R.I.P.D.") takes over for "Divergent" helmer Neil Burger. The result is a bigger, glossier and better made action film with less embarrassing fight choreography. But any appeal still depends entirely on the talent of its cast.
The final "Divergent" book will be split into two movies, a future that is indeed a little dystopian. Much brighter, though, are the blossoming careers of Woodley and Teller, who were best together in the indie "The Spectacular Now." Movies, thankfully, come in factions, too.