This review contains spoilers for Divergent.
In its attempt to stand out from the ever-crowded young adult fantasy adaptations market, The Divergent Series continues with Insurgent, about a dystopian society wherein people are divided into factions depending on their virtues – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Candor – and the divergents who threaten that very controlled way of life.
We catch up with Tris (Shailene Woodley) now that she’s broken away from her conformist civilization and trying to fight back against its rulers alongside other rebels on the outside, including boyfriend Four (Theo James) and the unpredictable Peter (Miles Teller). War looms over everything as Janine (Kate Winslet), the leader of the Erudite faction, hunts down all divergents in order to open an ancient box that could reveal the key to everything in their society.
While it wasn’t the slick, action-packed and emotionally resonant YA film they were clearly hoping for, at least Divergent had some sort of grip on its concepts and the characters that populate its futuristic world. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rather muddled and clunky sequel that not so much fumbles those ideas as drops them off the edge entirely. It’s a case of one step forward and two steps back for the franchise, one that retreads ground already covered in both the previous film and the multitude of other YA adaptations – from its visual aesthetic to its annoyingly open-ended denouement – marking time until the third film that will inevitably be split into two parts.
The Hunger Games franchise is the obvious comparison, not just because of their similar dystopian settings and the way they explore ideas of conformity vs. free will but also because of the strong female character at the centre of each series. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance bolsters the character of Katniss and vice versa whereas Woodley is doing all the heavy lifting here with Tris who feels underwritten and bizarrely underused this time. Woodley is what makes the character in any way interesting and brings a lot of spirit and vim to the character that otherwise just wouldn’t be there.
There’s also some nice supporting work elevating similarly flat roles, namely Teller as the cocky Peter, whose wise-cracks provide some welcome comedic relief from the otherwise morose atmosphere, while Winslet gets a lot more to do this time, hamming it up as the sort of schoolmarm baddie hell-bent on keeping the society in order at all costs. Sadly the same can’t be said for Naomi Watts, whose involvement admittedly adds some heavyweight acting credence but she is utterly wasted in a paper thin, practically inconsequential supporting role which the film weakly tries to tie into the back-story.
Robert Schwentke takes over directing duties here from Neil Burger and he brings a certain level of energy to his action sequences, particularly in a virtual reality testing scene where Tris has to save her mother by jumping on a block-like house that’s floating away. Unfortunately those sorts of unique and entertaining sequences are few and far between in a film that’s spends too much of its time floundering, rehashing and skirting around its ideas; it’s a good 20 minutes shorter than the previous instalment but somehow feels longer. If the social commentary about individualism and just being yourself was rather on-the-nose before, it’s positively shoved down your throat this time around with a sequel that, despite some bright sparks in the cast and a couple of diverting set-pieces, is confused, derivative and more than a little bit dull.