Lionsgate presents a film directed by Robert Schwentke. Produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian. Screenplay by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback. Based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Music by Joseph Trapanese. Photographed by Florian Ballhaus. Edited by Nancy Richardson, Stuart Levy. Production designed by Alec Hammond. Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet.
There is an early moment in The Divergent Series: Insurgent where three heroic fugitives stow away on a train, realizing—too late—that the car is already occupied by menacing vagrants. The young leader of the bums sneers threateningly. There is a brawl. Brutal. Bloody. Several extras die. Just when all hope looks lost, hero guy Four offers his given name. “I’m Tobias!” Everyone relaxes. Smiles all around. Except for the dead kids, of course, who are dead. “We’ve been looking for you,” shouts the leader. Conflict over. Roger Ebert once coined the term “idiot plot,” which is a plot that only functions if every single character is an idiot. Insurgent may very well contain cinema’s first idiot fight.
Welcome back to the universe of Divergent, which has as its lynchpin maybe the silliest high concept to ever grace popular fiction. Some sci-fi mythologies enrichen as they go forward, but Divergent’s only grows more and more nonsensical. In a (sigh) post-apocalyptic future, you see, the world (well, Chicago) has split into five rigid factions: Dauntless (soldiers), Amity (farmers), Erudite (scholars), Abengation (civil servants) and Candor (truth-tellers). Hold your questions, please. Children are made to pick a class based on aptitude tests, but a small percentage have multiple characteristics and are labeled as Divergents. They are outcast and villified, guilty of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Is this a tortured parable for how teenagers often feel unfairly persecuted for their innate, super-duper specialness? Is it anything else?
Our heroine is Tris (Shailene Woodley), who is a unique Divergent snowflake. We are told a million times. Not shown once, but we are told. Previously on Divergent, she quashed a revolution and her mother (Ashley Judd) died, and Tris blames herself for this. Tris’ boyfriend is Four (Theo James), who has devotion, but not much in the way of conversation, and has one scowling facial expression. As Insurgent opens, these kids are on the run from a gang of jackbooted thugs (Jai Courtney, terrible) and trying to ferment rebellion against the would-be Erudite despot Janine (Kate Winslet, cashing a paycheck). What good luck that they run into an army of the classless, led by Four’s mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts, who has direct deposit). Four doesn’t trust his mother. Tris doesn’t trust herself. The movie’s top-to-bottom clichéd dialogue, meanwhile, doesn’t trust the audience, spelling everything out with clanging obviousness.
There’s more plot in Insurgent, including a magic box that only a divergent can unlock (no guesses as to who the best candidate for that job is). And there’s also more world-building, as the heroes seek refuge in the various factions of dystopic Chicago. But the more we see of Divergent’s boilerplate environs, the less there is to see. Puzzling over the series’ wacky premise was an activity for last year, yes, but this sequel tries to flesh out the universe and yet it only prompts more pronounced bafflement. How can a society even pretend to function this way? To what end? Why is every single character so aggressively one-note, when the very premise stipulates that some of them must be multi-faceted? And here’s a spoiler-free question about the entire last quarter of the film: huh?
No, really. What?
Recognizable actors swim in and out of view. What are we to make of a movie that casts a wonderful performer like Octavia Spencer for two scenes and does nothing with her? Or Winslet and Watts, for that matter? What a thankless task it is to be an adult in these movies. Plot holes abound–not tiny-sized regular nitpicks, but sloppy ones like certain characters showing up in places they should not be able to get to, or conveying information they should not have. The world of Divergent is such a trash dump that you pray for a ray of sunshine, or at least a rueful smile from its heroine. Not even during the big love scene with Four does Tris smile, which, I think, should be the time. I’m aware of The Hunger Games, but when did young adult fiction in general become so uniformly, pointlessly bleak and cynical? At what point did its ambitions tilt less towards babysitters and more towards Terminators?
Let it be said that Shailene Woodley is the real thing. A gifted performer with real charisma, she has proven herself in movies like The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now. But she is not an action hero, and the movie’s hard-edged obsession with gunplay (there’s a lot) feels even more misplaced when it pivots so heavily on Woodley’s timid frame and cracking voice. The presence of her Spectacular Now and Fault in Our Stars co-stars (Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort) only bizarrely illustrates what little chemistry she has with James’ dull-as-dishwater Four. Nor is Woodley well-served by the thin emotional content, either; one sequence holds Katniss–I mean, Tris–in close-up as she spills a tearful confession—it’s meant to be a triumph of emotional storytelling, but it comes across as embarrassingly overwrought. Director Robert Schwentke, doing mercenary work, never finds a consistent tone, and his style throughout is flat and thoroughly uninspired.
It goes without saying that the Divergent series will continue. Insurgent’s ending guarantees that, with an obligatory revelation and cliffhanger that feeds into Allegiant Parts 1 & 2, due next year. That’s a lot of screen time for such a reedy story, but then, the Divergent series is (unintentionally) all about trading the conformity of society for the conformity of rebellion. The ultimate point, of course, is that teens would do well to reject the labels imposed upon them by others. It’s a good piece of advice, one I’ve heard before. Think how much post-apocalyptic bloodshed could have been spared if someone had just preserved a copy of The Breakfast Club.