Insurgent is the second installment of the Divergent trilogy, based on the Young Adult novels by Veronica Roth. I have not read the first book nor seen the first movie. I was given a synopsis of the first movie’s plot by my girlfriend on the drive to the theater, however, and she had read nearly the entire Divergent Wikipedia article over her lunch break at work. So as a disclaimer, I’m coming into this sequel armed only with second-hand Wikipedia knowledge.
Director: Robert Schwentke
Producers: Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian, Douglas Wick
Writers: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback, Veronica Roth (novel)
Cinematographer: Florian Ballhaus
Editors: Stuart Levy, Nancy Richardson
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Cast: Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller
US Theatrical Release: March 20, 2015
US Distributor: Lionsgate
Insurgent is all about the post-apocalypse setting we’re seeing so much of these days. In Insurgent, the world as we know it is over. Gone are the creature comforts, the pillows and sandwiches and FitBits. All that’s left is a decrepit-looking Chicago walled in for its own protection, where most of the buildings still stand but are looking very crumbly. There’s lots of impressive futuristic technology in the city but nearly all of it appears to have been created for deadly purposes; if there’s a FitBit-style electronic tracking device strapped to your wrist in Insurgent, your enemies probably strapped it there, and it’s likely trying to kill you. The interiors of the crumbly buildings feel like sinister Apple stores, all touchscreens and wide-open spaces decorated in a clean, techy white.
The city’s populace has been broken into “Factions,” large clans entirely devoted to the supremacy of one personality type and the rejection of all others. The Dauntless are a faction known for bravery. They love guns. The Candor is a faction that loves truth and wishes everyone would stop lying to them. There are a few more Factions running around--Amity are a group of hippies in the woods that appeared to love peace, and the characters using big words belong to the Erudite, some sort of smart-person Faction—but the main point is that, to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, the only option is to choose a single personality type and stick with it. For life.
The only exceptions to this rule are the Factionless, dropout crustpunks who hop trains and stand on street corners looking shifty and hungry, and the Divergent. Divergents can be brave, truthful, and smart. They are well-rounded individuals in a society that requires emotional specialization. As such, they are a deadly menace to that society, and are being hunted down mercilessly throughout the movie by jumpsuited men in large trucks. The parent-murdering and very evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) commands the bad guys. Tris (Shailene Woodley), our heroine, is the most Divergent of the Divergent. She is special, a fact that is mentioned more times than you’d think possible in a two-hour movie.
Insurgent is action-packed. Stuff is exploding; the main character Tris has beautiful, upturned, almond-shaped eyes and a perfect pixie haircut she apparently cut herself while on the run in a forest. She and her hot boyfriend (Theo James) are constantly punching and shooting people in interesting locations—there are chases in forests, smackdowns on moving trains, and escapes from burning buildings in virtual reality simulators—and throughout such punching, Insurgent does a really good job keeping up the tension. This is high teenage drama; emotions are not subtle. If you’re mad, throw your gun on the ground. If someone disses your mom (who died protecting you in the last movie), you punch that someone in the face and grab for the nearest knife, much to the dismay of the nearby woodsy hippies.
The costume design is pretty uninspired—post-apocalypse, everyone seems to be channeling a suburban-kid-trying-to-dress-punk style, with slightly grungy pants but beautiful and expensive-looking wool overcoats, occasional asymmetrical haircuts but not a rip in the knee or a smudge of dirt anywhere. Crumbly Chicago is equally bland. Much like in Transformers 3, when giant robots smashed the city, Chicago is there only so that its familiar skyline can be destroyed. It contains no local flavor. I kept waiting for some sign of the Chicago of ancient times—perhaps a bombed-out but still very fancy and exclusive hot dog place that our heroes hide out in, with fancy futuristic toppings, like jalapeño mayo? Alas, no such hot dog place arises. It’s either rubble or Apple Stores throughout this sad Chicago.
But everyone is so beautiful and earnest in Insurgent, and the action sequences really are exciting enough, that the setting missteps are forgivable. The weakest aspect of the plot is the central concept—the Factions. The driving reason of this whole series—that normals could be freaked out at the prospect of multiple positive character traits running around in the same person—never really makes sense. The factions certainly mirror high school cliques: choose to be a jock, choose to be a smart kid, but you better choose something, because those who don’t (or those who try to reject cliques and interact with all) face rejection and persecution. Yet the metaphor just doesn’t hold up in Insurgent society. The Dauntless often tell the truth, and the Candid are often brave. What, then, is the rigid emotional divider, this gulf between people that is so obvious and measurable to these future Chicago dwellers that they have ray guns that can tell exactly what kind of character you are, just by pointing it at your face?
It mostly seems to be an excuse to drive home the crux of the story: that our heroine is very, very special. Others may be good at some emotions and character traits, but she is good at all emotions and character traits. Shailene Woodley’s Tris has a name, but hardly anyone uses it. She is referred to instead as “The special one,” “The unique one,” “The perfect subject,” and “The one we’ve been looking for.” It’s enough praise to make even the most confident protagonist blush, and Tris—her parents murdered, scorned by former friends and nearly all of society, and constantly on the run for her life—is not feeling confident. She just wants to be a normal post-apocalyptic girl.
Roth wrote the first novel over winter break during her senior year of college; movie rights had been sold within a year in a “we have to find the next Hunger Games” fever. Insurgent is aimed at young girls who don’t feel very special at all, or who feel downright terrible about themselves, and the movie aims to be a vessel for young adult escape. Like Harry Potter and his reluctant leadership after his parent’s sacrifice, like Katniss’ unenthusiastic acceptance after she becomes a symbol for Hunger Games resistance, Tris doesn’t want the special position she’s been thrust into. She tells us repeatedly (and tearfully) that she didn’t want this, that she’s not worth all this blood and violence and trouble. Luckily her boyfriend is there to tell her that she is worth it, that she’s worth it to him. Then they make out, fulfilling the fantasies of 90% of the film’s intended audience.
Growing up pimply and isolated, I had a recurring dream where the X-Men came to my house and told me that I needed to come with them right away. I was an incredibly powerful mutant, they explained, even though I had never shown any sort of power at all, and I was putting my family in huge danger by staying here in the suburbs with them. I would need to leave my old life. I would have to train, fight the bad guys, harness my special powers, and save the world.
“I didn’t ask for this,” I would tell Rogue, nearly in tears.
“I know you didn’t,” she’d say, and pet my arm through her gloved hand. We couldn’t touch, lest she kill me with her life-leeching powers. But that didn’t stop us from having a thing for each other. We were accidentally special, and that kept us from ever being accepted by society. But it didn’t keep us from being… in love.
Which is all an embarrassing way of saying—teenage escapism is not new, and it’s not a bad thing. There is escapism in Insurgent that is entertaining. But it’s also silly and bland, often feeling like a jumble of all the past YA novel-turned-movie successes mixed up together, and that mix doesn’t leave much room for originality. I like escape. I’d just like to escape someplace new.