After a shaky opening, The Divergent Series, as the movie franchise based on Veronica Roth’s YA novel trilogy is now officially called, offers a more cohesive and involving second installment with Insurgent. In part, the improvement is a function of storytelling logistics: Having defined the rules of its dystopian future world in last year’s Divergent, the saga is considerably less encumbered by exposition and setup. Shailene Woodley’s Tris Prior, the reluctant chosen one at the center of the postapocalyptic thriller, is on the run, and there’s narrative momentum in pure kinetics.
There’s a new director at the helm, too — Robert Schwentke, who brings a flair for taut and flavorful action (as demonstrated in Flightplan and RED, if not R.I.P.D.). There’s no question that the feature is a leaner, meaner affair than its predecessor. That’s not enough, though, to counterbalance the often oppressive self-seriousness (though Miles Teller gives it a welcome shot) or to plaster over the holes in the premise.
Whatever its narrative deficiencies, the movie, opening in a variety of 2D and 3D formats precisely a year after Divergent, is sure to repeat the box-office triumph of the first chapter as eager fans dig in.
Even with breathless chases, strong design components and dazzling effects, the story’s organizing principle — the faction system that divides society into five groups based on personality — grows less compelling as Insurgent proceeds. The MacGuffin that spurs the action, a mystery box that only Tris can unlock containing a message about said system, is a handsome objet d’art with blinking blue lights, its big reveal dutifully setting up the next sequel while casting the story’s defining metaphor in doubt. (Following YA franchise convention, Summit plans a two-film adaptation of the final book, Allegiant.)
Beginning with a bracing race through woods, the movie picks up where Divergent left off, in the aftermath of a war against Abnegation, the selfless faction in which Tris grew up. Targeted for her gifts as a category-defying Divergent by villainous Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), Tris is a fugitive on the run with her boyfriend, Four (Theo James), a fellow Divergent; her seemingly timid brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort); and frenemy Peter. The latter character’s Machiavellian maneuvers enliven the story with something close to intrigue; playing him with a wiseass swagger, Teller injects the glum doings with jolts of sarcastic energy.
During a brief sanctuary at the Amity compound, a sylvan commune of feel-gooders headed by the Earth-motherly Johanna (Octavia Spencer), Tris has time to take scissors to her hair for a symbolic — and expertly stylish — makeover before she and Four are on the lam again. The city around them, Chicago, is in ruins, and when Tris isn’t hopping trains, outrunning armored tanks or going mano a mano with would-be captors, she’s something of a wreck herself.
Having lost her parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) in the war, she’s wracked by grief, guilt and nightmares, and feels unworthy of her role as the potential destroyer of Jeanine and liberator of an enslaved society. Her tearful hesitation grows tiring. Like Divergent director Neil Burger, Schwentke somewhat understandably has a weakness for closeups of Woodley (those eyes! those lashes!), but a distracting preponderance of tight shots of Tris welling up as she mulls her fate does nothing to heighten the emotional impact of her situation.
Even so, Woodley is convincingly vulnerable and tough, and James makes Four’s stoic strength persuasive. The rest of the performers bring as much dimension as they can to single-note characters, among them Naomi Watts, as Four’s estranged mother (an earthy brunette in contrast to Winslet’s frosty blonde). In the imaginatively reconfigured warehouse complex of the dispossessed Factionless, Four confronts her, along with his long-stewing abandonment issues, while she presses for an alliance that would kickstart a revolution.
Streamlining Roth’s 500-plus-page book, three credited screenwriters — Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback — have reduced the number of characters and incidents while crafting dialogue that tends toward the thuddingly obvious. There are also tone-deaf moments like the use of the already somewhat dated word “mankind” in voiceover narration, particularly jarring in a femme-centric story set in the future.
Tris’ coming-of-age crisis finds very literal expression when, in one of the drug-induced simulations that Jeanine subjects her to, she’s forced to go mano a mano with herself, and in the process turns intended torture into a lesson in self-forgiveness. However heavy-handed that sequence, it’s in the simulation episodes that Schwentke and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, whose work is supple throughout, pull out the VFX big guns, creating extraordinary hallucinatory visuals that range from abstract imagery to the suspenseful journey of a burning house floating above an imploding city. In these scenes, the otherwise pointless 3D lends a subtle depth.
Except for brief location work in the Windy City, the production was filmed in Atlanta, with Alec Hammond’s rich production design bringing the various factions to vivid life, from the rubble of Abnegation to the gleaming high-rise HQ of Candor, whose leader (Daniel Dae Kim) conducts a trial by truth serum that shakes Tris to the core. Louise Mingenbach’s faction-apt costumes never call attention to themselves. The operatically pulsing score by Joseph Trapanese likewise is a fine fit.
The expanded title, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, appears only at film’s end, after a full nine minutes of credits. (Dystopia, too, takes a village.)
Production companies: Red Wagon Entertainment, Mandeville Films
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Octavia Spencer, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Daniel Dae Kim, Tony Goldwyn
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenwriters: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback
Based on the novel by Veronica Roth
Producers: Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian
Executive producers: Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman, Barry Waldman, Neil Burger
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Alec Hammond
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Editors: Nancy Richardson, Stuart Levy
Composer: Joseph Trapanese
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani
Visual effects supervisor: James Madigan
Rated PG-13, 119 minutes