If Insurgent proves little else, it confirms that few in America’s Snapchat demographic will raise serious objections to what amounts to a Little Golden Book version of drastically simplified socialism so long as it comes accompanied with a healthy dose of warmongering bravado. The film’s tagline is “One choice can destroy you,” presumably a reference to the series’s portrait of a society broken up into five on-the-surface constructive groups. It’s also a nice distillation of the adolescent crisis, but unfortunately doesn’t register because author Veronica Roth’s series uses the mythic to inflate the stature of her protagonists and not the other way around, the way the best young-adult literature generally does. (And, at two installments in, the series’s obvious debts to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games only accrue the baggage of unfavorable comparison.)
Tris (Shailene Woodley) and a few of her fellow Dauntless warriors—along with her meek Erudite brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort, dropping syllables so often you’ll wonder if the call’s about to drop)—begin the second movie on the run. At the end of Divergent, Tris and her boyfriend, Four (Theo James), successfully thwarted erudite leader Jeanine’s (Kate Winslet) plot to seize control of their walled-off post-apocalyptic Chicagoland empire, but not before her parents and a few hundred other Abnegation citizens were slaughtered. The bloodshed has proven impossible for Tris to accept, and she’s caught in a tailspin of guilt and rage. While Tris grieves her lost parents, Four is forced to reckon with the reemergence of the mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), he long ago presumed dead. Now the leader of the vagrant Factionless populace, Evelyn pours the charm on in an attempt to forge an underground alliance to defeat Jeanine, who’s predictably shoring up her forces once again.
Normally, the middle children in filmic trilogies have an advantage over either bookend in the sense that they have to bear neither the burden of shoehorning in a bunch of clunky exposition nor the high expectations of bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion. (Unless, of course, studio executives step in and mandate that final installment get split into two halves, which alas will be the case with the forthcoming Allegiant.) That freedom often allows the filmmakers to indulge in the pleasures of discursive action, or focus on shading the characters supporting the whole franchise. And while Insurgent offers plenty of both, at no point do the material or the performances expand the series’s canvass beyond what the first Divergent managed. If anything, it makes one furious Tris and Four didn’t finish Jeanine off the first time around. We’re really breaking into the Erudite compound again?
The first film at least capitalized on the metaphorical implications of teens being forced to essentially chart the course of their entire future lives on a single decision (read: college, for those who can afford it). Similarly, the sequel invests a surprising amount of energy into examining Tris’s battles with doubt and self-loathing in the wake of the death and destruction she’s convinced is entirely her fault. At one level, it’s all jerry-rigged to make Tris (who measures “100 percent” Divergent) an iffy bet to pass another climactic series of faction simulations. But at a more utilitarian level, it at least attempts to make the movie speak on behalf of the rude discoveries of the pubescent mind.
Unfortunately, it also puts the spotlight square on Woodley, who, no matter how strong she’s been at being weak in other roles (The Fault in Our Stars most notably), doesn’t manage to convey the full force of her anguish. It’s not enough that she fall short of J-Law’s benchmark as Katniss. One mid-film courtroom sequence would’ve needed the tears of Falconetti. Having been delivered a dose of truth serum, Tris is warned, “The harder you resist telling the truth, the more it will hurt.” Tris, adrift in melancholia, can’t even muster up the sting of a slap to the face, and the filmmakers can’t seem to muster a reason for her to care.