What's in the Box?!
The Divergent Series: Insurgent
We're only two movies in and I already feel like I'm kicking a horse when it's down. Obviously that's because we all know The Divergent Series was canceled before it could get a proper finale (although we'll cover all the ways that was a stupid decision when we get to the last film), but just knowing that going in means that I'm viewing this series not as one that just keeps inexplicably going but as a set of films that didn't see their own stupid and pointless death before it was too late to do anything about it.
Still, that doesn't make Insurgent, sequel to Divergent, any more palatable to watch on its own. This film feels like it was made via "YA trope flash cards" with the writers shuffling all these things together and then laying them out, trying to stitch a script together afterwards. The acting isn't great, the production values feel cheap and lackluster (even in comparison to the first film), but it's the fact that this film has the most stupid and hollow story that really holds it back from being even halfway good. Are any of us surprised that the third film underperformed after having to follow this mess?
In the movie (and we'll assume the book but, again, I have no plans to read any of them) we find our heroes Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) along with their companions -- Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Tris's brother, and real asshole Peter (Miles Teller) -- hiding out in the farmlands of Amity. They're a rough influence there, far more violent and unfriendly than all the Amity members, and they're already on borrowed time when we find them living in this otherwise peaceful tranquility. The tranquility, though, is broken when Dauntless comes calling, bashing their way into the farms and causing all kinds of havoc. Tris and Four go on the run, eventually leaving behind Peter and Caleb, while they try to shake the heat for everyone.
They end up with the Factionless, led by Four's mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts). The Factionless want to overthrow the whole government, seeing the caste system as a way to keep people down while the well-to-do have it all. At the time, though, Four and Tris aren't ready to join the resistance, instead heading to Candor to prove their innocence. It seems that while they were hiding at Amity, the evil leader of Erudite, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), framed them for all the bad things Erudite and Dauntless did in the first movie. Proving their innocence at Candor is the first step to taking down Erudite, but they have to work fast. Jeanine has a relic, hidden in the ruins of Abnegation, that seems to be a puzzle box left by the founders. It needs one of the Divergent, of course, to open it, but within it might just be a way for Jeanine to rule the world, and she'll stop at nothing to do so, wiping the Divergent out in the process.
So let's start with the biggest issue of this film: it all boils down to a story of a deus ex machina, a super McGuffin that wasn't ever mentioned in the first film and really, once you get right down to it, doesn't make a lick of sense. To start, a puzzle box that can only be opened by a divergent member is just the kind of silly writing thing that justifies the whole creation of this character type. The concept of the factions, to begin with, predicates itself on the idea that humans can easily be fit into one personality type (which they can't be, of course) and that anyone that doesn't have that one personality type is someone both evil (which they aren't) but also magical (which they also aren't).
A human that has multiple bits to their personality and can exhibit such things as bravery, compassion, intelligence, happiness, and honor sounds like, well, everyone. It suits everyone in the movie, to a greater or lesser extent to be sure. Hell, even Jeanine shows more than just being a brainy person as she's also power hungry and quite violent (or, at least, willing to order people to do the violence she thinks up). Fact is she's also not that smart since she doesn't see how her actions could lead to her own downfall, but that's really besides the point. Making a puzzle box that only the heroine can open, because of course that's the solution, it shallow and stupid. The second the box shows up it obviously and immediately screams, "I wonder when Tris will open me." I found myself already violently rolling my eyes at its mere mention (which, due to violence, I guess puts me in Dauntless).
On that subject, too, the film really muddies its own waters. We're told in the first film that Dauntless is the security force for the five factions. And yet, in this film we see not only the Factionless rise up (which makes sense in the context of the film) but also Candor, with their own security force (which does not). Then we also see Erudite with their own internal military force, which again makes no sense, especially when they're working closely with Dauntless. The film sets up all these factions and castes, dictating how these are the way people work and act, and then within a single film it's already ignoring its own setup so it can do whatever it wants. That's bad storytelling.
Of course, saying there's bad storytelling implies there's any actual storytelling going on in the film. There really isn't a plot so much as just a series of scenes where the characters run around. Things happen around the characters but I'd hardly call it an actual plot. The leads don't actually go on any kind of real journey in this film that brings about actual change. Tris at the start of the film is, emotionally and intellectually, at exactly the same place she's at by the end of the film. She learns nothing new about herself, nor do we learn anything new about her as a character. This entire film is basically padding so we can get a puzzle box that opens by the movie's end.
But then I also wouldn't say that the puzzle box is a storytelling device. It remains inert for ninety-five percent of the film only to open in the last scenes to reveal the actual plot of the series, which it very bluntly tells us. That reveal, by the way, is stupid and while it's meant to re-contextualize the whole series up to that point it instead (and without spoiling it) inserts a twist that actually doesn't make any sense when you spend even the slightest bit of time thinking about it. It's a twist right out of the playbook of M. Night Shyamalan (who had absolutely nothing to do with this film) simply so we can have a cliffhanger for the last film(s) of the set.
And while we're tearing this film apart (again, kicking that dead horse), I really hate just how often characters in the film say the word "divergent". This film is absolutely in love with having characters name drop the title of the series. "I'm divergent," she said, proudly. "Get me all the divergents," she said, in an authoritative voice. He's divergent, she's divergent, the divergent people are all over the place. Characters in this film say "divergent" more often than the Muppets said "Muppets" in the theme song for The Muppet Show. This film loves the word "divergent" more than the South Park film was in love with the term "Uncle Fucker". It's obscene and obnoxious the degree that I had to hear the term "divergent" in this movie.
So no, I didn't like this sequel. I would say it's a bad sequel but that would imply that the first film was any kind of work of art. Divergent was bad, Insurgent is just as bad (if not worse) and I really don't have any hope that the series will get any better. Thankfully it seems like the rest of the viewing audience had the same opinion as, after one more film, the series was blissfully cut short.