During the live performances of Led Zeppelin’s gravitas-laden epic, “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant often asked, “Does anyone remember laughter?” Compared to Insurgent, “Stairway to Heaven” is a laugh riot. In fact, this film has the emotional intensity of androids reciting an instruction manual. There’s nothing new to see here, and it’s delivered in the most listless fashion possible. Even for a sci-fi soap opera, Insurgent feels lazy and uninspired.
While the first film in the series, Divergent, had plenty of world-building to occupy its time, Insurgent is forced to fill its running time with action and political “intrigue.” Things pick up where Divergent left off, with Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) being dubbed enemies of the State for their treasonous exploits. The four claim sanctuary with the Amity Faction as they formulate a plot to unseat bureaucratic dragon-lady Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Meanwhile, Jeanine has her own idiotic plans. After unearthing a mysterious cube that was guarded by Tris’ mother (Ashley Judd), Jeanine must find a Divergent who is powerful enough to open it. In this case, it’s a Divergent capable of surviving the terrifying Simulations of all five Factions. The rest unwinds pretty much as you’d expect: Jeanine chases Tris, Tris runs away, Tris is captured, Tris cries awkwardly, stuff happens, and then part three is set up.
Director Robert Schwentke takes over from Neil Burger, who wisely abandoned the franchise after what will undoubtedly, one day, be viewed as its strongest installment. Schwentke fully embraces the sequel mentality of taking the best bits from the original and simply doing them bigger. Instead of Tris having to master the Dauntless Simulation, she must now master all five Simulations. Instead of the plot pivoting on one double-cross, everyone’s affiliations shift like tectonic plates. Visually, too, everything is bigger and more videogame-like. At a time when every sci-fi spectacle features cutting-edge graphics, Insurgent does nothing to distinguish itself from the pack. It’s just more crumbling buildings, more jump-kicking, more dream-image wankery.
The only benefit from this excessive amperage is the uptick in bloodthirsty violence. When deciding how best to deal with Jeanine, Tris coldly suggests, “We kill her.” Headshots and torture abound, as the overall tone is much bleaker and savage than its predecessor. The filmmakers were clearly aiming for a darker direction, but The Empire Strikes Back this isn’t.
Most of this expanded plotting, however, is designed to hide the complete lack of dramatic heft in the script. The screenwriting team of Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback struggle to infuse their characters with any emotional depth. Divergent actually allowed these characters, particularly Tris and Four, to communicate their thoughts and feelings, albeit in ridiculous monologues. Insurgent forgoes all this emotional nonsense by replacing insight with symbolic gestures. Instead of talking to Four about her self-hatred, Tris simply cuts off her hair to symbolize the angst. If you can’t be happy, at least you can have salon-quality hair!
The only notable additions to the cast are Naomi Watts as the morally-challenged leader of the Factionless clan, and Octavia Spencer as the Amity leader. It’s always a joy to see Spencer in anything, but she’s completely wasted here. Miles Teller is a bright spot, as you look forward to every scene with his Gollum-esque opportunist. He’s the only character who seems to be thinking and feeling from moment to moment. Theo James is limited to proclaiming his undying love and flashing his tattoos, while Winslet does what she can with her mustache-twirling villain. Sadly, Woodley continues to prove that she’s mismatched with this material. She may yet blossom into an interesting dramatic performer, but she’s ill-equipped to handle the baddassery of Insurgent.
With its lack of humor, tepid romance, and non-existent character growth, Insurgent has all the hallmarks of a perfunctory sequel. It’s hard to imagine the target demographic enjoying the amped-up violence and toned-down melodrama. Simply put, this is a ‘Point B’ movie that exists only to get us from A to C. It takes no chances and covers no new ground. Insurgent almost gives you a new appreciation for the subtleties and world-building of Divergent. Almost.
— J.R. Kinnard