Insurgent digs itself deeper into Divergent’s hole

When Divergent was released just under a year ago I wrote about it at length. I found the film to show a lot of promise, despite some clear flaws, and I expressed my concern with the film’s political and social subtexts.

The sequel, Insurgent, is now in cinemas. Sadly, it’s notable how little of the original promise has been built upon, and while the new film heads off in some relatively interesting directions, they haven’t been founded on solid ideas. And not only does this new film contain many of the same troubling ideas and expressions as the original, it has even developed some new ones of its own.

Insurgent is much more of a an action movie than its predecessor, with a clear intent to remove the more confusing aspects of the Divergent world, and to keep the story flying forwards through plentiful scenes of our heroes running and gunning. Attempts to simplify the book’s plotlines, including several threads that were purposefully established in the first film, might not be entirely successful but do at least go some way to making the film easier to understand for audiences who haven’t read the novels.

Author Veronica Roth commented on her blog earlier this year that,

Insurgent, the book, has a complicated plot – a lot of moving parts, a lot of ups and downs. That sort of thing can work in a book, but if it’s translated directly to the screen, it makes for a messy, confusing movie. The changes that were made streamline the story so it makes sense for this new format; in other words, they work.

In Insurgent we are introduced to a secret society of sorts, a ‘factionless’ group led by Evelyn (Naomi Watts). This is, as presented, a faction of the factionless. We were told in Divergent and then reminded through inference in Insurgent, that the factionless belong to no faction, and that would seem to stand to reason, so the logistics of Evelyn’s group are never really clear.

As this movie unfolds, it’s slowly revealed that there are a number of Divergents – those who belong to all of the factions – living within the city. The character of Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is hell bent on tracking them down, in order to both eradicate them and to help her unlock a mysterious box that holds a message from this new world’s founders.

To help with this, she and her cohorts in the ‘smart’ faction of Erudite invent a doohickey that quickly tests whether people are a Divergent and gives a percentage readout. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is unsurprisingly that rare thing: 100% Divergent.

But what does that really mean? What does it mean if someone is only 30% Divergent? 1% Divergent? Surely the factionless must also be Divergent, even though they are explicitly shown not to be? By belonging to no faction, surely they belong to all factions, to some degree? Or are they just supposed to be blank, somehow?

For that matter, surely all the other characters, those in any of the factions, will also belong to the others to some degree? This seems to be compounded by the introduction of these percentages. Are we really to believe that an Erudite never, ever tells the truth or helps anyone else in any way?

These muddled concepts were certainly evident in Divergent, but as that film was busy planting the seeds for the series, I still had some hope that they might grow into something with a sturdier, sounder trunk. But they haven’t. The illogical premises have just multiplied.

One thing you may have already noticed from just the few characters I mentioned so far is that this world has a high number  of women in positions of power. Tris is our protagonist but in amongst the supporting cast we can also find the Erudite faction led by Jeanine, the factionless led by Evelyn and the Amity led by Johanna (Octavia Spencer).

Women do not dominate the film and there are plenty of men in both Divergent and Insurgent, with the over all gender split seemingly pretty close to fifty-fifty. Nonetheless, it is certainly noteworthy to see all of these female characters in key roles, however, especially when one considers how depressingly uncommon this is in modern Hollywood blockbusters.

But where there’s concern is in how the films portray Tris’ relationship with Four (Theo James). He is, sadly, still the same walking slab of sirloin as he was in the first film, with a lack of meaningful characterisation or subtlety in his performance only highlighted by Woodley’s skills as an actress. Nonetheless, Tris is infatuated with him and he is being offered up as a desirable figure to the film’s target audience.

Four was Tris’ teacher, which is something that I found troubling during Divergent and which I had hoped would be dealt with in the sequel, at least in passing. He also displays some violent character traits in Insurgent that are surely not admirable, including – but not limited to – shooting a cuffed prisoner in the head, ‘execution style,’ with little sense of conflict about the act, or any display of guilt following it.

Remember that in Divergent, Four showed Tris his ‘simulation’ test, something that had been carried out in order to decide if he was worthy to be a membr of Dauntless. She saw that the one area in which he had ‘failed’ was his inability to shoot someone in the exact same manner without looking away.

Now he does it with eyes straight forward and without a flinch.

Insurgent‘s implicit admiration for violent actions is only compounded by assertions that intelligence is a negative trait, impairing one’s ability to empathise or be even generally humane. Not only is the villain of the piece, Jeanine, an Erudite – essentially this world’s exaggerated notion of an intellectual – but she is also shown to be a zealot, albeit one who is happy to adapt her extremist viewpoints when the evidence at hand doesn’t favour her position of power in society.

One key Erudite character is even shown to behave in a particularly nasty way that runs counter to the how he was originally established in Divergent. A character who was once caring and thoughtful has joined the Erudite faction and lost his empathetic feelings, and soon betrays somebody close to him in an especially cruel fashion.

A lot of this actually works rather well dramatically, but it does seem to push what appears to be a passionately anti-intellectual agenda.

We learned from Tris’ tests that her greatest fear is the threat of sexual assault from Four. She now seems to have overcome this, and initiates sexual relations with him. The scene is pretty coy, of course, as shooting someone in the head and running around with guns is fine family viewing under the terms of the MPAA, and it’s people having sex that we really need to worry about.

This growing relationship that Tris has with Four and the connected complications that ensue tap into teenage issues and make attempts to engage with a young audience, perhaps most particularly a teenage, female viewership. This is where the films are at their best, though this material is thinner on the ground in the second instalments as the filmmakers shift their focus towards the action and spectacle.

The recurring mirror motif that paid off in Divergent is not so prevalent in Insurgent, but it is still evident and there is a scene in which Tris is forced to confront and fight the image of herself. You’ll still see a number of mirrors and somewhat reflective pieces of glass, many of which that she smashes through, in a rather blunt but reasonably effective visual metaphor. The motif at least provides a thematic thread that will speak to the film’s audience in a way that is unambiguous and easy to engage with.

Insurgent is a disappointment primarily because Divergent was full of unfulfilled promise. And while the series does seem to have lost its way, I do remain hopeful that the third and fourth film will dig up and build upon the interesting foundations that were buried this time around. This fictional world may be muddled, but audiences are invested in it now, and Woodley is such a remarkable young actress that she could certainly handle whatever material, however sophisticated, that is handed down to her.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent is in US and UK cinemas now, and Allegiant: Part 1 will be along on March 18th, 2016. I hope I get to come back with a more positive piece this time next year.