What to Expect
I was NOT pumped for Insurgent.
And with the lukewarm product that was the first installment of The Divergent Series, you can’t exactly blame me now, can you? That Neil Burger’s slick direction couldn’t really save the sloppy, majorly inspired writing of the film is pretty much out there, what with Divergent having felt so much like The Hunger Games in all of its young-adult dystopian tropes the movie was wrapped around. Add to that the additional fact that the first installment of the book trilogy dropped on the shelves of bookstores round the world in 2011 – relative to Suzanne Collins’ source trilogy of the now insanely popular franchise starring Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, the first of which released in 2008 – and it’s quite conclusive that facts aren’t helping the cases of either this new Summit cash-grab of a franchise or Roth’s written work.
Here’s where things are shaken up a bit, with the replacement of Burger with Robert Schwentke (RED). I know, I know, RIPD was an shamefully disparaging pile of turd, but hey! Let’s all admit that Schwentke’s assured hands do know action and steady visuals. Add to that a fresh addition of writers – a credible inclusion of which would have to be Akiva Goldsman (Star Trek Into Darkness), hired along with Mark Bomback (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) to put a new spin to Brian Duffield’s script. These rather strategic moves definitely go to show that Summit – interestingly a subset of Lionsgate, the backers of the about-to-end The Hunger Games franchise – is damn serious about making the franchise work, more as a set of films than anything else.
The one major Achilles’ Heel, however, that will continue to stay is the rather tepid layout of Divergent. Which brings us to the all-important question: with a setup as flimsy and inspired as one in the first, would the makers be able to break off through the restrictions to create a better second installment?
I thought I knew the answer already. I thought.
What’s it About?
Picking up where the first left off, Tris (Woodley; White Bird in a Blizzard), Four (James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort; The Fault in Our Stars) and Peter (Miles Teller; The Spectacular Now) are now on the run from Erudite, headed by the cunning Janine (Kate Winslet; Revolutionary Road). While they take shelter in Amity, Janine hits home upon a mysterious box, found in Tris’ family home in what’s left of Abnegation – a possible reason to the faction’s imminent ruin in the first film.
The catch is, the box – containing an age-old message from the founders – can only be opened by a Divergent. An extremely powerful Divergent.
And Janine’s going to stop at nothing to get to the Divergent she needs for this.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Not having read the books prior to the release of the first of what would later become a franchise that is now given the uninspired title The Divergent Series, I cannot exactly qualitatively assess Roth’s written source. What I can, however, speak for – or against – is the film. And looking at it solely as a science-fiction film franchise geared toward the young adult crowd, we can all have seen – casual viewers included – that that the movie has been built but on a ridiculously disparaging amount of convenience, set up on a deliberately laborious level in the first. While the material does touch upon elements of discrimination and power not-so-subtly, what it’s ended up doing right off – and till date – has produced itself to nothing but cloying, manipulative clutter; an aspect that Burger was but not exactly able to hide, despite all his stylish execution about it.
What fortunately ticks with Robert Schwentke and the group of writers – Duffield, Goldsman and Bomback – is that they clan seems a lot more relaxed with the material at hand. The setup notwithstanding, the makers have this time been able to work around their restrictions, spinning through a product that’s relatively assured, if not any more than above average by any means. The team of writers have successfully been able to flesh out the character arc of our classic dystopian female protagonist, bringing out within her some rather relatable shades of darkness. There’s an immense sense of guilt that Woodley wears through the movie, and while she does indeed carry it forward with panache, it is definitely the writing that should be credited for not making her just a pretty-vulnerable-for-love heroine, taking her way forward – and far – from the first one. The unfortunate flip side within this process definitely has to be the underwritten supporting characters – namely Spencer’s Johanna and Winslet’s Janine. While the former has but one primary scene, the latter simply walks around, spiking sinisterness in her but empty pretense. None of these rather deserving performers get their due through any potential payoff. And then there’s Naomi Watts, who definitely, definitely deserved more than her underwritten share.
There’s a lot – like in Divergent – that’s hurried and hurtles for the next stop. Unlike the first film, however, there’s less to think about in terms of convenience, considering how breathless it is in terms of its rather excellently shot, albeit a touch too unrealistic on a technical scale, action set-pieces. The tests Tris goes through to unlock the McGuffin of the film – the box – are quite excellent, with a lot of the visual effects paying off pretty well. Woodley looks in form doing what she does, despite the pretty obvious fact that doubles have been used here, who’ve definitely done a fantastic job with utility stunts featuring Tris. The camerawork is slow and steady, making no use of what’s now popularly known as the “shaky cam” during any possible action set-piece. Schwentke’s regular contributor Florian Ballhaus does excellent justice to the visual flair of the film. Whilst looking visually expansive, the movie is framed and lit almost perfectly, maintaining a terrific, dynamic rhythm within the shots. Stuart Levy and Nancy Richardson deliver a commendable edit to the film, what with the action sequences being functionally fact-paced. A particular set-piece within a running train though is edited poorly, reminding the audience of the unfortunately large pile of PG13 films that have managed to pass off some of the most atrociously directed and edited action sequences in the name of A-lister cinema. Thankfully, the train sequence is but a blip in the otherwise well-shot set-pieces.
Part of what enhances the fun level of the film is Joseph Trapanese’s score, which is great on tension. What it goes down low in quantity on is the soundtrack compilation, pitching through the film’s runtime singles from such eclectic acts like Imagine Dragons and SOHN. What takes the cake, however, is the terrific original song Holes in the Sky composed for the film by – no surprises there – M83 (an interesting regular in Woodley’s bigger films since Divergent).
To Perform or Not to Perform
The best thing about this movie has to be Shailene Woodley. She’s terrific, handling her now complex role with an uncanny amount of ease. A particular scene in which she’s injected with the truth serum, inflicting pain on all the deepest, darkest secrets she has, has her handling every one of Tris’ deepest, darkest emotive dynamics with brilliance. Theo James is back to brood and look good. He doesn’t exactly do much through his runtime though, except for participate in a couple of action set pieces. Miles Teller is great, but – like Elgort – his role is too undercut relative to the first for any enjoyment to happen. Maggie Q is an inconsequential prop to the movie’s proceedings, and so is Zoe Kravitz. It’s quite a shame that a ton of absolutely useful supporting performers from the first have been relegated further into the backseats. Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Kate Winslet are passable, but suffer from similarly underwritten arcs. Jai Courtney is still an asshat – nothing new. Ashley Judd is yet another prop in the proceedings, but her cameo inadvertently adds an uncanny warmth to the film.
That Insurgent is not great, and has a rather disappointing setup in terms of convenience is pretty much known. That Schwentke and the film’s group of writers still manage to have fun with the source material, however, shows quite well in the film. Relative to Divergent and its set of cliches, Insurgent is actually a pretty enjoyable – if but strictly above-average – second chapter in The Divergent Series, its rather disappointing hitches notwithstanding.
Watch the trailer
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