Say what you will about dystopian young adult cinema — the genre lacks originality. The characters are cut-and-dry, the world-building is questionable and the messages are diluted in favor of fast-paced action and shots of a brooding Liam Hemsworth or Theo James type — but somehow, these stories have found tremendous success with mainstream audiences. It could be the effective casting, as these films have given unprecedented attention to a lot of on-screen talent, including Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley. It could be the loyal fan base. It could be the hope and power it lends to 16-year-olds in the bleakest of situations. Either way, the directors, writers and production crews behind these movies have created and perfected a formula that works. The “Divergent” franchise has succeeded by fulfilling these expectations, but the latest film in the series, “Insurgent” (March 11), often veers far from the plot of the book it was based on. Ironically for a series that focuses so heavily on individuality, the weaknesses of “Insurgent” lie in its divergence, both from its source material and from the classic YA dystopian formula. The film would benefit from following those cut-and-dry formulas more and leaving behind its attempts at uniqueness.
“Insurgent” starts where “Divergent” (2014) left off. Future Chicago is in ruins, and what remains of humanity has split into five factions according to virtue: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the kind), Candor (the truthful), Erudite (the knowledgeable) and Dauntless (the brave). Because this is a teen dystopia, our protagonist, Tris (Shailene Woodley), is a Dauntless initiate, but secretly Divergent — someone who does not fit into any of the five factions. When she stops an attack on Abnegation, she inadvertently plunges the city into an inter-faction war. “Insurgent” opens with the Dauntless as reluctant refugees in the Amity compound and chronicles the the desperate and power-hungry Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews’ (Kate Winslet) hunt for the Divergent. The plot of “Insurgent” is quite different from the novel, with a different central conflict: There is a mysterious box with a secret message for the city, which only a true Divergent can open. The film follows the dystopian YA formula here, and thus the Divergent who needs to open the box happens to be Tris.
Visually, the film is incredibly successful. Viewers see the perpetually badass Tris, her calculating brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and her hunky (if unfortunately named) boyfriend Four (Theo James) visit different factions and undergo outrageous simulations in order to open the box. Viewers see them squirm at suspiciously mellow (read: drugged-out) Amity headquarters, attempt to blend in with the black-and-white suits at those of Candor and battle evil geniuses at the Erudite compound. The changes in scenery flesh out the five factions, allowing the audience to see the merits and perils of each unique location.
The constant change, however, takes valuable time away from potential character development. For example, viewers lose important content that develops characterization, such as the majority of Four’s backstory and his relationship with his abusive father. We do meet Four’s mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the leader of an underground rebellion. She lacks believability, however, both because of her strange backstory and because Watts looks barely five years older than James himself.
The film also highlights much less of Tris’ relationship with her friends and family compared to “Divergent” or the “Insurgent” novel. Outside of the film’s main characters, Elgort and Miles Teller (who plays Tris’ fellow Divergent-initiate Peter) add depth and complexity to their roles. Elgort’s performance allows us to see Caleb’s internal conflict, as he sides with Jeanine and assists in Tris’ capture. Peter’s character is as arrogant and awful as expected, but Teller adds humor and levity to the character so that it’s impossible not to laugh as viewers simultaneously hate him for his actions. To its credit, this film doesn’t reduce its characters to caricatures, even when it is incredibly tempting to do so — no one is entirely good, no one is entirely bad and everyone is unbearable in their own way. Problematically, though, the film adaptation retains the overall theme of distrust of knowledge and those who pursue it, and the Erudite are consistently depicted in a negative light. The heavy-handed delivery of the message that the hunger for knowledge and the hunger for power are equivalent is a worrisome one to send to a predominantly impressionable teenage audience.
On the bright side, Woodley’s performance is solid throughout the film, and she makes unbelievable situations such as trippy simulations, the hunt for the ridiculous magic box and the slow motion action scene watchable and even bearable.
The film seems to be in constant tension between the cast’s nuanced performances and its own apparent self-parody. At the Amity compound, citizens happily hand out meals with the greeting, “Go with happiness.” In Candor, the population delivers a chant of “Thank you for your Candor” as a post-interrogation ritual. In simulations, Tris repeatedly rescues her deceased mother from a floating, burning house and swings across cables in a way that made more than one audience member exclaim “Tarzan!” The movie is full of you-can’t-be-serious moments — intentional or otherwise.
Overall, “Insurgent” is adequate, even enjoyable, when it follows the formula, and slightly painful to watch when it doesn’t. Though this is hardly a film franchise that will promote productive introspection about humanity, it fulfills its primary purpose — to entertain.