Box Office Democracy: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
There’s a murkiness to The Divergent Series that is utterly baffling. Does it want to be The Hunger Games? While the obvious answer to that question would be “yes” I’m growing less and less sure by the moment. It feels like there was a meeting at some point during the production process where it was decided that they probably couldn’t reach the popularity or, frankly, the quality of The Hunger Games but that they could probably make a great deal of money by making a comparable product. Divergent is the result of that cynical take on filmmaking. Where Catching Fire brought in a new director and turned that franchise from a quick cash-in to a legitimate statement piece of media, Insurgent seems content to collapse under the weight of its own narrative and slouch toward the end of the series confident that it won’t be abandoned by an audience that craves this material.
It seems like Insurgent is trying to live and die on the performance of Shailene Woodley and, honestly, that wasn’t a bad bet to make. Woodley’s performance as Tris is easily the best in the film. Her personal struggles are captivating and her chemistry with co-star Theo James (playing Four) is the only believable relationship depicted in the entire film. While Woodley’s performance is a credit to the film it simply isn’t enough to hide what often seems like a lack of effort. I can’t understand why the second entry in a franchise that will make so much money has such lackluster sets, there’s a trial scene that appears to just be on a soundstage painted black with a metal frame set up. Most of the scenes leading up to the climax take place in a slightly fancier white box. It lacks so much in terms of effort and ambition from a design perspective and often from a directing perspective as the other performances in this film did not get nearly the attention they seemingly gave when coaxing such a transfixing job from Woodley.
I’m heading in to spoiler territory from here on so if you’ve gotten this far but prefer to remain pure it’s time to browse away.
Throughout the first movie and well in to the second the character Eric (Jai Courtney) is a consistent figure of menace. He starts off as the tough trainer who shows us the dark side of the world Tris lives in and once the main plot breaks out he becomes the physical manifestation of the threat that is, otherwise, largely political. Tris does not defeat him directly in the first movie and for the first half of Insurgent her and her compatriots run every time they see him. Then, about midway through the film he is captured by a surprise ambush of Dauntless, challenges Four to a one-on-one fight with no weapons, is defeated in less than thirty seconds and is summarily executed within minutes. It felt a lot like if in The Empire Strikes Back Han Solo had ended the invasion of Hoth by shooting Darth Vader in the face. I’m sure there’s a plan to build an even bigger scarier threat but none of that work takes place in this movie. Max (Mekhi Phifer) is bumped up from #2 grunt to supposed leader but he never feels quite as personal or competent as Eric did. Dispatching Eric so quickly and with so little drama kneecaps the rest of the film and I fear the entire series as no one they introduce in the final chapter can possibly feel this personal as a menace, it’s unfortunate.
While the handling of the antagonists is the chief problem I had with the script it isn’t the only one. One of the things I thought Divergent handled well was in giving Tris an awful lot of agency, she did things because she wanted, and a lot of that is gone in the second installment. The protagonists feel dragged through the plot by a series of lucky breaks and coincidences. The entire climax hinges on either a miraculous change of heart from a former traitor or a remarkably complex plan and the audience is never let in on which one it is but neither feels particularly believable. In the first film I believed that I could feel the wills of the major players moving the story but this time they feel adrift as forces beyond their control move them through the narrative. It makes the characters far less interesting and the film a bit of a bore.