Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent is a massively stupid movie. It’s the kind of sci-fi claptrap that disappears so deeply up its own mythology, that it begins to teeter into some sort of surrealist storytelling experiment rather than an actual story. I would compare it to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil films, but with classier actors and better special effects. Anderson’s movies have the advantage of Insurgent, however, in that they seem to know that they are trash. Insurgent, based on a heady YA sci-fi novel by Veronica Roth, seems convinced it is saying important things about its own bizarre sci-fi canon – complete with notions of defying your in-born caste – but it defies summation and analysis due to sloppy plotting and a poorly-thought-out premise.
That premise was introduced in last years Divergent, the film to precede this one. In the future, Chicago has been walled off from a never-defined threat, and the citizens inside live in peace and harmony thanks to a rigid caste system. At one’s Bar Mitvah, they are assigned to one of five castes, and are expected to have only one personality trait and one job for the rest of their lives. Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley, trying her hardest) elected to join the soldiers (a.k.a. Dauntless), even though she is expected to be a peacemaker (a.k.a. Abnegation). She is actually a Divergent, which means she can fit into several castes. Divergents are a threat to the caste system, and she is hunted down, but not before foiling a plot for soldiers to take over.
Insurgent begins with Tris on the run from Jeanine (Kate Winslet) the town tyrant. Tris wastes most of the movie wandering from caste to caste (including the Factionless tribe of punks led by Naomi Watts) half-heartedly trying to raise up an army to take down Jeanine. I’m unclear as to how the factions really work, even after two movies. Dauntless are said to be the only ones who are skilled fighters and soldiers, but the Factionless seem just as skilled. So why aren’t the Factionless Dauntless? And what of Tris’ brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort)? He dropped out of his faction, but switches to another with ease. But he’s not Divergent. The importance – and character strength – of the factions seems to fluctuate from scene to scene.
Jeanine, meanwhile, wants to kidnap Tris and force her into a specialized virtual reality video game that would, should Tris beat it, open up a mysterious electronic box, the contents of which are unknown.
Why does it need to be a video game? What do the virtual reality video games reveal about a person that their own hand-scanners do not? Why are Divergents a threat? What is beyond the wall that they need to hide behind it? If factions are only said to have one character trait each, how come they all seem to straddle a line or two? How can someone only be 10% Divergent? Why did we spend all that time “building an army,” when that army is actually never assembled or put to use during the course of the film?
And what are we to make of Tris? We’re assured that she’s a Special Snowflake by her very genetic disposition (an alarmingly common trope in YA fiction), but she seems like a shallow, violent dummy. She struggles and fights and throws punches in reaction to just about everything. She seems like a bully. Are we supposed to celebrate a young woman whose life ambition it is to murder another person? Someone who actively chose to join the mean-spirited Dauntless? And someone who’s not smart enough to take down the system without assembling an army? Doesn’t she have a better plan for peace? The message of Insurgent seems to be, then: We need liberating war to take down repressive peace. These movies celebrate fascism and violence.
Insurgent is incoherent, mean, and it’s not skilled enough to mask its incoherence and meanness with basic thrills. The pacing is so clunky, and the premise so shaky, that you can see this series’ irresponsible dumbness in all its glory. Let’s just hope the third film (Detergent? Nonurgent? Unintelligent?) finally gives us some answers. Because I’ve lost patience.