I never saw the original Divergent. I’m not a preteen girl or Flixist News Editor Nick Valdez, which means I have to ration my YA intake. I can only handle so many dystopian fantasies about chosen-ones that spend all their time refusing to accept their chosen-oneness. I made my stake, and I stand firmly on the side of Team Katniss.
Even so, I ended up at a screening of Divergent‘s sequel, Insurgent. Don’t ask why or how, because I couldn’t tell you. But everything you need to know about my mindset going in comes down to this: Rather than seeking out a copy of the first film as preparation, I just watched its Cinema Sins teardown. Needless to say, I was expecting something pretty terrible.
Well, color me surprised.
The Divergent Series: Insurgent
Director: Robert Schwentke
Release Date: March 20, 2015
To use some teenage lingo, Insurgent is YA AF. The only thing I’d really heard about the Divergent series was that it’s about as derivative as one of these things can be, and Insurgent is proof positive that that’s so. I don’t know how fair it was to compare Divergent to The Hunger Games beyond the broad strokes, but it’s sure as hell fair to compare Insurgent to Mockingjay – Part 1. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re the same movie, but they’re pretty gosh darn similar. If you know the basic beats of one film, you can pretty much figure out where the other one is going. A young woman with a silly name, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), is caught up as the centerpiece to her dystopian future’s brewing civil war. She’s different, you see, and that makes her a target for the city’s light-haired tyrant. She’s also upset about everything, and having nightmares about all of the terrible things she’s had to do in order to survive. She’s sad and doesn’t want to keep going, because she knows doing so will hurt the people she’s closest to.
Sound familiar? Yeah, it does. The specifics are different, sure: there are Factions instead of Districts and Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is replaced by Kate Winslet’s Jeanine, who is equally ruthless but far less interesting. Tris isn’t the Mockingjay, she’s Divergent, which means that she’s ostensibly a multi-faceted character. In a world where everyone is shoe-horned into one personality type or another, be that Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, or Abnegation, Divergent are able to be honest, fearless, intelligent, kind, and selfless (respectively) all at once, or some combination thereof. Tris is particularly Divergent, which is why she’s the protagonist.
But maybe you already knew that. So let’s talk about something else.
A while back, I wrote about how shocking the violence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was. Not necessarily because the violence was so intense in and of itself (though it was), but because it was in a film made for young people. Usually the violence in PG-13 movies is something kind of like “fun,” even when it’s brutal. The hardcore stuff that makes you cringe is generally left to the R rating. Catching Fire subverted that and was yet more proof that the MPAA’s ratings make no goddamn sense. Insurgent doesn’t do that. There is a lot of violence in the film, but nearly all of it is implied. There are at least six separate moments where a character points a gun at someone’s head, the camera shifts the victim off screen, and then the aggressor pulls the trigger. And if it cuts to a wide shot, there’s no blood. In fact, the most horrific image of the entire film is misleading. You might think that dozens (or hundreds) of people have been killed, but they’re just asleep. The film’s general bloodlessness makes the difference between death and naptime conceptual rather than visceral. There are a lot of reasons why that’s probably worse for developing minds, but that’s really beyond the scope of this review.
I bring it up because it means that the stakes in Insurgent never feel particularly high. Obviously Tris is never going to die, so even when a dozen trained soldiers are all firing automatic weapons in her general direction, every single bullet misses, but even moments with characters who could (and/or do) kick the bucket aren’t tense. If something really bad is going to happen, we’re not going to see it, and it’ll be as palatable as humanly possible. (I expect the book is a bit more hardcore in this respect, though I couldn’t say for sure.) But this puts me at an impasse: I don’t necessarily want my 15 year old sister subjected to a film that accurately demonstrates the true horrors of war… but I also don’t think the horrors of war should be sanitized for the entertainment value of my 15 year old sister. But the reality is that I’m overthinking it. That’s a question that matters in the grand scheme of things, but it doesn’t really matter in relation to Insurgent, because Insurgent needs to be taken at face value.
If you go into Insurgent with great expectations, you’ll be disappointed. If you go in expecting something that can stand on a level with the Hunger Games films, you’ll be disappointed. But why would you do either of those things? Did you see the trailers? I mean, come on. I saw a short teaser in theaters before Mockingjay, featuring some of the worst CGI I’ve seen this decade, and I actually thought it was a joke. (The visuals have improved slightly in the final film, but they’re still pretty damn bad.) No one should be expecting Insurgent to blow them away, and that’s the right attitude to start with. Because Insurgent will not blow you away. But that doesn’t mean it’s not necessarily worthwhile. It’s certainly got some things going for it: It’s reasonably entertaining, features generally attractive people, and the ultimate message, generic and predictable as it may be, is a good one. Plus, it feels like a complete narrative.
And that’s actually what impressed me most. One of the biggest criticisms leveled against Divergent was related to its cliffhanger ending. The whole thing (apparently) felt like setup for this film. But if I didn’t know that there was a third book in the Divergent trilogy (or two more movies being released under the Divergent Series tag), I would actually think that this film was the end. It wraps up rather quickly, and perhaps a bit too neatly, but everything that actually matters gets dealt with. As the credit rolled, I felt satisfied by the conclusion, something I cannot say about the past two Hunger Games films. It may end (literally) with a bang, but it’s not a cliffhanger, and though I understand how it sets up the next film, it’s also put together in such a way that it could be its own ending. I appreciated that. A lot. The film had started to lose me a little bit, but the ending brought me right back on its side.
I won’t pretend like I loved Insurgent (or that I’m not very excited to see what Cinema Sins has to say about it), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I didn’t dislike it. If you can’t stand YA, you’re not going to like it. Period. It doesn’t transcend its genre in any way, shape, or form. But if you can accept it for what it is and perhaps even embrace its occasional blandness, you could really do a lot worse.