20 March 2015

THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT


The Divergent Series: Insurgent
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer
Written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback
Directed by Robert Schwentke

I shamelessly loved DIVERGENT (read my review at The MSU Reporter). I saw it three times in theaters, once with audio commentary, and skipped around here and there scene-wise with the Blu-Ray. There's lots to love, and lots to identify. It was a well written, well acted, well shot movie that exploited my feels. INSURGENT I looked at with tempered excitement. Although I am positively giddy to revisit these characters, and most importantly to me, the themes, of this world again, the creative team behind the first film were nowhere to be found, and that creative team, I feel, were paramount in making the movie as good as it was. Director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daughtery and Vanessa Taylor conceivably found the turnaround time too quick between films and opted to exit, or whatever the reason may be, it's disappointing none of these intelligent forces were behind for the sequel. The good news, INSURGENT is good. The sorta bad news, it's not nearly as good as DIVERGENT. The other good news? I dug the themes and how they were conceptualized in the context of the story. The other sorta(ish) bad news? It was a bit too on-the-nose. 

INSURGENT starts off five days after DIVERGENT left off. Tris (Woodley), Four (James), Peter (Teller), and Caleb (Elgort) are on the run from Janine (Winslet) and her task force of anti-Divergent exterminators. Team Kill Janine have their hands full - they need to lay low, but at the same time build an army that could overthrow Janine's reign of terror, and deal with shifting allegiances that put everyone in less than ideal spots. Things get even more complicated when Janine uncovers a powerful box with a secret message only Divergents can unlock. Thus begins the struggle for Tris, the only divergent able to release its secrets, but whose guilt and pain may make her unable to succeed, putting her life and the lives of others in jeopardy. 

First, let's talk about the positives, of which there are quite a few. In DIVERGENT, scenes I tend to go back to involve a personal moment for Tris, something not necessarily plot motivated but a beautiful character beat. Take, for example, when she and her fellow Dauntless recruits climb up the train tracks to their new home (while 'Run Boy Run' beats like crazy in the background), or when Tris succeeds in the Capture-the-Flag gambit and flies through the deteriorating skyscrapers of Chicago. These are but a few moments that got me onboard the DIVERGENT bandwagon. What INSURGENT offers isn't nearly as strong or memorable as such aforementioned sequences, but there is one particular standout sequence with Tris under the influence of truth serum. Woodley gives it her all in one hell of a heartbreaking, can't-look-away scene stealer as she is forced to confront the choices and sacrifices that she's made in her fight. It's brutal, it's soul-revealing, and it's damn good. Later, as the trailers have pretty much revealed, there's a Tris vs. Tris type of fight, and although it's rather a blunt way to hammer home the point of Tris' INSURGENT arc. Nevertheless, that fight, and the whole ten minutes that encompass her journey where she confronts facets of herself, is powerful. Each beat may not land as strongly as another, but it works. 

There's a good sense of momentum with the pacing and story. With the gang divided on what to do next against their fight with Janine and how to go about it, the Tris arc is allowed time to flourish. Ultimately, that means the twisty-turny allegiance of Peter and Caleb is muddled and rather under-developed, but for the sake of keeping the focus on Tris, it's a forgivable sin. As the Big Bad, Janine is regulated to pure Figurative Mustache-Twirling Villain. We know her goal - to open the box - and we know she'll achieve that goal through any means necessary. Any development of this character was DIVERGENT exclusive, it seems. But again, Tris' arc is what matters, and her poking and prodding and general evilness is a means to a end. Naomi Watts appears as Four's super hot mom. Like, seriously. Brunette works for her. All I can hope for ALLEGIANT is that she's a large and prominent character of the story. Yowza. 

Special effects are predominantly well done. The fiery house simulation sequence showcased in every INSURGENT trailer clearly has the most work done, as great effort is afforded to make air-bending Shailene Woodley look completely real and totally not digital. It works more often than it falters. The only real digital grievance is one of the final shots of the film, a full CG aerial shot of communities walking outside obliterated Chicago. Not a memorable image to end your movie on.

Where this movie stumbles, it's hard to peg down. On a surface level, there's a difficulty in ascribing any faults. The biggest pitfall for me, personally, as a DIVERGENT devout, is that the emotional center of the first film seemed lost. Yes, plot becomes of greater importance in this sequel (to a degree), but the pain and grief of Tris, and the arc that comes from that, should have held a greater emotional intensity. They did an admirable job, no doubt, just not fully there, if you know what I mean.

Neil Burger brought a swiftness and engagement with his direction in DIVERGENT, and although INSURGENT has plenty of prettiness and strong shots, I still can't help but wonder what it would look like under Burger's direction. When all is said and done, there's nothing inherently wrong with INSURGENT. It's a fine sequel that, thankfully, didn't suffer the full wrath of sequelitis (in the last decade, only CATCHING FIRE and THE DARK KNIGHT were saved from a sophomore slump), but was still missing some pieces anyway. Definitely worth seeing, especially if you were anywhere between a full on to somewhat DIVERGENT fan. I have absolutely no idea how they're going to make ALLEGIANT into two movies, but I guess we'll find out in a year. 'Till then, solid work, fellas. I wager I'll be seeing this once or twice more.

I am evil! EEEVVAAIILLL I TELL YOU!!!

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