“Peace. Long ago, before the Founders established this world, that word was all but meaningless.”
So begins Kate Winslet’s narration in the second installment of the films based on Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, the 26-year-old’s trilogy of young adult novels. Oscar winner Winslet returns as Jeanine, whose speech continues via holograms projected throughout the ruins of what had been Chicago—before the world as we know it collapsed 200 years prior, splitting into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. It’s the first of a few massive exposition dumps that viewers must endure.
Ostensibly, Jeanine is addressing her faction, the Erudite, but the tale she’s telling should be well-known to her intellectual followers. Then again, they also can’t tell that their leader is effectively Hitler incarnate. And why should they? After all, director Robert Schwentke worked from a script that was polished by Akiva Goldsman, a writer who’d be best known for his hilariously awful screenplay for Batman and Robin, if he hadn’t lucked into an Oscar for his adaptation of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind.
We pick back up with heroine Beatrice “Tris” Prior (23-year-old Shailene Woodley, or J-Law Jr.), who chops her long locks into a short bob that’s mocked by Peter (Miles Teller) but embraced by Four (30-year-old Brit Theo James), her lover. Retroactively, we find out that Tris’ mother (Ashley Judd, seen in flashbacks and a number of virtual reality “simulations”) was killed by Jeanine’s militarized forces in the previous movie, not only for protecting her daughter, but also because she was trying to keep a totemic LED-bedazzled box (aka, this film’s MacGuffin) from falling into Jeanine’s evil hands—which it does, anyway.
Since last we saw them escaping Jeanine’s clutches, Tris, her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Four and Peter have been hiding out with the earthy farming faction Amishy, err…Amity. While everyone in this hippie-dippy community greets them with Stepford-like smiles, Tris suffers through PTSD-driven nightmares, when not brooding about killing Jeanine or attacking Peter with a knife for teasing her about the death of her parents. You know, everyday kid stuff.
But, given how this material is pitched squarely at the high school set, it makes sense when Amity’s principal-like peacenik leader, Johanna (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), reacts to such behavior by telling Tris: “My office. Now.”
Alas, once Johanna gives Tris a Very Stern Talking To, Amity is surrounded by Jeanine’s trigger-happy troops, led by Four’s hot-headed former friend, Eric (Jai Courtney). Still, since nearly everyone in the future is a terrible shot, Tris and her friends manage to escape into a wide-open field, even though they’re pursued by about a dozen soldiers with automatic weapons. Dashing for a speeding train, Four leaps in front of it, like Superman. And why not? Even though the Divergent series has been packaged as another progressive girl-power showcase (like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games before it), this film backpedals on muscular feminism as it shifts the action focus onto Four, who saves Tris more than once.
When they hop aboard the train (future society’s travel mode of choice), Four saves Tris and the timid Caleb from getting pushed off by Edgar (Jonny Weston) and his young band of too-cool-for-school Factionless, who live—and travel—like hobos. It’s but one example of how this movie keeps rewriting the rules—and Roth’s book. Not only does Edgar not appear in the novel, but neither does that MacGuffin. Caleb helpfully tells Tris (and confused readers of the novel) that it contains a Very Important Message from the Founders—which can only be accessed via Tris and her superb virtual reality video game skills. Or something.
Tris spends most of the third act playing through five “simulations,” after giving herself up to Jeanine to prevent all of the movie’s nameless extras from committing suicide due to some mind-control bullets they’ve been shot with. And although it seems nonsensical for Jeanine’s forces to non-fatally shoot everyone, just so they can go through the extra step of killing themselves later, I’m not an Oscar-winning screenwriter like Goldsman, so what the hell do I know?
When Four risks his life in an attempt to free Tris, she’d rather hook herself back up to Jeanine’s fancy Xbox one last time, treating viewers to another overblown spectacle of swirling special effects, which were designed to take full advantage of this sequel’s ticket price-inflating use of 3-D.
“Look, I know it doesn’t make sense,” she tells him, “but you’re going to have to trust me.” Which sums up this middle chapter in a nutshell. You may not know what you’ve just watched, but you’ll have to go on faith that it’ll add up to something once The Divergent Series: Allegiant – Part 1 and Part 2 conclude the story in 2016 and ’17.
Hmm, maybe those magic suicide bullets are beginning to make sense, after all.
The Divergent Series: Insurgent **
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Octavia Spencer, Ray Stevenson, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Zoë Kravitz, Jonny Weston, Keiynan Lonsdale, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, Janet McTeer, Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet. Written by Brian Duffield, Mark Bomback and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Directed by Robert Schwentke. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.