Wednesday, March 25, 2015

'The Divergent Series: Insurgent' review

The young adult genre in Hollywood is an up-and-down rollercoaster that makes it hard for studios and critics to predict how a YA adaptation will do. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were both critically and financially successful, the Twilight series was lucrative but destroyed by film fans, and now, we have The Divergent Series. I enjoyed last year's Divergent, finding that it put an interesting, if not overly fresh spin on the genre. This year's Insurgent is decidedly less enjoyable, despite the presence of Shailene Woodley and the charismatic Miles Teller. Insurgent features some very strong moments of promise, but much of the film drags, spending its time on a bizarre test sequence and lots of dull conversation. Divergent was a decent series opener, yet in order for the franchise to be exciting and invigorating going forward, Insurgent needed to be a knockout like Catching Fire was. Unfortunately, it just isn't up to the challenge.

Insurgent picks up right after the events of Divergent. The evil leader of Erudite, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), has just attacked the faction of Abnegation, but is now blaming the attack on a group of rogue Divergents. Tris (Woodley), Four (Theo James), Peter (Teller), and Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are hiding with Amity in the hopes of assembling an army to attack Jeanine and Erudite. At the same time, Jeanine is in search of the perfect Divergent to open a box that contains a message from the founders of the new society. Tris and Four end up clashing with the Factionless and then move their way to Candor before ending up the clutches of Jeanine. 

Everyone knows that Divergent is a very blatant rip-off of The Hunger Games. The Screen Junkies guys parodied that fact in a very funny Honest Trailer for the original film. However, that doesn't mean that there hasn't been a lot of potential for this franchise. The concept is fascinating and the cast is outstanding: Woodley, Teller and Elgort are engaging, excellent actors and Octavia Spencer, Ray Stevenson and Winslet are all strong veteran actors. The problem with the Divergent series is that the creative material isn't there and the source isn't exactly great stuff either.

I tried reading Veronica Roth's Divergent, but I stopped after a chapter or two. I couldn't take another whiny adolescent book series and I quit in the early goings. The original film's screenplay managed to survive despite the less-than-stellar material, but Insurgent suffers big-time. The screenplay, written by Akiva Goldsman, Brian Duffield and Mark Bomback, jumps from place to place with very little skill and the film's pacing is atrocious. Nearly half of the film is spent on a series of dream scenes that really don't do anything for the story. The final moments of the film manage to recover a bit of poignancy, yet the concluding revelations are simply baffling. 

Director Robert Schwentke takes over from Neil Burger and does a sufficient job. He doesn't hurt the film or help it, except on a few select occasions. Schwentke keeps the film at a quick, but choppy pace and also manages to keep the focus on Tris. The action scenes are well-filmed and there isn't much to complain about Schwentke's directorial eye. He does a fine job with this franchise and I'm fine with him staying on board going forward. 

The best thing that this franchise has going for it is the cast. The Hunger Games has Jennifer Lawrence and a series of strong veterans, but I would argue that Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are less talented actors than Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort. Unfortunately, those two are wasted in favor of the bland and unintentionally funny Four, played by Theo James. Four is the "dark" and "mysterious" guy who basically has no personality at all. It's pretty funny, especially when his mom (Naomi Watts) calls him by his birth name, and he replies by saying: "Don't call me that! My name is Four." Pure screenplay gold. 

Tris is undoubtedly the focus of the story and the screenwriters emphasize her guilt over the death of her parents and friends. It's an interesting idea, but it's not a fresh one at this point (in fact, it practically rips off Katniss' problems in The Hunger Games and Stark's issues in Iron Man 3). Woodley delivers an impressive performance, but I never found it to quite enough to carry the film. 

As I've noted throughout the rest of the article, the film spends its final half in a testing room with a bunch of different tests that examine Tris' divergentness, or whatever they call it in Faction world. It ends up being a progressing series of fantasies and stuff that they showed in the marketing to make this movie look "action-packed." The movie practically drags to a halt at that point and there isn't much forward progress after that. In fact, it's only in the final few minutes that we see some of the other major characters re-enter the story and it comes off as awkwardly forced. 

In the end, Insurgent is a disappointing middle chapter that struggles to give this franchise the life it needs. Woodley and Teller are impressive young actors who manage to deliver charismatic performances, but the film's choppy structure and tediousness prevents it from ever doing anything interesting. Something just didn't feel right about this film and I seriously doubt that this film will be able to recover from this climatic chapter. The two-part finale, Allegiant, is coming, but I don't really see where this franchise can go for here. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (5.6/10)

Image Credits: Roger's Movie Nation, Coming Soon, Book Fandoms, Divergent Fans

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