I’ll always have a certain respect for movies that rely on the enduring appeal of their mediocrity. Insurgent – sorry, The Divergent Series: Insurgent – is a story about I-don’t-know, starring two actors I’d rather not know. It’s the follow-up to last year’s Divergent, and the latest (no, not last) in a long dynasty of soporific, boner-chilling YA dystopias. And while it’s an improvement over its predecessor – less world-building, more mass murder – it’s nothing more than conventional action acne, cleverly disguised as a female-led thriller. Insurgent is callous and vacuous. On the plus side, someone does punch Miles Tiller in the face.
Insurgent is the second installment in the Veronica Roth franchise, although it could be the third or fifth, and none of us would notice. It takes place in post-apocalyptic Chicago (think: double the improv teams), where the world, like many YA dystopias before it, is neatly divided into factions. There’s Candor, Erudite, Abnegation, Amity, and Dauntless, but Tris (Shailene Woodley) belongs to none of them – and all of them. She, and her boyfriend Four (played by Theo James, who appears to have recently fallen out of a wood block), are “Divergent.” They possess all the virtues, making them a target for persecution. Insurgent is a Myers-Brigg test, gone rogue.
While Divergent spends most of its time world-building, Insurgent is two hours of children shooting children. The change, honestly, is a welcome one. The series has never been known for its imagination – think The Giver meets Halo meets Shailene Woodley. When Insurgent finally decides to drop story for shootouts, we all breathe a sigh of relief. Burning flying houses shatter into thousands of glistening glass pieces, and the affect is arresting. Directed Robert Schwenke of the infamous R.I.P.D. (that’s sarcasm), Insurgent looks best with its mouth nice and closed.
At the start of Insurgent, Tris, Four, Peter (Miles Teller), and Caleb (Ansel Engort) are glamping in the land of Amity, where they have found refuge with surviving Abnegation members. The group decides to head to Erudite to kill Janine (Kate Winslet), who killed Tris’ parents and stole some sort of “secret box” from them. We discover that the box holds secrets from their society’s founders that only the Divergents can open, so Janine captures Tris and tortures her into submission. The concept is silly, and the box looks like something I shoplifted from Claire’s in the nineties. Still, it provides a definitive end point for an aimless narrative, rife with guns and death and train symbolism.
I wish I could say that Insurgent is just a dumb, fun one-night stand kind of story. But Veronica Roth has a real point behind the Divergent series, and that’s what scares me. Like The Giver, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games before it, Insurgent criticizes society for dividing us all into meaningless factions/groups/countries. And because these are all YA novels, what they’re actually criticizing are the cafeteria tables. Jocks at one, band geeks at the other, you complete the cliché. It’s an exhausted critique for sure, but what frightens me the most about Insurgent is whom Roth labels “victim.” Tris and Four are targets for persecution and bullying because they’re successful and different, aka “divergent.” But the two look like moderate Republicans and act like glorified Talbots turtlenecks. They’re a walking, talking, stack of business envelopes. There’s nothing divergent about them at all – just pretty, commercial, and familiar.
In the world of Insurgent, the talented tenth are the most at risk. Roth has a ridiculous worldview, if, unfortunately, a common one. It’s like saying that all the Student Council presidents and Mock Trial captains of this world – the students accepted early admission at Amherst – are the ones we victimize. What? Surely, we’ve all penalized members who stand outside the group, who are different and creative and sexual in ways we find threatening. But Tris and Four? They’re capable, Ann Taylor loft heroes who’ll go on to have capable, Ann Taylor loft children. They’ll live in beautifully carpeted bedrooms in stainless steel exurbs where everyone has great abs. The idea that they’re the victims – and that the woman who runs ‘Erudite,’ the faction of intelligence – is their bully, is actually, sincerely, deeply, disturbing.
Oh well. Shailene Woodley’s arms looks fantastic in Insurgent, and she does punch some dudes. It’s an exciting change from Divergent, where she lets Theo James do most of the kick-butting, and ugh, talking. I’d hate to say that Insurgent is good for women just because it stars a female lead. Woodley is spectacularly violent in a movie that’s spectacularly violent, and I’m not sure if “little white woman with big gun” is where we need to go in our culture right now.
But Insurgent has no qualms about its use of violence, or seemingly, anything at all. At one point, one of Four’s tormentors asks him how he plans to live with all the crimes he’s committed and people he’s murdered. Four responds by shooting the guy in the face. In the theater I was in, everyone laughed. Guys, this is bad. Yes, I saw Insurgent at Brooklyn’s Court Street Cinemas, a great place to eat stale popcorn while committing a hate crime. But the message isn’t unfamiliar. Inflicting pain – so as it mitigate it – is at the core of vigilante justice, Insurgent, and pretty much everything bad. Maybe it’s unfair to blame one movie for the sins of you know, civilization, but when that movie makes $54 million opening weekend – who cares.
The saving grace in all of Insurgent – bear with me here – is Miles Teller. Miles plays Peter, a sneaky, snarky hero with a manipulative heart of gold. For a long time, I too was a Teller hater, particularly when his cute, sarcastic face told interviewers that Divergent “made him feel dead inside” (I can’t even imagine how the millions he made off the movie him feel :-( ). But he won me over in Whiplash, and he carries Insurgent on his fully formed shoulders here. Teller’s built for roles that appear to mimic his personality – a compelling combination of entitlement, arrogance, and competence. In an otherwise lackluster script, Teller adds more dynamism than all of its speeding trains can offer. (Sidenote: can we stop with the train symbolism? In my definitive ranking of symbols, it’s right up there with birds, stars, and “women with scars.”)
There’s more sequels to come for Divergent, which is great news for the guy sitting next to me in this restaurant right now (he’s listening to Kylie Minogue and googling ‘famous guns.’ Someone, please help!!!!!) It’s possible that, faced with declining interest, the series will slowly, and gracefully, bow out. Unfortunately, the forces that make Insurgent tick – vigilantism, elitism, and Matrix vests – will likely only continue to grow. They may take new shapes and forms – first with women! Now with Eddie Redmayne, playing a woman! – but the same story will persist. Too bad. We can all do better.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org.