Review: ‘Insurgent’ wastes a great cast on a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox

Based on the nearly omnipresent ads online for the last month, “Insurgent” appears to be the story of a girl who lives in a world made entirely of giant windows who is determined to lead a revolution by jumping through panes of glass at every opportunity.

To be honest, that would be no less ridiculous than the film they're actually releasing.

By now, the YA model is as ossified as any other genre, with beats they all seem to hit like someone's got a checklist next to them as they write. If you want a great laugh, make sure you follow @DystopianYA on Twitter, where comedian Dana Schwartz has been publishing a line-by-line pitch-perfect parody of YA novels, so sharp and on point that I don't know how anyone could publish another one of these with a straight face after this.

“Insurgent” is the second film in the series inspired by the books by Veronica Roth, and when I reviewed the first film last year, I thought it was decent, bolstered largely by its cast and by the way Neil Burger worked to try to make this world feel real. Unfortunately, this time out, it's Robert Schwentke driving the bus, and he not only strips the gears, he drives it right off the road and then rolls the damn thing. I'm not sure how Schwentke keeps getting these giant movies. I guess even in this industry, no one bothered to see “R.I.P.D.” Lucky for him, too, because he seems to be spectacularly untalented at making a fantasy premise or environment feel real in any way. From the opening of this film to the closing shots, it never once lurches to life, and I lay that one on Schwentke. You can throw all the good actors and all the talented department heads you want at a movie, but sometimes the films just don't work, and it seems like that's where Schwentke comes in.

This installment in the series has been significantly re-engineered from the book by screenwriters Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback, and it suffers from middle movie syndrome in a major way. The entire film boils down to “There's a magic box, and only the Chosen One can open it, and the bad guy makes the Chosen One open it.” And in this particular case, the bad guy (Kate Winslet, who I thought was the first movie's weak link), this manifestation of ultimate evil who our hero wants to kill, is named Jeanine. This leads to conversations where we have Shailene Woodley in a pixie cut snarling, “I want to kill Jeanine.” It's hard not to read this as high camp, and it's not the most threatening variation on the archetype I've ever seen. The box that everything hinges on is about as uninteresting a plot device as we'll see in one of these. Of course it takes a Divergent to open this magic box. And of course it takes one particular Divergent to open this magic box. And of course there's all this personal soap opera playing out around Tris (Shailene Woodley), the Divergent who everything depends on. The first film was full of lots of training sequences, and this film is full of lots of running and lots of tests. It is all played as if it's very important, and one of the things I find most interesting is how committed the cast is, no matter how ridiculous things get.

Woodley is going to be making movies for the rest of her life. She's eminently watchable, and she has effortless chemistry with her co-stars here. Theo James, just like in the first film, makes a nice scene partner for Woodley, but he's got less than nothing to do in the film. The same thing's true of Miles Teller, who manages to take Peter, a complete zero on the page, and turn him into a scene-stealer. Ansel Elgort, who made such a great match for Woodley in “The Fault In Our Stars,” gets to play exactly one note in his role here, and I can't blame him. His role as Tris's brother is beyond thin. But Woodley is so interesting that it seems a shame to wedge her into a movie where most of what she does is run and punch and shoot guns, and that's one of the saddest things about the way our business works right now. Woodley took this film because OF COURSE she took this film. You make movies like this so you can make the movies you care about. These films give actors the commercial clout they can then lend to personal projects, and I get that. But do they have to feel like homework?

I guess this is all a way of saying that I don't get it. I don't understand why any of this is interesting. It's a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox now. How many variations on this idea of a Big Obvious Metaphorical Society and the Plucky Young Chosen One are even possible? I don't buy this society at all. The particular divisions that Roth created — Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless — are awkward at best, and when Tris has to defeat a simulation that tests her on all five qualities, it lays bare the way this film only deals with these things on the most surface of levels. Everyone's got to play these single notes because that's the way the world has been imagined. The tests have to be very, very obvious because that's the way the world has been imagined. People are playing symbols or plot devices, not people, because that's the way the world has been imagined. And no matter how much Woodley sells these unsellable moments, I don't buy it.

Visually uninteresting, dramatically inert, and remarkably silly no matter how seriously it tries to play things straight, “Insurgent” is franchise management and little more. I don't hate it, because that would imply that it inspires passion in some regard, and that's the last word I'd use to describe this thing.

“Insurgent” is in theaters now.