The Best and Worst of The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Friday, 20 March 2015 - 10:22AM
Divergent
Insurgent
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Friday, 20 March 2015 - 10:22AM
The Best and Worst of The Divergent Series: Insurgent
If you watched Divergent, Insurgent is probably exactly what you expect, for better and for worse. There are a few surprises here and there, but for the most part, it's an action-heavy jumble of YA cliches made eminently watchable thanks to a stellar cast, beautiful visual effects, an occasional winking sense of fun, and a few good deaths.

Best: The Acting, Especially Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller

The Best and Worst of The Divergent Series: Insurgent

[Credit: Lionsgate]



The acting in this film was nearly pitch-perfect all around. Shailene Woodley was phenomenal as always; she overacted one scene in which she's injected with truth serum and makes a painful confession, but we'll blame that on the director, because otherwise her performance was wonderfully understated and nuanced. Theo James acquitted himself well as Four, although he didn't have as much to do compared to Divergent, and Oscar winners/nominees Kate Winslet, Octavia Spencer, and Naomi Watts were all predictably great, especially the latter. 

But the real standout, aside from Woodley, was Miles Teller. Jai Courtney astutely noted in an interview with Collider that Teller's talents were all but wasted in the first film, but in Insurgent, his character was "written for Miles doing Peter." His presence had a remarkable effect on the film; he injected energy, humor, and self-awareness into every scene he was in. I laughed so much more than I expected to during this movie, and almost every time the joke was intentional, it was delivered by Teller. He also has a palpable chemistry with Woodley; they had an instantly recognizable ease with each other in every scene they shared. I like Theo James, and the last thing we need is another sappy YA love triangle, but after Insurgent and The Spectacular Now, I almost wished that Peter would become a romantic rival in Allegiant.

Worst: The Writers Fail to Remember What Happened in Divergent

Let's face it, none of the mythology of the Divergent franchise makes very much sense, even the core elements. Everyone is complicated, so why would divergents be so rare? Why would it be shameful to defect from your faction if you're supposed to "trust the test"? If the faction system is the key to peace, then why would the government systematize certain people becoming Factionless? Why did the government feel the need to use lame SAT words when naming their factions (that aren't even the same parts of speech)? Pull on a single thread, and the whole mythology comes unraveled.

So it may be irrational to harp on any single inconsistency (slash fruitless to expect any kind of logic from this series), but one nonsensical development in Insurgent seemed particularly egregious. In the first film, Tris is told that she tested positive for three factions: Dauntless, Abnegation, and Erudite. Then, in Insurgent, the entire plot hinges on (mild spoiler!) a scanner showing Tris to be "100% Divergent" and therefore fitting into all five factions. I confess that I haven't read the books, but I've been told that this scanner isn't part of the books' mythology, so this seems like an error on the filmmakers' part.

Best: Character Development

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the character development in this film was "good," but I will say it was much better than in Divergent. (Seeing Divergent for the fourth time last night, I could almost (almost!) tell Will and Al apart.) But more importantly, it was far superior to other YA franchises that are generally considered to be better written, such as Hunger Games. Tris is a far better protagonist than the woefully underdeveloped Katniss Everdeen, both from a writing and feminist perspective.

Considering that this is a youth-oriented franchise, Tris's development was very well-done, particularly the portrayal of her conflict between her ingrained tendency to self-sacrifice and her desire to have a strong sense of self. And her character is a "strong role model" for young girls, but she's also allowed to be both flawed and stereotypically "feminine." In other words, she's not just a "strong character," she's also a human being, and as rounded a character as we could hope for.

All of the character beats were generally on-the-mark in this film, even among the supporting characters. Both Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller's characters underwent genuine arcs over the course of the movie, in which their characters demonstrated significant changes in their personalities and/or motivations. These arcs weren't always perfect, but overall they felt natural, thought-out, and consistent with the characters that were established in the first film.

Worst: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

Yes, this movie has middle child syndrome. It's still perfectly entertaining, especially since I saw it as a double feature, but it spends an inordinate amount of time dealing with the fallout of the first film, throws in a few scenes that set up the next film, and fills the rest with irrelevant virtual reality sequences. It doesn't have a particularly linear progression or a clear focal point, but let's face it, fans are probably just going to marathon the entire series anyway, and it works just fine as an awkward middle child. 

Best/Worst: Kate Winslet's Erudite Leader Isn't All that Bright

The Best and Worst of The Divergent Series: Insurgent

[Credit: Lionsgate]



This was one of my favorite moments of the movie, in the sense that it was one of the moments that made me laugh the hardest. But unlike Miles Teller's intentional jokes, the humor was entirely unintentional. Near the end of the movie, Kate Winslet's Jeannine, the leader of the Erudite faction, says, "I know you appreciate irony, since you tested positive for Erudite," and then gives her a speech containing many examples of "irony." Except, in true Alanis Morissette style, none of the examples she gives are actually irony, they're just strange/sad coincidences. This wouldn't be so funny, because irony has come to mean different things colloquially, except that she had literally just drawn attention to the fact that she's Erudite, and would therefore be intelligent/pretentious enough to know what irony actually means.

Best/Worst: Naomi Watts's casting

The Best and Worst of The Divergent Series: Insurgent

[Credit: Lionsgate]



I have nothing negative to say about Naomi Watts's performance. Similar to Miles Teller, the writing instantly got a little better when she was on screen. Most notably, there's one scene in which Four walks off to bed in a huff, and Evelyn says to Tris, "Do you want to tuck him in, or should I?" It's such a simple statement that encompasses so much about the dynamic between an absent mother, her grown son, and his first serious girlfriend. A lot of the dialogue in this movie is incredibly cheesy, which is par for the course (it's a fun game to imagine all the clunky exposition as tweets from @DystopianYA). But this line, especially with Watts's delivery, was a pleasant surprise.

But unfortunately, her casting isn't an unqualified positive, as it's just one more example of Hollywood whitewashing. Evelyn's race is never explicitly stated in the novels, but she is described as having "olive skin," "curly black hair" and dark eyes that look "almost black." It's heavily implied, that she's Hispanic or some other non-white ethnicity, but the filmmakers cast the very Aryan Naomi Watts and dye her hair brown. She's a great actress, but there are a lot of great non-white actresses that they could have picked. And the fact that they knew there wouldn't be a huge backlash against this casting, when there was a big stink about a black girl being cast as Rue (who actually wasn't white in the books!) says everything.

Spoilers ahead!

Worst: The Specialness

YA cliches abound in this franchise, especially the "protagonist is really, really special in ways that grown-ups just don't understand" trope. Insurgent not only continued that trend from Divergent, but made it even worse, as the eleventh-hour twist revealed that Divergents are not only "special" as individuals, but are collectively "special" and are the key to saving the world for some reason. Whatever.

Best/Worst: Eric's Death

I generally liked Insurgent's treatment of death in this movie; it was usually impactful without being too melodramatic. Eric's death, in particular, was well-done; his guilt-tripping Four right before his execution could have been corny, but the actors sold it. Jai Courtney was blase, Theo James looked regretful but refrained from being maudlin, and the entire scene was refreshingly unsentimental. 

But then, that pesky PG-13 rating kicked in, and Eric decided not to bleed from his (presumed) gaping head wound, and I just had to laugh. Thank you, MPAA, for shielding children from seeing blood but allowing them to see people get shot in the head, that's really helpful.

Worst: The Virtual Reality Sequences

A lot of the early reviews of Insurgent cited the virtual reality sequences as the best part of the film, but I thought it was one of the worst. Although they were visually striking, the sequences themselves were by nature irrelevant to the plot of the movie, and just felt like filler. The scenes were clearly just a means of showing off their visual effects budget, because a large portion of them had nothing to do with the faction Tris was attempting to prove she fit into. One could argue that saving her mother from a flying burning building demonstrates that Tris is Dauntless, although that particularly choice of visual seems random, but why on Earth would falling through collapsing buildings have anything to do with passing Amity? It doesn't help that the psychological conclusions Tris reaches are cheesy and rote (at one point she actually tells another version of herself "I forgive you" in order to signify that she's forgiving herself), but it all just felt very calculated and cynical.

The Best and Worst of The Divergent Series: Insurgent
This poster is a perfect example. It has a flying building, and the tagline "Defy Reality." The tagline is completely irrelevant to the themes of the story, because Tris has never been defying reality, but conformity and an evil government. The only purpose of this poster is to say, "Hey, look! We have more money now!"

[Credit: Lionsgate]



Best: The Ending

I loved everything about the last scene. The way it was shot. The fact that it was Evelyn who killed Jeannine. The fact that they had the gumption to kill off Jeannine in such an abrupt and no-nonsense manner. It was exactly the kind of bold, gutsy ending that Mockingjay pt 1 should have had, but ultimately waffled on.
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