Is it convoluted, perhaps unnecessarily so, perhaps has a result of adhering too closely to the novel it’s based on? Maybe. Is the world it posits perhaps implausible? Could be. So what? The same applies to the Harry Potter movies and the Hunger Games flicks. Take away the book-adaptation issues, and the same applies to the Star Wars films. Substitute comic-book foundations, and the same applies to the Marvel movies. The essential thing about Insurgent is that it gets all the important stuff right (as do, for the most part, all those other series). And the really clever thing about Insurgent that elevates it a step above the first film, Divergent, is that it sneakily undercuts a lot of the tropes of what has become a subgenre: the young-adult hero’s journey. Divergent appeared to utilize those tropes with just a tweak here and there to distinguish them — if only just barely — from its obvious inspirations. But now, the clichés get exploded.
Offering us a gal protagonist is the least of this series’ novelty, although that’s rare enough from Hollywood, which, a few outliers like this and Hunger Games aside, still fails to appreciate that plenty of girls and women dream of derring-do, just like boys and men do, and would like to see a female hero onscreen. There’s almost nothing here that boys can’t identify with in the exploits of Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley: The Fault in Our Stars, The Spectacular Now) in her dystopian future sci-fi world. (Except, maybe, Tris’s chopping off her long hair as the movie opens, as a way to mark her past as past and the hard road ahead of her as the future; few boys can appreciate the defiance and the relief and the liberation that comes with getting rid of so much hair! It literally makes your head feel lighter, which is something Tris needs in a metaphoric sense as well.) Boys should be able to recognize Tris’s difficulties in fitting in to a societal system that divides people up into Factions by temperament and talent but which doesn’t recognize that no person can be so easily defined as, say, nothing but brutally honest like members of the Candor caste, who work as lawyers, or always hippie-happy like members of the Amity caste, who work as farmers or artists. Tris doesn’t fit in because she is a special case — and one considered dangerous — called Divergent, showing aptitude for all the Factions (which also include brainy Erudite, brave Dauntless, and selfless Abnegation). Don’t we all — or at least all we oddball nonconformists — bristle at attempts to shove us into one confining box? That’s a discontent that knows no gender bounds. (Maybe, though, some boys will be a little startled and a little upset to discover that girls can be as angry and aggressive and impetuous as Tris is here. Good.)
In Divergent, the Faction system, despite all its inherent unlikeliness, worked as a metaphor, on an individual level, for adolescent “no one understands me!” rebellion. Now, in Insurgent, it balloons up into something much larger and much more culturally encompassing: as dangerous tribalism that threatens peace and prosperity even as political leaders call, with unintended irony, for tribalism to protect peace and prosperity. The plot here revolves around a mysterious artifact that ruthless Jeanine (Kate Winslet: Labor Day, Movie 43) — leader of Erudite and de facto leader of this entire city-state in the crumbling ruins of Chicago since she massacred the former leaders of Abnegation at the end of the first movie — believes holds “a message from the Founders that will ensure the future we deserve.” Jeanine wants to “eradicate the Divergent crisis,” which she keeps saying is going to ruin the little oasis of civilization they cling to in a ravaged world (we still don’t know what sort of apocalypse befell humanity), yet only a Divergent can open the box, which requires passing tests attuned to each Factional temperament. This might seem to be at odds with the rise of Divergents constituting a crisis… but gosh, is it really so unrealistic that a power-hungry leader with extremely conservative leanings might misinterpret — either deliberately or out of blinkered rapaciousness — the intentions of the Founding Fathers, er, Founders?
Things get really, really dark along the way, and more brutal than YA stories usually get, as fugitive Tris and her friends alternately run from Jeanine’s Dauntless thugs and then run right into the hornet’s nest for reasons that do get overly complicated, but… fine. Because of course Tris is the Divergent that Jeanine needs, and as Tris’s specialness comes to the fore — no spoilers! — it is accompanied by another busting of clichés: the power to affect real change in the world isn’t the result of anything fantastical, like the Force, but arises from our humanity, from our full, cross-Factional humanity. Which means that it is a power that is within all of us, no midichlorians or magical parentage required.
Director Robert Schwentke (Red, The Time Traveler’s Wife), new to the series, continues the ethos of not looking like other SF dystopias we’ve seen, with its interesting and probably fairly future-realistic urban ruin punctuated by blips of high-tech reclamation, and with its mix of people: women exist as full participants in this culture, doing all sorts of jobs and holding all sorts of positions of power (such as the Amity leader played by Octavia Spencer [Get on Up, Snowpiercer], and the Factionless leader played by Naomi Watts [Birdman, Diana]), and not everyone is white. Nothing we see in this movie should feel as radical as it does. In a more adventurous movie environment, Insurgent wouldn’t feel this fresh. But this is where we are now. It’s kind of where Tris’s world is, hidebound and terrified of anything that lacks the security-blanket comfort of familiarity. That’s not a good thing for us.