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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

The Divergent Series: Insurgent movie review: being human

by MaryAnn Johanson

Divergent Series Insurgent green light Miles Teller Theo James

Sneakily undercuts tropes of the young-adult hero’s journey. But in a more adventurous movie environment, this wouldn’t feel this fresh as it does.
I’m “biast” (pro): enjoyed the first film; desperate for genre films with female protagonists

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Divergent Series: Insurgent for its representation of girls and women.

green light 3.5 stars

The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015)
US/Canada release date: Mar 20 2015 | UK release date: Mar 19 2015

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, infrequent strong language)

viewed in 3D IMAX
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Danielm80

    I’m tempted to avoid the movie just because of the Important Haircut.


  • It’s not so much that. Mostly it’s because Woodley didn’t want to wear a wig after cutting her hair so much for *Fault in Our Stars.*

  • diana

    I am definitely skipping this movie because it is a waste of my time and money, not to mention having no originality and it is same ole, same ole YA cut and paste.

  • Dissonant Robot

    Yeah but her haircut is cool as hell, plus short hair makes so much sense for an action lead.

  • Dissonant Robot

    Okay, I’m going to check these movies out. I’ve been curious for a while but it sounds like it’s fun, and I’m easy to please when it comes to sci-fi adventures.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    TV Tropes?? You fool! YOU’VE DOOMED US ALL!!!!!!!!!!

  • Danielm80

    The Big Red Button will save us. Or blow us up.

    I like tropes. I don’t like clichés.

  • Did you skip *Hunger Games* and Harry Potter? Will you skip the new *Star Wars* movies?

  • GG

    Like Shaliene gives a sh*t if you’re skipping the movie. The film will still make money without you so your contribution isn’t needed.

  • a

    Maryann, would seeing this in 3D IMAX add to my enjoyment?

  • Probably not.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Patiently awaiting the abusive “You ruined this movie’s perfect 0% Rotten Tomatoes Score!!!” comments.


  • I have no doubt there will be people upset that I don’t agree with the consensus on this one.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Thoughts while watching Insurgent (warning – SPOILERS; also, LONG; also too, I should probably get my own blog for this sort of thing):

    For someone who’s supposed to represent all of the personality trait based factions, why does Tris seem to show none of those traits? She’s not particularly smart, not particularly nice, not particularly brave, and downright actively dishonest. She’s sometimes mildly selfless, but mostly when the plot needs her to be, in circumstances where it gives her little other choice.

    Didn’t the first movie end with Tris and Four on a train headed for the wall, with the intention of leaving the city? This movie is one of the more egregious cases of a writer trying to craft a plot for a sequel that will extend their story, after realizing they’d left themselves the wrong sequel hook. As in: why are they hiding out in Amity? And what’s this magic box Jeanine is suddenly interested in? I mean, it’s not “Highlander 2” (look it up – I swear it was a thing) levels of retconning, but it’s still distracting.

    Nice scars you got there, Octavia Spencer. It’d be a shame if the movie bothered to tell us where they came from. Then we might have gained some understanding of you, as a character, the nature of the Amity faction, and the entire world of this story. Can’t have that.

    People keep saying that Miles Teller is the Next Big Thing. They’ve even cast him as Reed Richards in “Fant4stic”. But I’m just not seeing any sort of a appeal. In fact, I’m starting to hate him. Not his character (who’s pretty much a stock jerk-ass), but him, Miles Teller, personally.

    Wait, when did the Factionless become actual people? Weren’t all the Factionless we were shown in the first movie pretty much just mentally damaged future-hobos?

    Damn, but Naomi Watts’s makeup is spectacular. There’s even a credit for “Ms. Watts Makeup Artist” (I looked). But… why does she look so glamorous? Isn’t she the leader of the underground rag-tag rebel group? Where is she even getting all that eye shadow and lipstick?

    Never has a character fit the description “Utterly useless now, but must become hugely important to the plot later on, because otherwise why do they exist” as well as Caleb.

    OK, so if there are only 150 or so Dauntless who didn’t side with Mehki Pfeiffer (and therefore, Jeanine), and if that’s clearly a very small number of Dauntless (given Four’s reaction), then what was the whole mind-control scheme from the first movie about? Did the large majority of Dauntless wake up, look at all the dead Abnegation, and say, “Hey, y’know what? I’m totally on board with this! No mind control needed!”

    Daniel Dae Kim: Criminally Underutilized Korean-American Actor.

    How did this GNDN sub-plot with Zoe Kravitz survive the screenplay adaption process? Especially when it exists in direct conflict with what a “Divergent” is.

    I’m sorry, but any projectile with enough kinetic energy to leave a 1 inch deep dent in a steel door will rip straight through human tissue, not embed itself on the surface of the skin. Everyone in that staircase is dead.

    Jesus christ, will someone punch Jai Courtney in his smug fucking face already? Also, just fucking shoot Eric, please!

    I’m not going to say that Tris is being dragged around by this plot as badly as Mila Kunis in “Jupiter Ascending” was, but it’s a close thing. The difference is mostly that this movie makes Tris wait an awfully long time, while narrowing down her options, before it lets her act. But even then, most of her actions are ineffectual.

    Wait, what was the point of the mind control bullets if not to use as leverage against Tris? Why does Jeanine need Miles Teller to tell her (heh) this? Also, why do they need to blackmail Tris? Why not just have the mind controlled Dauntless capture her?

    No, sorry, refusing to kill someone you don’t really need to kill isn’t “selfless”. You might call it “kind”. But I’m pretty sure these movies don’t actually know what “selfless” means.

    Speaking of, doesn’t it seem like a missed opportunity to have the “hardest” test be Amity, and not Abnegation? That being the faction she grew up, but in which she was never happy, and abandoned at the earliest chance. In fact, whether or not Abnegation really acts selflessly seems to be an underlying running theme of these stories. Why abandon that now?

    OK, so they’re going to do the “it’s all an experiment” reveal now. Fine, god knows the movies haven’t been pushing any larger point so far, but whatever. But if Divergents are the goal, doesn’t the society need to be producing so many Divergents that they’re threatening to overtake the Factioned population? One really, really Divergent individual (even if it is the main protagonist) doesn’t really cut it, does it?

    Well, they’ve gone and short-circuited their impending civil war subplot. But we know there’s a whole ‘nother movie (I’m sorry, two movies). So, once again, a whole bunch of stuff has happened, but I have no idea what any of it means.

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