All you need is kill.
When covering the chaotic, eye-roll inducing, confusing first installment of the Divergent series last year, I chose caution. Not just in how I compared it to its source material, but also to the myriad post-apocalyptic, child-murdering, violent fare that has lately flooded the YA market and cinemas. And don’t let anyone fool you: the preceding description is actually its own genre now: see The Hunger Games, The Giver, The Maze Runner. Every form of art, even an expression which is a further exploration of a work previously created (going all the way back to Lord of the Flies), should stand on its own merits. However, I cannot understand what Insurgent‘s writers — enough to field a baseball team — were thinking in their adaptation. I’m not exactly the target market for the book series, but for you, dear reader, I always do my due diligence. So I read it, and trust me when I say I felt way more comfortable in Tris’s world than pretending to read Dostoevsky whilst skipping the naughty parts in Fifty Shades of Grey. Obviously, the screenwriters just read the Cliff’s Notes, altering the most cinematic sequences and anything about the story that made it unique, to the movie’s severe detriment.
Following the events of Divergent, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) has declared Martial Law, controlling what is left of the five factions and blaming the Divergent population for the attack on Abnegation. (It’s not just you — even after reading all the books and seeing the films, that sentence still reads like gibberish.) Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) escape to Amity, hoping the peace-loving, hippie faction will take them in. But Hufflepuff Amity chooses to remain neutral, however, as war is fast approaching – with the Factionless and Dauntless joining forces to bring Erudite and Jeanine down. Meanwhile, Jeanine searches for the way to open a mysterious object left by the founders, which she believes will remove the Divergent element from the community and allow her to rule what is left.
Insurgent is Michael Bay for teens, exploiting green screen to its limits for an admittedly glorious optical smorgasbord. Visually, the film is impressive, albeit with an abundance of unnecessary digital crows. (I am sure it is some symbolism that flies way above this writer’s head.) The juxtaposition of Erudite’s advanced technological achievements, set against the backdrop of the ruined city, is both stark and impressive. Each faction – even the Factionless — is keyed off its own identifiable color scheme, both in wardrobe and set design. Director Robert Schwentke moves the camera rapidly, but not too superfluously; it’s a frenetic, excited kind of film, one that plays on the mood of dystopia, even in the quiet moments between Tris and Four as they explore their growing love. As if Schwentke wants us to know that he knows this is all too fleeting.
The casting is both successful and deplorable. Shailene Woodley is a genuine star; she rises so far above the material you want to worship at her feet, willing to sit through this inanely scripted, high-testosterone ripoff to just spend more time with her. She plays Tris with a real respect, even though the character is basically ruined in transition from page to screen (more on that in a moment). Comparisons to a young Meryl Streep are not too far off-base — I mean, even the Lady Streep (Long May She Reign) had a She-Devil. Further, my boyfriend Miles Teller as Peter is one of the few who’s having any fun. He is also the only character improved in this version of the story. In the novel, Peter is simply a coward with slight glimpses of bravery to make you wonder what is really there – but Teller’s Peter is much more complex. Yes, he’s a cad, but he has his passions and hopes for the future, like anyone else. He provides the best comic relief. Winslet, meanwhile — and for the first time in her career — truly phones it in. The material doesn’t do her any favors; consequently, this is tiny, hole-in-the-wall, playhouse Tuesday night understudy tech rehearsal bad. That’s a thing now.
Naomi Watts (as Four’s long-lost mom, Evelyn), Daniel Dae Kim (as Candor leader Jack Kang) and Octavia Spencer (Amity leader Johanna) all punch in their cameo cards, providing competent foils for Tris and Four to move the plot along. Evelyn is supposed to make us question her motives as she appears to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but I doubt anyone bothered to inform Watts of that fact. She’s all wolf, and about as subtle as a brick wall. Jai Courtney and Mekhi Phifer walk around being bad guys…yep, that’s about all I have to say about tha—(*yawn*) Sorry, what was I typing?
Finally, we should get to Theo James (Four). Look, the guy photographs extremely well, and he does an admirable job with the hokey script, but I still have a major problem with his casting: he just looks way too old to be having relations with Woodley. Yes, the actress is 23, but she’s supposed to be 16, and James looks every one of his 30 years. When standing next to, kissing, or lusting after Woodley, he’s more like pervy uncle Theo. It just does not work. No matter the actor’s talent, casting directors must take that in to consideration.
Ultimately, the crux of the problem is the absurd script, full of senseless violence and cardboard villains and heroes (save Peter). There was obviously no grey in the black and white box the writers stumbled out of. In the novel, Tris is haunted by the deaths of Will, her parents, and all of Abnegation. She feels completely responsible, and therefore, is often unable to kill even to save her own life. She is selfless and headstrong, however, and gives in to her madness with frequent mood shifts and self-deprecating motivations. In the movie, however, she is just as violent as ever, bent on revenge, with murder in her eyes. Originally, she’s a pacifist to the point where she betrays the one person she loves above all others. The movie posits Four and Tris’s relationship as enough of a motivation for the two, when in the novel, it’s much less simple, and more sacrificial.
Ansel Elgort is given the “Ansel Elgort” treatment as Tris’s brother Caleb, hanging out in the background adorably, without a true arc or evil thought on his sweet face. The filmmakers refuse to let you hate him, even when you should. Jeanine is equally one-dimensional: instead of being bent toward knowledge in her pursuit of power, now she’s simply evil. The film creates a ridiculous MacGuffin of a box containing information that Tris (of course the only person in the world that can open it) must conquer simulations in order to access. And the ending is so right out of M. Night Shyamalan’s playbook that I am sure he is contacting his attorney with hopes to sue for credit. Everything is black and white, so violent, so simple – the only conclusion is that the filmmakers do not trust their audience’s cognitive abilities to connect the dots or consider any subtext. Everything must be spelled out on terrible, trash bin-lining pages. Writing like this is an affront to cinema –a plague.
Insurgent is slightly buoyed by its cast, but is ultimately just…plain….bad. And this is coming from someone that liked Fifty Shades of Grey. So, you know, take that what you will.