While I live by bread and meat alone, I sometimes do get out to the movies. Sometimes this is a better way to spend evenings than others.
As a whole, Insurgent, the newest installment of the Divergent serial, made me feel like a baby bird being force-fed undigested platitudes. As one of the newest in a fad of Young Adult dystopian action-fantasies, it didn’t not impress me as much as The Hunger Games or one of the earliest incarnations of this genre, Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru). It mashed the “adolescence is hard” button with such fervor, it turned what seems like a really neat world-setting into a paste of indifference and pablum.
Insurgent steps in mere days after the tumultuous upset of Divergent, with our hero, Tris (Shailene Woodley), and her posse running from the evil remnants of a fracturing caste-based society led by maniacal Mengele-wannabe, Jeanine (Kate Winslet). There are other characters, including an underutilized Naomi Watts, but they are largely forgettable. At a whirlwind pace, Tris must gather her wits, solidify her new base, and decide how she will react to being the sudden fulcrum upon which her society tilts. She’s forced to either reject or embrace her role as She-Ra, the leader of the new rebel alliance, or as just be another ‘divergent’ cast-off to be hammered down for the good of society. Rapidly switching between Four’s, (Theo James) her boyfriend, “hit it with a hammer” mentality and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and his odd cowardice-tinged-loyalty to the system, Tris is skinned, stretched, and left in the sun to dry. She also cries a lot and is horribly moody.
Woodley offers a serviceable performance as an embattled young woman looking for her place in the world; the polls are still open whether she’ll sputter out as an actress or leverage this role as Jennifer Lawrence has managed, but she has undoubted potential. That being said, all of these kinds of movies pivot on singling out and exploring (¿exploiting?) the terrible burdens and passions of adolescence. The first movie set the scene for our heroine, highlighted her strength and uniqueness, and now the second movie must show her struggle to find peace and with these changes. I get it – I wore a trenchcoat and skulked the edges of concerts too. But, ¿must we do so with such an oddly empty hand?
Through many of the scenes where Tris is coming to grips with her birth into this world of violence, I can’t help but roll my eyes at how the movie demands we “feel her pain”. In one of the pinnacle moments, she’s injected with a truth-serum (a trope that just won’t die) and must stand dead-center in a room filled with onlookers and babble her poor heart out. We’re forced to watch from a twisting series of angles and close-ups as she reveals a deep-seated guilt from the first movie. And. And, nothing. There’s no resolution, no closure, not even an inkling that the confession was meaningful. We could have explored ideas of PTSD, or the nature of truth vs Truth, or even allowed Tris some self-revelation. But, no. The audience intones “The truth shall set you free!” (spoiler-alert: guess what happens later) and we get back to blowing things up with CGI. The mere invocation of the lone teenager standing before her peers and admitting her faults is enough – the creators can say “Oh yeah, teens will get that” and they move on. Any kind of exploration or, [gasp], reflection is passed over.
The entire movie is rife with this kind of veiled glossing of ideas. We’re given a light brush of deep tides only to be rushed onto the next action sequence. Even the violence itself is superficial. People are gunned down by the score, yet the only blood we see is a broken nose (miraculously healed by the next scene) and a light scratch across Four’s forehead to prove he was ‘in the mix’. I came out of the movie being largely indifferent to their struggles and, mostly, wanted to slap them all. Even Tris’ big revelation and dynamic shift at the climax feels hollow – she flips an emotional switch and suddenly all is right with the world. Must be nice.
That being said, I’ll probably read the books. Part of this comes from my pathological need to read any book made into a movie (so I can say, “the book was better” with authority) but mostly because some of the ideas writer Veronica Roth seems to be exploring are intriguing. Caste-based societies, assimilation vs evolutionary culture, rebels and their role in progressing morays – plus, it’s based in a post-apocalyptic Chicago and I wanna see what happened to Wrigleyville (and here you thought things couldn’t get worse for the Cubs).