We’re two films in to the kiddie-dystopia Divergent franchise, and it’s still unclear if the sequel’s director, three screenwriters, eight producers, and especially original novelist Veronica Roth have bothered to double-check a dictionary. Divergent, and now this new sequel Insurgent, tracks the monotone mishaps of Tris (Shailene Woodley), a very special girl. (Aren’t they all.) Tris continues to flail against a post-apocalyptic city-state where all residents are divided at maturation into one of five biologically based clans: Amity, Abnegation, Dauntless, Candor, and Erudite. Each group is assigned a job that kinda-sorta relates to their inborn personality — the brave Dauntless make up the militia, the peaceful Amity are, er, farmers — and expected to marry their own and, more often than not, produce children like them.
Outside of the system, there is a sixth class made up of the homeless, rather politely called “Factionless,” who act indistinguishably from the Dauntless, except that they’re allowed to dress like the Ramones. And then there’s a seventh, furtive faction who register positive for the traits of all five tribes, classifying them as Divergent. One would think that people who combine the separate traits would be called Convergent, but then one would be expecting the source material to exert the barest minimum effort.
To amplify the confusion, Abnegation means “selfless,” according to the logic of the film, except when it means “forgiving,” and Amity means “forgiving” except when it means “hippie.” Ignore that these five branches of career don’t seem to add up to a functioning economy, unless you believe that 20 percent of the world should be composed of lawyers, a/k/a clan Candor, who are lauded for their honesty despite the fact that everyone else in the film also speaks in straightforward declaratives.
It’s all so muddled that when we experience a simulation test for all five groups, half the time we can’t even tell what the category is (even when, you know, the point of the film hinges on it). The nicest thing you can say about Insurgent is that no one involved in the making of it would test positive for the intelligent Erudites, but then author Roth has, perhaps out of spite, reframed smart as evil. Headed by the wicked Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the Erudites launch a witch-hunt to ID and ghettoize — or worse — every hidden Divergent, as she believes they’re responsible for the nuclear war that wiped out all life outside the city’s gates. This allows new-to-the-series German director Robert Schwentke to hammer chords of Berlin 1938, with Winslet’s hair bleached an overdetermined shade of platinum. Meanwhile, despite Jeanine’s quest to capture those slippery Divergents, characters like Tris’s brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) somehow switch castes three times without any bureaucrats raising an eyebrow.
The previous film buried its incoherence in an athletic tale wherein Tris, a girl born of Abnegation, chooses to train with those Dauntless jocks and soon after discovers that she’s Divergent — and perhaps the only one who can bring down Jeanine. (Hooray for inborn exceptionalism? But, uh, isn’t that the opposite of the film’s message, that people should be equal?) Luckily, Tris’s mentor and boyfriend, Four (Theo James), is secretly Divergent too, even though despite being supposedly wise, he has a giant back-tattoo proclaiming his Divergence. The first film was dumb, but Tris’s gym-mat tumbles with Four provided some distraction. Here, their relationship consists of clenching each other by the forearm and grunting two portentous sentences without blinking. They’re gray heroes in a gray world. For excitement, occasionally a flock of black birds flies across the screen.
Woodley favors serious and forthright roles, which she performs as though she’s trying to earn Employee of the Month. She’s more relaxed in movies like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, which force her to take a break from saving the world and crack open a beer. Though she’s damp with tears and sweat, poor Woodley is shown no kindness by Insurgent‘s script, which refuses to let her show any of the positive traits her character is said to possess, intelligence in particular. Tris simply charges ahead toward every telegraphed trap like a bull chasing a cape. “Meathead” characters like Dauntless Peter (Miles Teller, the only actor carving out moments of fun), outwit her time after time, finally tsk-tsking, “I knew you were dumb, but…”
Even the plot throws up its hands. At several points in the script, Terrible Things happen that threaten to destroy everything. Later, these fears are tidily resolved off-screen, or proven not to be threats at all. In the final act, one character has a change of heart that leads to a twist — which winds up changing absolutely nothing. Insurgent is so vapid it seems impossible that there’s enough story left for another sequel, yet the filmmakers have already budgeted the first movie’s $288.7 million haul for a third and fourth installment. If only they’d spent a few bucks on the latest Merriam-Webster.