Film Review: Insurgent

'The Hunger Games'’ braindead younger sibling aims for dystopian gravitas but only succeeds at being dull and joyless.
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“I know it doesn’t make sense, but you have to trust me, please.” That’s heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) pleading with her boyfriend/partner in insurrection Four (Theo James) about two-thirds of the way through Insurgent, the second installment in Lionsgate’s teen-focused Divergent series.  She may as well have been talking to the audience, because sense-making is not Insurgent’s strong suit. Take a whole bunch of dystopia tropes and pop them in a blender, and the resulting tasteless goop is this movie.

If you didn’t see last spring’s Divergent, don’t worry, because Insurgent starts off with expository voiceover to get us up to speed. Always a good sign! In pursuit of peace, power-hungry villain Jeanine (Kate Winslet) tells us, the remnants of humanity elected to split themselves into five factions, each one defined by their primary character trait (bravery, honesty, kindness, selflessness and intelligence). People who have more than one character trait—which should be literally everyone, but remember what I said about this movie making no sense—are called “divergents,” and they’re bad, because they represent a threat to the carefully ordered system.

The most divergent of all the divergents is Tris, who is destined to free humanity from its shackles. We know this because the movie constantly tells us, through ham-fisted dialogue like “We need to find that very special one” and “You’re brave…braver than anyone,” how very important Tris is. If the movie didn’t tell us this, we’d have no reason to be interested in her, because she is one of the blandest protagonists in recent memory.

Talented young actors like Woodley and Ansel Elgort, playing Tris’ brother Caleb, are hamstrung by their characters’ complete lack of emotional complexity. Insurgent tries to gloss over this by having its characters engage in histrionics—Tris’ constant brooding about how “people I get close to always end up dead!” and a shouty exchange between Four and rebel leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts) come to mind—but pretending you’re deep doesn’t mean you actually are. Even veteran actors Winslet, Watts and Octavia Spencer, playing a faction leader who gives our heroes refuge, sleepwalk through their scenes. Their performances are serviceable yet tepid, and one hopes their paychecks were large enough for them to take a nice, long vacation to somewhere less visually dingy and uninteresting than the world of this movie.

The one bright spot in Insurgent’s sea of self-important angst is Miles Teller as Peter, Tris’ sometime ally who makes no bones about absolutely hating her. His character is no more complex than anyone else’s—“scheming, snarky jerk” is pretty much the beginning and the end of it—but Peter is at least interesting to watch, and Teller injects some energy into the role. Compare that to Woodley, who looks bored even during fight scenes, or James, who has little to do besides run around after Tris and show off his muscles. It’s the sign of a truly mediocre movie when you’d abandon all the protagonists at the drop of a hat to instead spend two hours watching a secondary character with no more than 20 minutes of screen time do something innocuous like brush his hair.

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