“Dark times call for extreme measures.” So declares the phlegmatic leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) in the dystopian film Insurgent after ordering a mob of armored meatheads to hunt down Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley). Tris is a teenager whose preternatural talents make her a danger to a society where everyone is sorted into skill-based factions named after a GRE vocabulary word: Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, Erudite, and Factionless. Insurgent is rife with bloodshed and high-adrenaline chases, and Jeanine’s line aims to convey the supposedly immense stakes of capturing and killing non-conforming individuals like Tris. But instead her words land like the thinly veiled cliché they are. (You can almost hear the unspoken, sarcastic “DUN DUN DUN” that follows.)
Perhaps not much should be expected from the follow-up to a widely-panned film based on a derivative-of-a-derivative hit YA novel trilogy by Veronica Roth. But Insurgent isn’t a bad film because it's a sequel, or because it’s based on a YA novel, or because it’s not particularly original. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its successor Mockingjay Pt. 1 were all of those things but managed to tell a complex story with a riveting heroine and cast of supporting characters. Even after all the detailed world-building that took place in the first film, Insurgent still feels like a pale universe desperately trying to manufacture chaos and emotion for the sake of chaos and emotion. But the movie's disregard for cause-and-effect (dei ex machina abound), meaningful relationships, and plot hamstrings its efforts to gather narrative momentum for the trilogy's two-part finale, despite the major twist and cliffhanger at Insurgent's close.
A brief recap of the events of Divergent: Tris conceals her identity as a Divergent and joins the Dauntless faction, where she meets an instructor named Four (Theo James), who's also a secret Divergent. During Tris' training, the two fall in love, but they learn of a plot by the Erudite faction to overthrow the ruling Abnegation faction by pulling Dauntless into a war. The pair's identities are discovered, and Tris' parents die trying to protect her. Tris and Four escape, but the Erudite leader Jeanine obtains a special box (protected by Tris' parents) whose mysterious contents are rumored to be able to destroy Divergents. The only thing is, Jeanine needs a pure Divergent to pass all the simulation tests for each faction in order to open the box. Hence the bounty on Tris' head.
Insurgent picks up shortly after Divergent ended: Tris, Four, and some other Dauntless are on the lam, but have taken refuge in Amity's hippie commune. Traumatized by the death of her parents, Tris cuts her hair short because that is what tormented women on screen do (it’s okay, though, her boyfriend reluctantly approves). Tris and Four spend most of the film running away from Jeanine's henchmen, getting caught, and then slipping away again, a cycle that continues on and on until the last moments. The pair is so often rescued by the auspicious arrival of allies that any suspense concerning their survival feels coerced: Clap right in front of someone's face once, and they'll jolt. Keep doing it, and they'll still flinch, but more out of instinct or habit than genuine surprise.
It's the job of a sequel to complicate themes and problems laid out in the first film, but Insurgent's plot holes raise questions that distract more than they stimulate. Why does Jeanine think the box holds the key to eradicating all Divergents when she doesn't even know what's inside? How does the much-discussed issue of "jurisdiction" work in the justice system of Divergent's post-apocalyptic Chicago? Why has no one ventured beyond the wall that surrounds the city to see if there's any life left? In what world could people with too many talents (Divergents) possibly be seen as more dangerous and worthy of derision than people with minimal to no talents (Factionless)?
As Noah Berlatsky has pointed out, the illogical nature of the Divergent world has its roots in the works of the science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, who created self-aware, discontinuous universes, forcing the audience to fill in the gaps. It's maybe a more generous reading than Insurgent deserves: Roth herself has acknowledged that the narrative disjunction between the first and second novels was due to overlapping drafts. The film tries to smooth over this laziness with white-knuckle chase scenes, dramatic confrontations, and mind-spinning simulation sequences. Sometimes, the action (especially when viewed in IMAX 3-D) floods the senses to the point where the bigger, clunky themes of the movie blissfully vanish, and all that matters is that the protagonists outrun the latest wall of bullets.
If its cast is any indication, Insurgent had the potential to be a perfectly decent spring-time blockbuster. Woodley is already a darling of the teen crowd (The Fault in Our Stars, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), and she's been praised for her acting in the past (The Spectacular Now, The Descendants). But while Jennifer Lawrence proved she could keep pace with the ever-darker, ever-more-grim Hunger Games movies, Woodley wobbles a bit under the weight of her own less elegantly realized franchise. She's surrounded by an impressive (largely female) supporting cast—Winslet, Octavia Spencer as the Amity leader, Naomi Watts as Four's mother and Factionless leader—that is sadly underused. Perhaps the brightest spot of the entire film is Miles Teller (Whiplash) as Tris' Dauntless frenemy, Peter. Teller's delightful, scene-stealing presence would feel unfair to the rest of the cast if he weren't such a welcome respite.
In all, Insurgent may work as a deafening, frivolous diversion for viewers who can ignore the flimsiness of its universe, plot, and characters. Admittedly, it doesn't look very good for the franchise that the film is actually a significantly abridged version of the novel: If the writers took creative liberties in order to simplify the source material, why couldn't they have done so to create a more consistent story? Of course, Insurgent didn't need an airtight plot, infinitely layered characters, or Mad Men-esque dialogue to work. But it also didn't need to be good at all to recoup its roughly $120 million budget and then some, which it most certainly will. After all, this is a film based on a trilogy whose author sold the movie rights to her work mere months after she wrote it. The Divergent series is the kind of elaborate, moody pabulum that was always destined to become a massive (if clumsy) tentpole beast; Insurgent is, for all its flaws, keeping air in the lungs of that legacy.