These Are Dystopian Doldrums

Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Ansel Elgort in “Insurgent”

     The original installment of this quintessentially young adult franchise wasn’t anything to write home about, but it didn’t exactly set the Razzies on fire either. An appropriately emotive performance from the budding Shailene Woodley, genuine life and death peril amid pop song interruptions and rote romance, and Kate Winslet camping it up for once as the main antagonist…these admirable attributes went a long way towards preventing Divergent’s lack of originality from devouring the entire movie. Not to mention Ashley Judd getting ample screen time as heroine Tris’ heroic mother. Its sequel, “Insurgent,” doesn’t enjoy such luxuries.

     ‘Divergent” included inventive training sequences to earn not just a rooting interest for Tris, but paramount sympathy as well. Here, the faction system has been all but dismantled, so no more fun and games for the Dauntless crowd, or anyone for that matter. And that’s part of the problem. Normally I have no issue with a dystopian drama choosing the dour route, but when multiple plot machinations are ludicrous and Triss’ romantic troublings are incredibly trite, humor is necessary to exact some measure of humility on the endless bravado. Insurgent, unlike its predecessor, insists on taking itself very seriously. Which is why the fresh-aired Miles Teller, even in a limited role, asserts himself as the most entertaining part of an otherwise dreadful affair. Woodley seems to have lost the natural knack for the craft that accompanies most child actors, an on-camera ease that often dissipates soon after hitting puberty. She can still cry with the best of them, but good acting isn’t just about hitting the high marks, it’s about nailing the smaller notes as well. Her attempts at assuming the role of a more vulnerable Katniss, the “one” who might (read: will) bring about the devil’s downfall, these scenes fall flat, and she isn’t helped by a journey that lands her face to face with a plank of wood for the majority of film’s duration. Theo James was a pleasant surprise in “Divergent,” carrying a natural authority that suited his character Four’s bottled intensity. This time he’s delivered on everything people pegged him for before the first movie saw the light of day. He’s a stiff strenuously reaching for something fluid but can’t quite reach it. Possibly more egregious: Winslet isn’t near as fun in her second stint in cinematic villainy, and the character’s grey moral gravity is reduced to black-and-white cartoonishness. Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer pop in to lend a shallow stab at temporary prestige, but their characters are too passive and their time too limited to make much of an impact. My harping may be harsh, and perhaps the brunt of the blame should be placed on a script that, instead of correcting cliches, has decided this post-apocalyptic world needs more of them, but it’s hard not to notice the precipitous drop in talent on screen.

     Were it not for such a drop, the denouement might have saved Insurgent to some extent. Revelations are had upon the cracking of a code-wrapped device straight out of Indiana Jones, and this turn, while itself borrowing from another sci-fi adaptation, makes for an imaginative retcon for everything these hopeless heroes thought they knew about their city, the wall surrounding their city, and the world surrounding that wall. This divergent (hardee-har) path opens up a slew of possibilities for further adventures, even as the enormity of said twists makes you wonder how further adventures could even be possible. But, as it is, “Insurgent” employs a laundry list of irrational character decisions, silly contrivances, and dystopian doldrums in the service of a story that was in desperate need of novelty from the beginning.

Grade: D

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