Since 2012, every young adult fiction franchise adapted into a film has battled the unpleasant distinction of not being The Hunger Games. The films that turned Jennifer Lawrence from Oscar-nominated critical darling into the biggest star in the world have managed to not only be of consistently high quality, but also achieve symbolic dominance in the zeitgeist. In its wake, Divergent was tipped as the most potent pretender to the throne, thrown into contrast with The Hunger Games almost purely by virtue of the shared improbability of foregrounding a heroine as opposed to a hero. Since dystopia is par for the course in the YA oeuvre these days, Divergent could have been forgiven its superficial similarities if what lay beneath its surface were something radical and fresh. The problem proved in Divergent’s sequel, Insurgent, is that nothing actually lies beneath.
Stylised as The Divergent Series: Insurgent, the franchise’s title alone gives a sense of its unwieldiness. Battling for a distinctive identity from the very moment it was announced, Divergent proved a bland, haphazard origin story for the series’ central character, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley). Though Woodley’s portrayal wasn’t poor, Tris lacked much of what made Katniss Everdeen so magnetic: the iconography, the subversiveness, and the performance to back it up.
Instead of course-correcting, Insurgent doubles down on what made Divergent a poor start and a worse film. The series remains hamstrung by its conceptual incoherence and characteristic vagueness, a problem ultimately attributable by the novels’ author Veronica Roth, but left unchallenged by Neil Burger and Robert Schwentke, directors of the first and second film respectively.
Insurgent’s script, adapted from Roth’s novel by Akiva Goldsman, Brian Duffield and Mark Bomback, fails to provide any real clarification of the faction system that underpins The Divergent Series’ dystopia. Comprised of five classes – Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite – the factions are designed to maintain social order, ostensibly to protect the city from what lies beyond the massive wall that surrounds it. There are also the Factionless, who have no status, because they either fail to be initiated into a faction or disagree with their faction’s values.
But the lack of an imperative (at 16, candidates choose which they want to join after a kind of aptitude test to discover which faction most suits them) to this system of order makes the whole idea of it feel incomplete. Unlike, for example, the surveillance state of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Insurgent’s sectarian divisions seem held in place with spit and a prayer. Tris’ discovery and embrace that she is Divergent, meaning she fits into multiple factions, only further undermines the dramatic heft of the premise.
After using mind control serum on the Dauntless faction in Divergent to all but wipe out Abnegation, Jeanine (Kate Winslet) returns as the villain of Insurgent as she attempts to hunt down Tris, who she believes can unlock a message from the founders of their society. There’s little else to provide narrative momentum; Tris’ relationship with hunky Four (Theo James) continues apace as the latter meets his estranged mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who is leader of the Factionless.
Collectively they resolve to overthrow Jeanine, who believes the intellectual Erudite (relentlessly mispronounced as ‘air-you-dight’) faction is most capable of running society. Winslet’s performance is half-hearted at best, Jeanine’s cool, collected evil barely requiring her to arch an eyebrow. The few thrills come in extended visual effects sequences as Tris struggles through dramatic simulations in order to unlock the founders’ missive. The spectacle, beefed up thanks to a bigger budget, allows for some entertaining destruction of what is intended to be a post-apocalyptic Chicago despite the geographical indefinability of Insurgent’s universe.
But the Hunger Games comparisons mostly prove moot, in the end, as it turns out that Insurgent bears a far greater similarity to The Maze Runner, one of the only compelling YA franchises to emerge in the Mockingjay’s wake. Not only has The Divergent Series taken two far less entertaining films to reach the same narrative destination as The Maze Runner did in one (the former books were even published after the latter), it fails to prove itself as an engaging story at all.
It’s not that Tris is a bad character; she’s just more akin to the vagueness of Bella Swan than the vagary of Hermione Granger. One of the virtues of Katniss as a character is that the Hunger Games franchise positions her as a badass woman to whom anyone in the audience can relate, as opposed to Tris’ more wishy-washy, everygirl shtick. It’s nevertheless valuable that Tris can fight for herself and act with agency, but she’s mostly just a bit of a pill. Katniss was a heroine from the start, but Insurgent is fighting the uphill battle of proving Tris can be one at all.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.