Some of you may recall that I liked Divergent (2014) if not for its hackneyed plot, then for its world building. The film fully committed to Veronica Roth’s vision of a society divided in accordance to five virtues: selflessness, courage, honesty, intelligence, and, uh, agricultural cordiality. Those who demonstrate more than one aptitude are deemed Divergent, forced to hide in the different factions until Erudite, the community populated with smarty-pants, brainwashes the brave people of Dauntless into wiping out the bleeding hearts in Abnegation. If you’re wondering why I’m explaining all this, it’s because The Divergent Series: Insurgent doesn’t. As such, I spent the first half hour trying to remember what the heck happened just so I could follow along.
Mind you, the plot of The Divergent Series: Insurgent doesn’t make a lick of sense either way. We start off in Amity, where Tris (Shailene Woodley) shows her Divergent aptitude for cordiality by behaving like an ungrateful brat; head to a secret “factionless” base, where those deemed to have none of the five virtues display all of them in a handful of scenes; make a pit stop in Candor to reveal Erudite’s coup, even though one of the witnesses (Zoë Kravitz) lives there; and go back to the secret base, only for our heroine to be captured and coerced into activating a magic doohickey. Actually, she escapes in the nick of time but then turns it on anyway because reasons.
I suspect the novel was structured this way to explore the cultural differences between each faction. After all, my favourite bits in Divergent pertain to the detailed logistics of the Dauntless lifestyle. In contrast, The Divergent Series: Insurgent damn near skips over Tris’ stay in Amity and portrays Candor as a faceless herd that keeps thanking people for their honesty because, you know, honesty is its thing. Evidently, serenity and integrity don’t lend themselves to the same level of pyrotechnics as suicidal thrill-seeking, but it says something about director Robert Schwentke that he would replace all the pesky soul searching inherent to these virtues with folk getting shot in the back of the head.
I’m not kidding. The Divergent Series: Insurgent boasts only four genuine characters: Tris, who wishes she’d shot the Erudite leader (Kate Winslet) in the back of the head; her frenemy Peter (Miles Teller), whom she nearly shoots in the back of the head (he’s kind of fun); her love interest Four (Theo James), who shoots a prisoner in the back of the head; and newcomer Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who closes the film by shooting someone in the back of the head. The rest of the cast members are presented as either cardboard villains or passive nincompoops in desperate need of getting shot in the back of the head.
Consider Tris’ Erudite sibling Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who twiddles his thumbs while she gets strangled, or Jack (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Candor, whom Theo outwits with B-grade Captain Kirk rhetoric. Our heroine even scolds Johanna (Octavia Spencer), who heads Amity, for refusing to take a stand. Really, the only characters to show any sort of agency in The Divergent Series: Insurgent spent their formative years in militarised Dauntless, making the whole thing feel like some maladapted teen’s revenge fantasy: “You nerds and do-gooders aren’t going to change the world! I am, with my Glock!”
In fairness, Tris’ entire arc centers on her realising that she’s been projecting her self-loathing on everyone else. Unfortunately, even her moments of introspection are conveyed by way of senseless violence, as she smashes through virtual windows and attempts to murder her own image. You see, only Divergents can activate the aforementioned magic doohickey, but, to do so, they must enter the Matrix and survive a series of trials based on each of the factions’ virtues. Incidentally, The Divergent Series: Insurgent never explains how a digitised honesty test can kill you. Does the program simulate your pants catching fire?
The real problem, though, lies at the heart of the franchise, which aims to denounce the evils of conformity, but only does so by granting those who are different special make-believe powers that have no bearing on real life: “Hey, kids, stay true to yourselves, or else you won’t be able to resist mind-control bullets or open magic doohickeys that project video games into your noggin!” For all its plot twists and retcons, The Divergent Series: Insurgent only succeeds in further muddying the waters, such as when Tris is revealed to be one hundred percent Divergent. I assumed the number pointed to her mastery of all five virtues, until the guy next to her scored ten percent. How the hell does that add up?