On the run from an oppressive dystopian government 'divergent' Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), her boyfriend Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and mouthy tag-along Peter (Miles Teller) hide among the peaceful pastoral community of 'Amity.' Their refuge proves short-lived however once soldiers sent by their old enemy, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), force them to flee. Betrayed by one ally then abandoned by another, Tris eventually finds shelter with the so-called 'Factionless' group led by none other than Four's long-lost, seemingly untrustworthy mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts). However, Jeanine is determined to get her hands on Tris since she might be the one person able to crack a high-tech puzzle box holding the secret to what happened to the world beyond the wall.
While the first film adaptation of Veronica Roth's series of young adult science fiction novels did not make a huge splash with either critics or the public it evidently amassed a big enough, albeit strangely quiet fan-base to greenlight a sequel that was also a minor hit. Whereas Divergent (2014) was a largely enjoyable sci-fi action romp, Insurgent is a much more plodding, maudlin and uncertain affair. The core concept underlining the Divergent series lacks the sociopolitical edge that made The Hunger Games (2012) yet arguably more closely approximates the high school experience. Specifically, the notion those qualities that mark certain young people as misfits are in time also the same that help them come into their own in later life. Which of course is immensely appealing for adolescents uncertain about their place in the world.
Central to the story this time around is Tris' brittle self-worth and nagging doubts as to whether her actions in the last film were justified. Especially given they cost the lives of friends and family. Although Insurgent poses an intriguing sociopolitical question in pondering whether or not stability is a significant casualty once a revolution destroys an oppressive social order, it fails to develop this point. Instead the script simply has Four continually reassure Tris none of this is her fault. Co-written by Brian Duffield, veteran Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback, the heavily episodic plot takes Tris and Four from dystopian setting to dystopian setting and one special guest authority figure to another (along with Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts we have Octavia Spencer and Daniel Dae Kim wasted as one-note characters) without advancing the story much. Tris has a much more conventional hero's journey this time around complete with hokey prophecies and Macguffins while the characters 'kill or be killed' credo edges unnervingly close to survivalist rhetoric.
To their credit the cast are all capable and highly watchable. However their characters are sulkier and more self-involved this time around or else plain thin. What is more the film is geared towards momentum not depth. Poor Ansel Elgort, Shailene Woodley's charismatic co-star in charming weepie The Fault in Our Stars (2014), draws the short straw here as a character defined solely by his ineptitude in combat and propensity for choosing the wrong side. As for Woodley herself, as was case with Divergent, she gives a commanding turn above and beyond the call of duty and more or less holds the whole unwieldy epic together through the sheer force of her performance. Joining the series, German filmmaker Robert Schwentke – the man behind RED (2010), The Time Traveller's Wife (2009) and R.I.P.D. (2013) among others – pulls out all the stops for several 'virtual reality' sequences. These showcase trippy imagery and fairly exciting action but Insurgent remains dramatically inert. Nevertheless the series soldiered on with Allegiant (2016).