Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Insurgent | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Heroine keeps fighting the system in slightly soppy, though ultimately triumphant sequel

In Divergent (2014), Beatrice “Tris” Prior and love interest Four put a dent in the Erudite/Dauntless alliance (between those who value knowledge above all else, and those who value bravery above all else) aimed at seizing control of a future Chicago whose inhabitants are divided into factions.

This time, Insurgent, directed by Robert Schwentke, has the duo on the run from the mental giants at Erudite and the Dauntless goons that they employ.

Tris, distraught by major losses, does what rebellious teenage girls have been doing for years: she chops off her long hair. Perhaps this is a way to shed her grief or redefine herself (or distinguish herself from rival dystopian blockbuster heroine Katniss Everdeen). Then the girl with a boy’s hairdo undergoes a series of trials that will shed more light on what she and her Divergent label mean to the future of this world.

Tris and Four undertake a journey that allows the viewer to experience the different factions: the glass dome, green roofs, and farms of the hippie-like Amity; the austere concrete headquarters of the always truthful Candor; and the gleaming white tower in which the Erudite scheme. Insurgent also introduces the lair of the punk rockeresque Factionless, those who are not compatible with any faction and who seek to destroy the existing system to establish a new society.

The film’s makers took a great deal of liberty in manipulating the novel (by Chicagoan Veronica Roth) that inspired it. Characters and major scenes are cut, goals and obstacles are simplified, and key concepts are reimagined. Sure… purists will gripe at such slicing and dicing. However, this film is an entertaining sequel that at its worst resembles a soap opera, but at its best stuns the viewer with breathtakingly technologically indulgent action sequences.

It even treats the viewer to a couple of highly entertaining minor characters. There’s the hulking, zero-conscience Dauntless army leader Eric, who looks prepped for an Ultimate Fighting Championship match. Then there’s the self-serving smart aleck Peter, played by Miles Teller, star of the Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014). Both Eric and Peter have a knack for pushing Tris’s buttons, and push they do.

The standouts in Insurgent are Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Erudite mastermind Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).

As in Divergent, Woodley proves her ability to convey emotion. Look to the trial scene at Candor headquarters, where Tris is injected with a truth serum. Feel the pain as she struggles to hold back a secret that wracks her with guilt and that will hurt one of the onlookers.

Equally engaging is Winslet’s Jeanine Matthews. Veronica Roth’s villain isn’t very fleshed out: Matthews has no redeeming qualities and no backstory. Considering that Winslet doesn’t have a lot to work with, she does a fine job portraying a character that, in a less capable actor’s hands, might have been staid (e.g. the antagonist in The Host (2013)) or even overblown.

Everything about Matthews is severe: her pulled back hairstyle, her tight blue dress, her economy of movement, her affectless expressions. Whereas Tris is the girl-boy, Matthews is determinedly adult, an undiluted dark monarch who threatens to annihilate those who would bring change to the rigid systems that have been imposed on this society.

In one of the film’s most blatant departures from the novel, the filmmakers put the mystery on which this story hangs front and center in the form of a metallic capsule. Each side of the pentagon contains a faction logo. It sits in a closely monitored room in the Erudite headquarters. Nobody knows what’s in the capsule, but it has to be important!

Matthews rounds up those with the highest levels of divergence because the capsule can only be opened when a Divergent passes simulation tests for all five factions. When a test is passed, the corresponding symbol on the capsule illuminates (it must be Wi-Fi compatible). Subjects are attached to snake-like wires that descend from the ceiling, inject substances, and then suspend them in a kind of zero-gravity acid trip. The problem is that a failed simulation means death for the subject.

This capsule is a major simplification of what happens in the book, but it works. Similar to the Tesseract in The Avengers (2012), it’s as if the filmmakers are saying to characters and the audience, “Here you go… this is what the protagonist needs to open.”

There is a term in food industry jargon called “bliss point”. It has to do with the amount of unhealthy ingredients (i.e., salt, sugar, fat) needed to maximise taste.

During Tris’s Dauntless simulation, Insurgent achieves a kind of cinematic bliss point. In this technology- and drug-induced sequence, Tris attempts to save a departed loved one in a burning, crumbling house that floats over a city. The scene contains many elements (e.g. dream, intense special effects, damsel in distress) that would make most critics scoff, but to those of us willing to let go, this unapologetic immersion into Hollywood extravagance makes the film worth seeing in the cinema. Legolas would be proud!

The scene also makes up for Insurgent’s shortcomings, namely too many lovey-dovey scenes, too much dull table talk, and the lackluster personality of Four. When it comes to love, perhaps Tris is a little more certain of her soul mate than Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan. Great in real life. Boring in film and fiction.

“Defy reality.” Such is the challenge that Insurgent advertisements pose to the filmgoer. The film, with its simulations, strong polarization between good and evil, and contrasting factions, lives up to its promise and keeps the fictional dream alive. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of Divergent.

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