Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2015


Lipstick on a pig

All-Star cast can't save 'Insurgent' from its complete absence of ideas

Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback, based on the novel by Veronica Roth
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Naomi Watts, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim and Zoë Kravitz
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 59 minutes
March 20, 2015
(out of four)

The proper reaction to almost every major character entrance in Insurgent is to think to yourself, "Wait, what the hell is [insert name of actor] doing in this movie?" I don't have to tell you that. More than likely this would have been your natural, instinctive reaction anyway. It's not every day you see a movie in which practically every member of the central cast is slumming it.

I realize it's a generally unhealthy practice to declare an actor "above" any particular work ... but let's be honest: We all know Naomi Watts, acting genius and A-lister, deserves far, far better work than C-grade YA adaptations. And she's no outlier. The whole film is populated with actors who seem conspicuously out of place - either because we're used to seeing them in much more prominent work, or because they've moved beyond the types of roles they're given here. Or both.

Start with Shailene Woodley (who obviously gets a pass because toplining a franchise like this is a perfect career move regardless), who already has a handful of great dramatic performances under her belt. Then there's the affable Ansel Elgort - The Fault in Our Stars charmer, soon-to-be leading man in an Edgar Wright film - yet stuck here as a forgettable background player. Ditto Miles Teller, whose own leading-man status in both a Best Picture nominee (Whiplash) and an upcoming superhero tentpole (Fantastic Four) push him far beyond the fifth-wheel status (at best) Insurgent offers him.

And then of course there's Watts and Kate Winslet, whose track records speak for themselves. This movie even tosses in Oscar winner Octavia Spencer for a thankless two-scene role, because why the hell not. It just seems like everyone has graduated past this movie but they have to stick around anyway. Their collective presence provides the franchise with a razor-thin veneer of respectability, but ultimately it makes little difference.

In effect, I'm being patronizing, I admit - but neither this film nor its predecessor offer a convincing argument to the contrary. They seem to be aware that the material is twaddle and are simply trying to dress things up as much as they can. As I wrote about Divergent last year, the series - both in concept and character - is like a shallow distillation of YA adaptations as a whole. If every movie in the genre were thrown into a pot and drained to the bone, this is the franchise that would come out.

To recap: postapocalyptic society is split into five factions, each named after a word that no normal person ever uses in typical conversation: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite. As people come of age, they are split into those groups based on an intensive psychological test that essentially determines their best function for society at large. Abnegation, the faction of selfless public servants, has been in charge since society first rebuilt, but Erudite - led by Winslet's villainous Jeanine - is in the process of trying to take over. But they're facing resistance from, in particular, the outlawed "Divergents," those who don't fit neatly into any of the five prescribed boxes. Our heroine, Tris (Woodley), is one such Divergent, and the most important one - she holds the key to blah blah blah, you get the point.

As Insurgent picks up, she and fellow Divergents (among them her love interest Four, played by Theo James) are in hiding, on the run from Jeanine's minions, led by Eric, played by Jai Courtney because there's no franchise on Earth that Jai Courtney's agent can't sneak him into. Taking on a larger role in the story this time around are the Factionless - those who have been discarded by the rest of society and exist on its outskirts. They've become vigilant and more militarized, and are seemingly shaping up as a convenient ally for the Divergents in the inevitable war on the horizon.

Meanwhile, Jeanine is on the lookout for the Tesseract from The Avengers.

Well, OK, it's not that exactly - but it is a stupid magical glowing box of some kind, and it holds a secret message from the "founders" that will change everything. Or something. It's not really important. Only the basics matter in Insurgent, none of the specifics. Like the names of the factions themselves, everything in this franchise is just a label. Dystopia. War. Heroine. Villain. Rebellion. Courage. Governance. Love. Those ideas are thrown around, but never backed up by anything - they just exist as story points that no one ever feels the need to expand upon. Tris' role is a necessary function in the machinery of the screenplay, but the films never give us much reason to see why she's so much more important than the many other Divergents running around. She's just considered "special" because ... well, because the movie says so, that's why. Woodley has some big character moments to play and, unsurprisingly, she nails them, but the character as written is the star of a story that doesn't really justify her relevance.

As a piece of mindless distraction, Insurgent is passable - a technical improvement over the first film in the series. Having said that, it certainly speaks ill of Divergent director Neil Burger that he gets so distinctly outclassed by Robert Schwentke, a utilitarian studio hired-hand type if there ever was one. Schwentke brings a tiny bit more imagination to the series than did his predecessor, but that's about it. He rises to the level of forgettable competence.

To his credit, I must say there's one segment where he and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus really shine. One of the key developments in the story is Tris being subjected to a rigorous series of simulated tests - by Jeanine's decree, and under her supervision. At times we see what Tris is seeing - a sequence of emotionally and intellectually manipulative scenarios in which her subconscious is pushed to the limit - but what's more interesting is when the film cuts back to the physical realm. On one side of the room is Tris' body, hanging suspended by a cluster of tubes in a sterilized white room. Adjacent to that is a transparent computerized screen feeding a constant stream of physical and psychological feedback. And then just beyond that is Winslet, silently observing. There's a real interplay between those three spots, and at a certain point Schwentke and Ballhaus frame all three on top of one another, each one reflecting the other two in some way, gracefully and concisely articulating the relationship between mind and body, between thought and action.

But that's a rare instance of the film showing any flair. Mainly that's because the material simply doesn't afford it much opportunity to do so. There's no doubting the talent accumulated for this franchise; what the producers never really got around to was finding a story worth telling in the first place.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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