The second installment of a planned four-part film franchise adapted from author Veronica Roth's dystopian YA trilogy (phew!), "Insurgent" lacks the pop-infused sense of personal discovery found in 2014's "Divergent
," but digs deeper to explore its post-apocalyptic world in crisis. It is often tricky to tackle the middle chapter of a series because the story must pick up in mid-flow and end before a resolution is reached. Director Robert Schwentke (2010's "Red
"), taking over for Neil Burger, is game for the challenge. He and his screenwritersBrian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman (2014's "Winter's Tale
") and Mark Bomback (2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
")have an accomplished, gradually expanding cast at their disposal and, while some are used more fully than others, they without fail bring color and dignity to the picture's somewhat familiar trappings. The MVP of that ensemble is Shailene Woodley (2014's "White Bird in a Blizzard
"), whose shorn haircut suits the no-nonsense attitude of a young woman coming into her own as a born fighter for peace and justice.
Two hundred years after the planet's collapse, five factionsthe intelligent Erudite, the honest Candor, the peaceful Amity, the brave Dauntless, and the vanity-free Abnegationare now at the mercy of a dangerous newfound totalitarianism brought about by Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Having overthrown the Abnegation-run government and eradicated most of that faction, she has now set her sights on Tris (Shailene Woodley), a Divergentthat is, one exhibiting characteristics of all five groupswhom she sees as the foremost threat to their society. With Tris on the run with fellow Divergent Four (Theo James), her ex-Erudite brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and the self-serving Dauntless Peter (Miles Teller), their journey takes them first to the welcoming Amity community, and later to a factionless colony where Four's thought-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), resides. Tris aims to kill Jeanine before any more innocent lives are lost, but must rethink her game plan when she discovers this out-of-control tyrant needs her alive for a very special, most certainly perilous task.
" is something of an origin tale, a fantasy-laden drama about a teenage girl learning to accept who she is and eventually coming into her own as a potential savior of the people, then "Insurgent" takes its cue as a high-stakes chase picture where the hunted ultimately stop running and decide to turn the tables on their pursuers. In one corner is Jeanine and her murderous dictatorship, determined to stop at nothing to retain order over the populace. In possession of a locked box that holds a message from the founders of their current world order, Jeanine needs a Divergent to open it and sees Tris as her best chance. In the other corner is Tris and Four, who look to lead an uprising but need more support on their side. When she makes the decision to face Jeanine head-on, the developments that follow effectively position the film as a game of wits more so than brawn. A series of simulations Tris is faced with lead to some of the most memorable scenes, including a bravura set-piece where she must save her late mother from a burning building that is gradually floating upwards and away.
Shailene Woodley has plenty of support around her, but she hardly needs it when she is front and center. Actualizing within Tris the guilt she feels over losing her parents and having to kill a friend in order to save herself, Woodley is tougher and more internally conflicted this time around. She also sells the necessary physicality of the role, her growth into an action heroine proving wholly believable. As Four, Theo James (2012's "Underworld: Awakening
") is treated more as a standard love interest than he was in the previous film, but the equal parts intensity and sensitivity he lends the part sells his romance with Tris. As the perpetually confused Caleb, Ansel Elgort (2014's "Men, Women & Children
") is underserved, never getting the opportunity to paint his character with anything more than broad strokes. His shifting allegiances feel inorganic, there to only serve the requirements of the script. Doing a far better job of establishing his side-swapping position is the narcissistic, frequently combative Peter, willing to do whatever is necessary to save his own skin. Miles Teller (2014's "Whiplash
") is terrific in the part, giving nuance and signs of a sympathetic conscious to a guy who was more of a standard secondary antagonist in the predecessor. Returning as central heavy Jeanine,
Kate Winslet (2011's "Contagion
") is delectably frightening, refusing to flinch as she calmly, menacingly goes head to head with Woodley's Tris. New to the series folder are Naomi Watts (2014's "St. Vincent
"), looking spectacular while owning her scenes as Four's estranged mother Evelyn, and Octavia Spencer (2014's "Snowpiercer
"), exuding warmth and forgiveness as Amity leader Johanna.
At 119 minutes, "Insurgent" is faster and trimmer than the 139-minute "Divergent
," if perhaps not quite as stylishly conceived from a directorial standpoint. By necessity, the mood is more somber and moments of levity and exhilaration are in shorter supply. As a continuation, however, the film is controlled yet propulsive, emulating Tris' go-getter attitude. Not one to sit back and let things happen to her, Tris marches on, facing her demons while doing what she has to do to outsmart the naturally savvy Erudite. The ending is curious in that it very nearly feels like a finite conclusion rather than the setup for a two-part finale. Whatever might happen in "Allegiant," will it warrant four more hours of running time? Time will tell. In the meantime, "Insurgent" is compelling in spite of its commonplace premise and themes. Wanting to see where Tris goes from hereand how Shailene Woodley will continue to imbue her with lifeis more than enough incentive to keep watching.