Shailene Woodley’s open, empathetic screen presence has served her well as Hollywood’s go-to embodiment of the young-adult-novel heroine. From the more grounded likes of The Spectacular Now and The Fault In Our Stars to dystopian sci-fi like Divergent and its new sequel Insurgent, the twentysomething Woodley wears the now-standard half-decade playing 18-year-olds better than most. One of the few new wrinkles Insurgent adds to Woodley’s career is the chance to see her embody someone who’s become radicalized—and at times, almost bloodthirsty. Steeliness comes naturally to, say, Jennifer Lawrence, but when Woodley unleashes the occasional voice-cracking battle cry, it generates tension between her desire for revolution and her utter believability as a teenager with more earnest ideals than ruthless training.
The movie picks up shortly after Divergent, with Tris and company on the run from nefarious leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), hiding out in Amity, one of the five personality-based factions—along with Dauntless, Candor, Abnegation, and leading class Erudite—that Tris has transcended with her divergence (which is not the same as being factionless, yet another group in this classification-heavy future). The brief pause for plot regrouping also serves as a crash course in Woodley’s IMDB listing, as she shares a few scenes with all three of her major on-screen love interests at once. Ansel Elgort from The Fault In Our Stars plays Tris’ brother Caleb; Miles Teller from The Spectacular Now plays her frenemy Peter; and Theo James from Divergent plays Four, whose continued romance with Tris makes the lukewarm wartime flirtations between Katniss Everdeen and Gale look positively simmering. (Four’s big emotional moment: admitting that he’s fallen for her after the Candor faction administers a dose of truth serum.)
Insurgent can’t make any strategic adjustments for the better chemistry Woodley shares with her other co-stars, especially in an adaptation climate that prizes fidelity to popular books above all else. So her dull pairing with James sticks, while Teller and Elgort get stuck, too, more or less repeating their characters’ arcs from the first movie with minor variations. It’s a particular shame for Teller, who can’t suppress his natural charisma even (or especially) when he’s in jerk mode. Most of the movie’s too-few intentional laughs come from Teller appearing in the edge or background of the frame, poking at the movie’s seriousness and stealing focus even when he’s out of it.
There are plenty more overqualified supporting cast members alongside Teller, including Winslet, Naomi Watts, and Octavia Spencer. Their grounding presence has promise, as do the loopy sci-fi conceits on display when Tris and Four try to rally other factions to their rebellious cause, jumping from the smugness of Candor to the rail-riding hobo scrappiness of the Factionless. The personality-based factions barely make sense even as fable, but they contain faint glimmers of the cheerful ridiculousness of comic sci-fi like Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or Futurama. They remain only glimmers because this is a beloved YA property. The material can’t simply be mined for parts; it must be respected.
Just keeping a straight face, though, can’t turn a divergent into a mockingjay. Despite its overtures toward thought-provoking sci-fi, The Divergent Series, as Insurgent is prefaced in the advertisements, is actually more akin to Screen Gems franchises like Resident Evil or Underworld, only not as stylish. “Not as stylish” is more or less the calling card of director Robert Schwentke (taking over for the similarly semi-slick Neil Burger), whose camera makes the occasional swoop or track but never takes any sustained technical or narrative risks. Insurgent has more action than Divergent, but not much more excitement. Perhaps a more mercenary blockbuster mentality could have at least shaped that action into stronger set pieces.
There’s certainly room for more trippiness than the movie’s constant shattered-glass and scattering-crows imagery allow, because around a quarter of the running time consists of dream sequences and virtual-reality “sims” that test (and, after the first movie, re-test) Tris and her magical ability to have multiple personality traits. In its back half, Insurgent becomes sort of a poor man’s Matrix Reloaded, including its indulgence in bloodless gun battles and mythology-changing revelations, but jettisoning any passion, conviction, and striking visuals. The Wachowskis may overreach, but they do so with commitment. Despite Woodley’s best efforts, Insurgent stays as bloodless as its violence.