Imagine “The Hunger Games” without the irresistible charms of Jennifer Lawrence, the comic relief of Elizabeth Banks, the awe-striking fashions of the Capitol, the rich world-building and the pulse-racing action sequences. If you strip away all of that, you're essentially left with the “Divergent” movies. It's a franchise devoid of passion and personality, despite its heroes’ fight for freedom and individuality.
And if you thought the first film was dull, just wait until you see its snooze of a sequel.
“Insurgent” picks up five days after the conclusion of “Divergent,” with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four/Tobias (Theo James) on the run from Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who’s hunting down Divergents to use as pawns in her wicked game of faction domination. In her quest to topple Jeanine, Tris meets the people of Amity, Candor and even the Factionless. However, her greatest trial awaits her in a simulation that will test each of her faction traits.
I'll admit, I found the first film a bit bland, but I figured that might be because it had to perform all of the heavy lifting to set up this divided dystopia. Unfortunately, “Insurgent” cements that “The Divergent Series” is just an also-ran franchise that lacks the verve and visuals that have made others stand out.
Directed by Robert Schwentke (“RED,” “R.I.P.D.”), the film's great sin is that it’s excruciatingly one-note. Its heroine is stuck in a permanent pout to the point where you might worry Tris is transforming into a sulking emoji. It’s a waste of Woodley's talents, as her innate charisma is suppressed by a stale script and a harried-mom haircut. And although Tris travels through dreams, simulations and the bases of other faction, the production design is bizarrely uniform, washing her world in dishwater gray.
Similarly, the cast seems to operate under the directive of "stone faces are the best faces," save for Miles Teller and Naomi Watts, two bright spots in this otherwise bleak and humorless adventure. The former possesses a smug joviality that makes him seem like an infiltrator from a zippier outing, and thank goodness for that. The latter plays a rebel leader, and while this film gives her nearly nothing to do, she at least manages a smirk and bit of mystique.
The script further hinders the actors, stuffing their mouths with tin-eared exposition that so often repeats its themes and plot points you could take numerous bathroom breaks during the overlong 119-minute runtime and still not miss a thing.
“Insurgent's” action sequences also disappoint. Partly to blame is that Woodley's frame doesn’t sell the fight choreography she's given. It strains credulity to have her pitching over heavy wooden tables and physically overpowering men twice her size. Focusing on her agility and speed would have played better. Instead “Insurgent” keeps her fighting to a minimum and regularly has her boyfriend stepping in to rescue his damsel in distress. Even in her own movie, Tris can't shoulder the hero role. It's tedious at best and insulting at worst.
The other issue with the action is the heavy use of CGI that feels like a heavy use of CGI. It's difficult to be drawn into the stakes of Tris racing through burning buildings and swinging from skyscrapers when it all looks fake. Making the simulation sequences more ridiculous than riveting, Jeanine has ditched the chair, so Tris floats like an anti-gravity mime, climbing walls and dodging obstacles that exist only in her head. It's ludicrous and laughable, killing tension and testing patience.
“Insurgent” is filled with missed opportunities. Tris could’ve been a more complex heroine; the action could’ve felt grounded, and thereby gripping. Her relationship with brother (Ansel Elgort) could’ve been given time to develop so it didn't feel so crudely wedged in. The settings -- from Tris' dreams and simulations to the rebel camp – could’ve been far more distinctive and varied to underline this brewing war defies conformity and celebrates individuality. Instead, it's a big, boring swath of gray and grim.
”The Divergent Series: Insurgent” opens today nationwide.