Saturday, March 28, 2015

Insurgent - Timid New World

"The Divergent Series: Insurgent" is not a movie any parent would be afraid of their teenager watching.  It is safe, inoffensive Young Adult entertainment, carefully managed to be as blandly competent as possible.  I cannot imagine the book series by Veronica Roth is all that more compelling.  The marketing around this title is "The Hunger Games" but with even less teeth, a gray harmless fiction, enjoyed mostly by kids who do not know any better.  God help the YA industry when these kids discover that Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert A. Heinlein exist.  We can only dream of the day that all of these baby's first SciFi novels and their film adaptations end up in the trash where they belong.

I did not even bother reviewing the first film in this series, "Divergent" when it came out last year.  I assumed that the movie would be turgid floppy mediocrity.  But I made another assumption:  that nobody else would care.  These days with advertising campaigns so heavily manufactured on social media, I do not know if people legitimately like the Divergent Series or if it is just inflated manipulation.  Certainly "Insurgent" has had the most intense marketing of the year so far.  You cannot escape this film even if you want to not care.  So last week I finally bothered to watch "Divergent 1" - which turned out be everything I expected:  competent but forgettable.  Let's discuss the sequel.

"Insurgent" takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago just up the road from "The Hunger Games"' PanAm.  This is Dystopian Society No. #3442*, where all of humanity is segmented into five different clans based upon their role.  No created universe is complete without long complicated world-building details that ultimately add very little depth to the overall simplistic plotline.  Each clan has an elaborate stylish name, such as the Amnity who are hippie Amish farmers or the Dauntless who are soldiers or the Candor who are scum-sucking lawyers.  Our heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a former Abnegation, the boring gray bureaucrats, who changed her Job Class to Dauntless.  But ut-oh, she's actually a Divergent, the special magical Chosen One who does not fit into any of the categories.  So she is wanted by the evil Erudites, the wicked science class, who need her to open a McGuffin Box to complete their scheme to conquer the Factions, and naturally is also the only one who can stop their plans.

Really from the start I have a major issue with the design of the storyline in this Divergent universe.  I'll ignore for a moment that the movies never properly define what a Divergent is or what they can do that makes them special.  (And Roth made things a thousand times more confusing by introducing a sixth or seventh class called 'The Factionless', who sound like the same thing as a Divergent, but somehow aren't.)  Those are just incidental details to the overall plot of The Heroine vs. The System.  Being Divergent is an excuse to make Tris a target of the government, and central to the story, it does not really matter if she has powers or not.  Ultimately this is a tale of rebellion against a generic dystopian government... but strangely led by a heroine who seems to be entirely conservative and happy to exist in this perverse system.

I do know one power Tris has:  looking fabulous in short hair and that denim vest.  *Wolf call*
There is cleverness to the design of Chicago After the Fall.  This is a society where people have no particular individual choice and must undergo a cyberspace mind-bending test that will determine their future, where they must conform to a very specific tribal identity or else.  Does not matter if you really wanted to be a painter, if your test says you're Amnity, you better get your tractor or start farming or face death (I assume).  Strangely enslavement and conformity is not really explored.  Tris is Divergent, so really that just means she can pick any Faction she wants, and in the first movie she was all too happy to join the Dauntless.  There she could live an awesome teenager life of being with other young people, getting a boring but hot boyfriend in a dude named Four (Theo James), and going on zipline rides across Chicago.  She was perfectly fine being a Warrior-class, it was only when the Science Guys started mind-controlling people and launched genocides against Divergents and Abnegations and killing her parents that she had an issue.

What are Tris and Four fighting for in "Insurgent"?  They're fighting for the status quo.  The Evil Science clan's leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) talks all the time about protecting the natural order and how Divergents are a threat, but everything seemed fine before she came along.  Tris is not the one that annihilated an entire Job Class.  The plot of this movie is really just Tris and Four running from one clan to another hiding from the Erudites, the Erudites attacking that clan, and then rinse and repeat until the climax.  They also have sex along the way, but that's not really important to either the story or even to the characters.

Nothing in the hero's relationship is a threat to the system like Winston and Julia's love was an affront to the inhumanity of Ingcoc in "1984" - just one of many SciFi novels teenagers should be reading instead of this.  They cannot even be accidental revolutionaries like Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games", whose very survival is a symbol of hope and change.  Worse Tris is an entirely unwritten character.  I could not name a single thing this character wants or wishes for, nothing she is good for, and no particular reason anybody would want to be around her.  She is the stereotype of bland YA protagonist, a featureless creature who exists only for the readers to project themselves into it. There is not a hint of edge or revolution within her.

Hooray, the Bland White People are here to save us!
Shailene Woodley is not a bad actress but she does not work in this role.  There is none of the intensity of Jennifer Lawrence.  It is really impossible to take her seriously as any kind of action hero since her arms are toothpick-thin and her war cry is a squeaking whimper.  Unfortunately the actress has no chemistry with Theo James, who has zero charisma of any kind.  He at least has muscles large enough to open a pickle jar, so he's more believable as an action star.  In one of the few original ideas, "Insurgent" has no love triangle, there is just one confirmed couple.  "Insurgent" has no interest in romance (for obvious lack of chemistry-related reasons) and instead focuses entirely on boring stock action.

But maybe the supporting cast is better.  How about the dark and terrible Jeanine, a figure whose name alone makes you shudder with fear?  Darth Vader, Voldemort... Jeanine, yup that works.  Kate Winslet is flat and uninterested.  Tris has a brother in Caleb (Ansel Elgort**), who basically fades into the background doing nothing, completely forgotten for entire scenes.  There's an entire herd of minor supporting characters played by people as great as Naomi Watts, as terrible as Jai Courtney, and as Maggie Q as Maggie Q, but there is little to say about any of them.

The one stand-out performance of this entire franchise goes to Miles Teller, the star of "Whiplash" and a lot of awful bro comedies, as a young man named Peter.  Peter spent the first movie being a total prick from beginning to end.  He is the kind of minor side-character who is so immediately more likable than anybody else you wind up drawn to him, ignoring the main plot.  In this film Peter continues his dickish ways by betraying everybody and outsmarting every faction, and effectively driving most of the plot more than the heroes do.  So if there is any reason to seeing "Insurgent", it is Peter.  Otherwise save your money.

Peter is the Mustache Dad of the Divergent series.
So let us break "Insurgent" down again.  What does this movie have?  Does it have likable or compelling characters?  Mostly no.  Does it have an effective biting story that speaks to young people?  No.  Does it have any edge at all?  No.  Does it really have any sort of tone or theme?  No.  Does it have a decent romance?  No.  Does it have good action?  No.  Does it have anything?  No.  Really nothing about the production is in any way bad.  There is not any one element I can point to and shout "this is utter shit".  It is all perfectly fine and competently-made and acceptable.  That may be enough for you, but it is not enough for me.

Despite the safeness and relative decentness of the filmmaking, I am furious this movie exists.  Because this is not enough.  YA fiction deserves better than this.  Frankly, it deserves better than The Hunger Games too, but even that had more satire and meaning to it than The Divergent Series.  I can name a thousand better dystopian SciFi novels in my sleep over these movies, but this is the one that is popular now (I think).  It is popular and marketable specifically because it has no substance and has no subversive statement to make of any kind.  If you are very religious and you find your children reading "The Handmaiden's Tale", you might get very offended.  Nobody is going to get offended at "Insurgent".  This is the film equivalent to a Maroon 5 song, it borrows the elements of serious artistic movements and statements, then regurgitates them back again in a clean package of "blah". 

Who needs agency or inspiration when you can have nothing but the same old thing over and over?  Society is just perfect right now, why would we want to satire it?

When it comes to these YA reviews I always go back to "Twilight", because between that is really where this wave of cheap romance and genre pictures all started***.  Everybody hated Twilight, it was our punching bag for years.  But Twilight stood for something, it had a force behind it.  Be it the threat of sexuality in preteen girls or the strange anti-abortion subtext or the treatment of male characters as nothing more than sex objects, these were all things.  They had reality to them, it meant something across pop culture.  "Insurgent" has nothing, except the most pointless of entertainment without love or care.

I cannot really imagine the kind of creature for whom "Insurgent" is enough.  But knowing they exist terrifies me worse than any dystopian fantasy.  Welcome to the Timid New World.

* And that was YA Adaptation Joke No #456.  I'm already going into reruns talking about these movies, Space Monkeys.

** Elgort was Shailene Woodley's romantic co-star in last year's "The Fault in Our Stars", where the two actually had fantastic chemistry and created a warm loving couple.  This was something I could not forget throughout the entirety of "Insurgent" when they are supposed to be brother and sister.

*** Well, also at Harry Potter, but those books were actually good, so there is not as much to discuss.

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