To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for Insurgent, the second movie in the Divergent trilogy based on Veronica Roth’s dystopian YA novels. The massive book was bogged down in Tris Prior’s self-loathing and self-sabotage, serving mostly as a link between the faction system in Divergent and the big, game-changing reveal that leads to Allegiant.
In the wake of Erudite (the intelligent faction, led by Kate Winslet as the faction-upholding Jeanine Matthews) enslaving the Dauntless army and using them to destroy selfless Abnegation, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Four (Theo James), and Peter (Miles Teller, having way too much fun with his role) are fugitives on the run, looking for shelter and allies in the other factions, which just want to protect themselves from more fracturing.
However, like the Hunger Games adaptations, Insurgent the movie manages to stand apart from its source material, with a leaner plot and clearer stakes. While some plot points are dispensed of and some of the nuance lost, Insurgent makes fascinating commentary on generational divides and clinging to the old ways, better depicting the breakdown of a dystopian society.
Warning: Minor plot spoilers—and one bigger spoiler, which I’ll warn for below.
The screenplay majorly streamlines the book, which dragged as Tris and co. went back and forth between factions to rally the troops. Tris’ faction-bouncing is not unlike Katniss Everdeen beginning Mockingjay in the alien environment of District 13. Except in this case, she’s getting a taste of how each faction organizes, protects, and judges itself and other factions. Like Katniss, Tris is already suffering some major PTSD from the events of only a few days prior. But whereas the book had the time to explore Tris’ screwed-up headspace, the necessity of racing forward with a movie plot gives short shrift to how she—who already had to change and access so much of herself for Dauntless—feels increasingly at odds with everyone else, especially Four.
I never thought I would be someone to complain about the lack of romantic drama in a movie (especially one based on a YA novel, which can be plenty problematic about love), but the wedges driving Tris and Four apart in the book didn’t make it to the screen. They don’t fight about her keeping secrets, and he’s too quick to sympathize with her reckless behavior. A lot of the frustration (but compelling frustration) of Insurgent the book was seeing Tris push away the remaining people in her life, and for Four to hit his own breaking point. Divergent didn’t shy away from showing Tris’ fears that Four would rape her; he’s meant to tell her how one of his four fears has changed from shooting an innocent woman to shooting Tris. Instead, it felt almost as if the screenwriters decided to de-escalate in favor of the plot.
Insurgent the book represented a system already broken beyond repair. Insurgent the movie seems to still be arguing in favor of the supposed benefit of the factions’ strict order. In Veronica Roth’s text, the factionless, considered the lesser of two evils, prove themselves to be just as dangerous as control freak Jeanine when they turn on their Dauntless allies. In the movie, the factionless are mostly toothless, peacefully working toward the greater good with only a hint at what Evelyn (Naomi Watts, getting her piece of the dystopian movie pie) is plotting.
Insurgent the movie spends much of its running time revisiting the factions who are still operating after the crack in the system caused by the events of Divergent. Sequences at Amity and Candor show factions who can still live in harmony, whether they’re wishing each other love and happiness over a potluck, or gaining genuine enjoyment from teasing out the nuances of truth. The entire Abnegation settlement has been razed to the ground, but there are always casualties of war, aren’t there? Dauntless’ loyalty is split, with soldiers taking opposing ideological sides. And it makes sense that the most selfless faction would serve as the sacrificial lamb. Even the Erudite, while trying to stamp out “the Divergent problem,” utilize their intelligence and focus in the way the Founders wanted them to do, 200 years ago when this experiment began.
Yes, Insurgent allows us to at least glimpse what might have existed, or still exist, beyond the walls surrounding this dystopian Chicago. In streamlining the narrative, the movie gives us quite a MacGuffin—a glowing box that can only be opened by a Divergent who can pass simulations from all five factions. That in and of itself is cool to witness, since Divergent only focused on the Dauntless sims that Tris had to pass. Those were a smorgasbord of fears, but testing for intelligence, forgiveness, truth, and kindness are just as difficult.
“Human nature is the enemy,” Jeanine coolly tells Tris in Divergent—but what is human nature but an amalgamation of all of these traits? Insurgent argues that you have to be able to master all five factions; so, the existence of the faction system was necessary, as it broke down and separated the individual traits before requiring that at least one person be able to embody all of them again.
The fracturing of the factions, with the citizens of Chicago wondering at the Founders’ motivations in this mysterious message, is also a commentary on the sins of our mothers and fathers. With regard to their parents, Tris and Four are suffering two very different dilemmas: She is still reeling from the sacrifices of her mother and father, yet wondering what secrets they didn’t share with her; while he has both parents very much alive, but representing the devil you know and the devil you don’t. (Though another consequence of the streamlining is that Four’s abusive father Marcus is virtually nonexistent, with more screentime handed over to Evelyn, trying to atone for her abandonment.)
In the same vein of the familiar danger versus the unfamiliar danger is Tris’ own self-image. One of the loveliest visual motifs in Divergent was Tris constantly coming up against her own reflection, when Abnegation had raised her to feel that looking in the mirror for too long meant vanity. In Insurgent, she’s back to avoiding her own face, which she now regards as this hateful person who brings about the death of everyone she loves. However, the movie makes a markedly different choice than the book with regards to Tris’ big showdown against herself. (Spoilers follow!) In the book, Tris must shoot her double—giving in to her desperation, and only prolonging her self-loathing but at least breaking down that temporary barrier to accessing the Founders’ message. In the movie, her final sim is for Amity, and involves her forgiving herself enough to not fight her double. It’s an unsurprising change, the kind of pat tying-up of threads to provide closure to one aspect of the plot.
I was going to say that I would have liked to see Jeanine and Tris as better-matched foes in this movie. But then I realized that Divergent was their chance to have a showdown in Dauntless space—with that badass moment where Tris throws a knife into Jeanine’s hand—and now they’re on Erudite turf. So much of Insurgent is them warily circling each other, and then Tris becoming Jeanine’s little lab experiment. Yet for all of her intelligence, Jeanine is like those parental figures who can’t get hip with the times—the times being pro-Divergent.
One of the quotes that stuck with me came from one of my favorite sequences, at Candor headquarters, still mostly untouched by the chaos between Dauntless and Abnegation. When Four protests his and Tris’ innocence, Candor leader Jack calmly responds, “That may be your truth, but it is not necessarily mine.” Even the non-Candor factions have operated under this same mentality, under different names: the end justifies the means, the greater good, etc. That may have worked for 200 years, but now they will be accountable to a greater authority. Allegiant should be good.