So, Shailene Woodley cut her hair.
Haunted by the events of Divergent, in which she was responsible for the deaths of three people important to her, Woodley’s character Tris Prior arms herself with a pair of scissors and a mirror near the beginning of Insurgent. Okay, sure. But, one quick question: Why? Logistically, the haircut does nothing but transform the film’s recognizable star into a doppelgänger of a timid high school boy (come on, that was your initial reaction too).
As the movie’s plot charged forward and I continued to scratch my head (which has hair only slightly shorter than Woodley’s, btw) over this seemingly insignificant question, the more I realized that even the film itself didn’t know the answer. Female characters chopping their hair as a symbol of strength is the “cool new trend” in film and TV. Look at Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra, in which its title character stopped by the barbershop after a traumatizing near-death encounter. Kristen Bell did it as Veronica Mars. Allison Pill on The Newsroom. Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men. Heck, even the female protagonist of the Pokemon anime did it recently (not that I… watch that).
Director Robert Schwentke seemed to throw in the haircut just because it was the preordained accepted thing to do (side note: it wasn’t addressed in the book). Just as the film’s characters flee from faction to faction, looking for somewhere to call home, so too does the film’s overall emotional and visual tone, inconsistently hopping around to explore which style will make it popular with the crowded young adult market.
The film’s breakneck plot is a lot more dynamic this time around, thanks to the book’s genuinely interesting story. It’s also a lot harder to follow. We return to our dystopian city divided into five “factions” as Erudite leader Jeanine, played by Kate Winslet, issues an order to capture all Divergent (people who fit into more than one faction), because a box she found containing a message from the city’s founders can only be opened by one. This means trouble for the divergent Tris as well as her traveling companions, boyfriend Caleb (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and frenemy Peter (Miles Teller).
The group first settles in Amity, the farmers of the city who believe in peace, lead by Johanna (Octavia Spencer, briefly and inexplicably). The scenery is a nice change of pace from the previous film’s near-monochrome set (much of it is set in the gray, dreary city or beneath it). Perhaps Insurgent’s biggest improvement is a deeper exploration into its dystopian setting – the audience gets a tour of Amity, as well as Candor and a factionless camp, comprised of people who do not fit in any section, as Eric (Jai Courtney) chases Tris and Four through the factions.
Unfortunately, attempting to establish an atmosphere is also the film’s greatest stumble. One of the few things the Divergent series has to offer that we can’t find done better in The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner is the hallucinations frequently induced to characters via some plot-relevant serum, usually serving as a gateway to a bulky, CGI-reliant action sequence. They could easily set Divergent apart if done correctly. However, Schwentke has completely failed to set up consistent, digestible laws of physics for which these visions abide.
While they are supposed to be told with dreamlike fluidity, it’s hard for the audience to become invested in these action sequences simply because we can’t trust them. In one, Tris will smash into a wall and be injured. Later, Tris can hit the same wall in the same way, and it will result in a surreal rubble explosion behind her as she remains unhurt. Eclectic in physics as well as visual style (the CGI is atrociously blurry), these action sequences are both confusing to look at and offer almost no thrill – they are, after all, just visions, meaning there are no actual stakes for when a character is injured in one.
Stars Elgort and Teller have both experienced recent success outside the franchise – Elgort became an overnight heartthrob after The Fault in Our Stars, and Teller lead Oscars pet Whiplash. The script responds thusly, giving their characters arguably larger roles than their book counterparts, while it squeezes down on nearly anything else. Meanwhile, male lead James is still featured prominently, and deservedly so, but his role is mostly stripped to asking Tris if she’s okay every other minute. The film even scaled back on the Tris/Four romance – besides a scene here or there, the relationship is hardly addressed directly, mostly just a vague background presence.
The film is a response to pop culture surrounding it, designed too much around the audience rather than the film itself. Thusly, it fails to stick out from any preordained factions, even when it has the chance. One last piece of evidence – despite having to leave many of the book’s events on the cutting room floor (the plot is drastically altered/reduced from the novel), the series still opted to split its final book into two films rather than the second, which arguably contains double the plot points and excitement. Do we know any other series that have pulled this?
We can hope Schwentke will use the extra space to flesh out this setting we’ve been dragged through with little understanding for two films now, but personally, I’m expecting drawn-out sequences of Woodley cutting her hair.