ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Following the assault on Abnegation by Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) and her mind-controlled Dauntless army, Eric Coulter (Jai Courtney) and his platoon are searching for an artifact that contains the symbols of all five factions. Upon receiving the artifact, Jeanine believes it may have a message from the city’s founders inside; however, only a Divergent can open the box, so she orders all Divergents to be tracked down and captured.

Meanwhile, Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller) have found shelter in Amity territory, but they’re eventually discovered by Eric. Luckily, Tris, Four and Caleb are able to escape and make their way to Factionless, a group led by Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who suggests that both Dauntless and Factionless join sides against Erudite to finally put an end to Jeanine’s control.

Okay, right now I am calling out this film’s bull shit. There’s a lot of belief I’m willing to suspend for the sake of entertaining cinema such as…

* A machine being reprogrammed and sent back in time to protect a young John Connor and his mother Sarah.
* A DeLorean capable of sending someone back in time once it reaches the speed of 88 mph.
* A friendly giant, vengeful Spaniard and charming, blonde farm boy on a quest to save the damsel in distress from a vain prince and his six-fingered henchman.
* A young underdog, wise old, green hermit, and a black masked part man/machine with the worst respiratory condition in the universe, all bound by a mystical power simply known as the Force.

However, there is no way in hell you can ever convince me that the young heroine of this story is capable of chopping off her own hair, wielding no mirror or comb, but only tetanus-infested scissors, and it somehow ends up looking like the cutest pixie cut you’ve ever seen on the cover of a high-profile fashion magazine.

If you’ve read my review of Divergent last year, you’d know that I wouldn’t have lost any sleep whatsoever if Insurgent arrived in theaters or not. It’s difficult for any film franchise, original or adapted, to win viewers over right out of the gate; it’s even more difficult to drop the ball with the first film, like this series did, and attempt to win them over a second time. Not only do you have to make up for the first film’s mess, you have to somehow achieve the near-impossible task of generating interest in the third film. A franchise trilogy done right can take its time over the course of the first two films. Squat out a turd the first time, you only get one more chance.

Insurgent doesn’t really make up for Divergent, nor does it generate any anticipation within me for Allegiant (which, of course, is gonna be split into two movies, starting in 2016). What I can say for this film is that it is an improvement over its predecessor, and if anything, a franchise trajectory of up, no matter how low its initial value is, will always be better than down.

From a macro perspective, this film still lacks its own identity, something the Hunger Games films were able to do right from the moment they began (the logo, Mockingjay theme, its marketability, and so on). In an era where studios are taking YA-novels and turning them into films left and right, it’s imperative that each film finds a way to stand out, or else it risks getting lost amongst the sea of other instantly forgettable young-adult movies. From a micro perspective, however, certain setpieces here are able to capture a greater sense of what their world is about. One that is highly effective centers on the Candor Faction, which features Daniel Dae Kim (TV’s Lost and Hawaii Five-O) as their chief justice. Director Robert Schwentke (Red, Flightplan) manages to build tension while Tris and Four are placed on trial and injected with a truth serum that forces them to be completely honest as they’re asked extremely difficult questions.

From a visual standpoint, Insurgent is a definite improvement over its stale predecessor, as it comes alive in the third-act when Tris undergoes a series of hallucinatory simulations in order to unlock the artifact. Schwentke provides an exciting array of visuals and action sequences (some of which owe a debt of gratitude to The Matrix), and it’s also during those moments that the wonderful Kate Winslet finally gets to provide a little more bit to her blandly written character. Winslet’s talent is far and away more deserving of better roles than this story’s drab villain, but she makes do with what she has here, and compared to how criminally wasted she was in the previous film, I can’t complain.

As for the characters, they still suffer a lackluster defeat like they experienced in the first film, though not as bad. Every now and then, an interesting character pops up briefly (Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts, both underused here), some key events provide a much-needed emotional spark between Tris and her brother Caleb, and, no surprise, Shailene Woodley gives 110% with her performance. Overall, though, the human interaction amongst all the characters is still what’s unfortunately missing from this series.

No one can doubt the effort Shailene Woodley puts in here, and veterans such as Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer, though underused, provide a bit more gravitas than this film deserves. However, though director Robert Schwentke improving upon Divergent’s mess by expanding the scope of the story, you kinda wish he and the writers expanded the characters’ depth as well. So, basically, while I’m not groaning about the third installment, I ain’t exactly jumping up and down for it now either.

I give Insurgent a C (★★½).

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