When is the terrorist truly a freedom fighter? Who gets to measure the greater good? How many trippy visual effects can be stuffed into one movie?
These and other weighty questions are at the center of “Insurgent,” the perilously convenient second film in the “Divergent” franchise which, while far from perfect, has a crackling energy that can't be denied. Most of the credit for that has to go to star Shailene Woodley, who has a wonderful knack for making even the most unreal moments seem real.
“Insurgent” is the second installment in the “Divergent” franchise, which can easily and rightfully be seen as a poorer cousin of “The Hunger Games.” Both series center on young women bringing an unjust future society to its knees while dealing with young love, family and the question of what's next.
But the scrambled, busy convolutions of “Divergent” make “The Hunger Games” look downright elegant. Woodley stars as Tris, a young woman growing up in the ruins of Chicago, where society has been broken into a handful of factions, each serving a specific purpose and balancing the others.
In the first film Tris opted to join the quasi-military Dauntless faction, even though she knew she was actually a Divergent – a rare person with traits from all factions. When the leader of the brainy Erudite faction, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), tried to wipe out Dauntless and take over all the factions, Tris got in the way.
As “Insurgent” opens Tris, her boyfriend Four (Theo James), her reticent Erudite brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and a weaselly tag-along, Peter (Miles Teller), have all taken refuge outside the city with the pacifist agrarian faction. But Jeanine has uncovered some sort of magic box – this is the sort of series where magic boxes suddenly show up – that only a Divergent can open. So she sends her storm troopers out to find one.
This gets Tris's group running again. Miraculously they meet up with Four's long-thought-to-be-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the leader of an underground movement of misfits. Eventually Tris realizes she needs to have a showdown with Jeanine because, well, Jeanine is just plain evil.
All of which sounds terribly awkward but somehow isn't a lot of the time. Director Robert Schwentke keeps the visuals mostly dazzling – as in the first film Tris has a number of induced hallucinations – but he's wise enough to realize the movie is all on Woodley (the camera rarely leaves her) and she's more than capable, especially with her new can-do short haircut, of pulling it off.
It helps that she's surrounded by talent. Watts – joining the club of Great Actors in young adult fantasies that includes Winslet, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and others – doesn't have much to do but she does it very well. Winslet is icy perfection. And the producers must be thrilled they signed up meteoric talents Teller and Elgort before they caught fire.
Most of the story's weaknesses and clumsy turns come from the original novels written by Veronica Roth, although a trio of screenwriters have smoothed many of the ragged edges. Schwentke has to rely on a fairly relentless pace to run right over some of the silliness, although the film's just-in-the-nick-of-time climax is fairly laughable.
Still, the action sequences are well done, some of the visuals are spectacular, and at it's heart “Insurgent” is wrestling with some very basic questions about ambition and human interaction. In the long run this franchise will always play second fiddle to “The Hunger Games,” but at least it has a fiddle to play.
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language