Friday, March 20, 2015

Insurgent: Incomprehensible

Insurgent (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for intense action and violence, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang

They’re all blending together.

Dystopian, post-apocalyptic societies cobbled together after some undefined catastrophe, and ruled by corrupt aristocratic elites; resourceful teenage rebels, blessed with special talents, determined to destroy the system, and forced to undergo cruel, violent and flat-out weird mental and/or physical trials; lots of running, jumping, shooting, and killing; the frequently shed tears.

Having been captured by Candor supervisor Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim, left), Tris
(Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James, center) propose a "trial by truth" to verify that
they're not civilization-destroying traitors, as has been claimed by the (genuinely) evil
Erudite leader.
I no longer know whether I’m watching the next installment of The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, or The Maze Runner.

And, frankly, I’m losing interest. Been there, endured that.

Sadly, the just-released Insurgent bears the brunt of my apathy, thanks primarily to the clumsy, tin-eared script credited to Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback. They’re a poor substitute for Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, who did a far superior adaptation of last year’s Divergent, the first film in Veronica Roth’s trilogy.

This new film resembles Roth’s second novel in little more than name; great, gaping chunks of exposition and numerous supporting characters have been lost or ignored, and significant plot points have been changed beyond recognition. Not that the narrative has much of a plot to begin with; this film is little more than running and fighting, whether in environments real or imagined.

Indeed, the latter crop up so frequently that it becomes difficult to distinguish whether Tris (Shailene Woodley) is in genuine danger, or being victimized by one of the evil “SIM” (simulation) environments, or whether we’re once again being suckered by another of her own nightmares.

The latter are particularly irritating cheats, and director Robert Schwentke opens with just such a sucker play: a rather blatant indication of the highly disappointing film to follow.

All of which is a shame, because Woodley gave us a particularly plucky, intelligent and engaging Tris in the first film: a heroine worthy of our respect and admiration, as she rallied when confronted by the truth of the world in which she lived. She’s much less admirable in this second outing, reduced to an insecure, reckless and weepy shadow of her former self.

I understand that this is driven, to a great degree, by the subtext in Roth’s second novel: Tris has become plagued by self-doubt, worried that she’s a “curse” to anybody foolish enough to befriend or love her. The crux of her evolution, in this saga’s second chapter, is the necessity of overcoming such anxiety: rejecting this doom-laden view of herself.

Unfortunately, Schwentke overplays the “despair” card; Woodley’s Tris cries too often, and our impatience soon overwhelms all else ... much the way we groaned over how Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss became so uncharacteristically impotent, in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. That just felt contrived and wrong, and the same is true here.

So, to recap:

Tris lives in a futuristic, walled-in and rubble-strewn Chicago, where humanity’s survivors have been divided into five “factions,” based on abilities, temperaments and (to a minor degree) personal preference. Members of the Abnegation faction are selfless, Amity are peaceful, Candor are honest, Dauntless are brave, and Erudite are intelligent. Children are given government-sponsored aptitude tests upon reaching maturity, and assigned to their (theoretical) ideal faction.

But some individuals, possessing attributes of multiple factions and therefore more intelligent and perceptive than the norm, are dubbed “divergent” and regarded as dangerous. Tris is one such aberration; the first film depicted this discovery, and her struggle to find a place among her own kind, and climaxed with a key victory against Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the power-hungry leader of the Erudite faction.

Being perceived as the most intelligent, the Erudites have long ruled this oddly splintered society. And you know what they say about absolute power corrupting absolutely...

As this film opens, Tris is on the run from an enraged Jeanine and her loyal Dauntless troops. Our heroine has taken shelter in the Amity settlement, along with her trusted companions: her lover, Tobias “Four” Eaton (Theo James); her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort); and the unpredictable Peter (Miles Teller), whose allegiance seems shaky, at best.

Elsewhere, Jeanine has obtained a mysterious, five-sided box that she’s convinced contains a message with the key to the future. But the box can be unlocked only by a divergent possessing qualities of all five factions ... and it isn’t hard to guess who that’ll be.

Cue an endless series of chases and battles, during which Tris and Ford display an impressive ability to dodge high-tech weapon fire. Enter some new sidebar characters: Johanna (Octavia Spencer), in charge of the Amity clan; Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim), head of the Candor clan; Evelyn (Naomi Watts), leader of a “factionless” enclave that shares Tris’ desire to eliminate Jeanine; and Edgar (Jonny Weston), Evelyn’s second-in-command.

And, whoops: Evelyn also turns out to be Four’s mother, until now believed dead. As might have been said in an iconic 1960s TV series, Holy suspicious coincidence, Batman!

Returning familiar faces include Eric (Jai Courtney), the most vicious of the Dauntless pursuers; Max (Mekhi Phifer), a somewhat more sympathetic Dauntless soldier; Tori (Maggie Q), Tris’ former mentor; and Christina (Zoë Kravitz), Tris’ best friend.

I think back to the rich rapport that Woodley and Elgort shared in the big-screen adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and I despair; Insurgent doesn’t give us a single relationship with anything approaching that verisimilitude.

All the actors do their best with the frequently ludicrous dialogue. Schwentke apparently deems credibility less important than visual effects supervisor James Madigan’s impressive CGI sequences, which bring Tris’ nightmares and SIM landscapes to life. And that rapidly becomes a problem, because we can watch Chicago’s buildings and environs get shattered only so many times, while simultaneously wondering, “But wait; what about ... and this ... and that...”

As one example:

Roughly midway through the action, Tris and scores of new Candor allies get shot with nasty, mind-controlling “pellets” that bury beneath the skin and wrap their “tails” around vital organs. We’re told that attempting to remove these gadgets will kill the human host. Jeanine now has the ability to force innocents to (for example) jump to their deaths: a threat she employs to force Tris’ hand.

Well, let’s see ... given Jeanine’s ruthless ambitions, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to dispense with idle threats, and simply order all the afflicted victims to commit suicide? That’d reduce the rebel ranks pretty quickly, donchathink?

Worse yet, and not much later along, we’re suddenly told that somebody “figured out a way” to safely remove those nasty pellets. Do tell? An obviously important detail like that, and it occurs off-camera, practically as an afterthought?

The whole film lurches gracelessly like that, along with all sorts of shifting alliances. Somebody who’s good now turns bad later, and vice-versa ... seemingly for no reason. Caleb endures the worst of such caprice, and poor Elgort can’t begin to make this kid look or sound convincing.

And that’s what it comes down to. Everything about this script feels rushed and made up as it goes along, which definitely isn’t the case with Roth’s source novel. She must be quite frustrated, and I’m sure her fans will be; this Insurgent is an irritating shadow of its literary self.

Fantasy stories absolutely must establish rigorously comprehensive rules, and then stick to them. This film does neither.

As has become typical Hollywood custom, in the wake of the Harry Potter series, Roth’s third book will hit the big screen in two installments: Allegiant Part 1 and Part 2, in (respectively) 2016 and ’17. Schwentke appears to be returning for the first half, at least, which I deem unfortunate. Unless the script falls into better hands, it’ll be difficult to care.

Just as it’s almost impossible to get involved in this crazy-quilt second chapter.

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