There was always something ugly at the heart of the wish-fulfillment in the Divergent series — everybody except me is one dimensional, because I'm special! But where the first movie managed to turn this into a weirdly sweet adventure about trying fit in, the sequel just goes full-on narcissistic. And dreary.

Spoilers ahead...

Divergent and Insurgent are based on books by Veronica Roth, which came out in the middle of the dystopian young-adult book blitz that followed Hunger Games. I haven't actually read the books, but I quite liked the first movie. And I was impressed by how much the first movie managed to make the series' dotty premise hold water. Divergent was surprisingly fun and exciting.

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Too bad I can't say the same for the sequel, Insurgent.

So in case you missed the premise, in the Divergent series, there's been a catastrophe and the human race has basically turned into Smurfs. (In the sense of everybody only having one defining characteristic, not in the sense of being tiny and blue.) You can be Brave, or Humble, or Brainy, or Friendly, or Truthful. Everybody has to choose one of those five things to be, for the rest of their life. And there are personality tests, to help you decide.

But our hero, Tris, is Divergent, meaning she can't be fully defined by one single adjective. This makes her a threat to the social order.

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In the first movie, the Brainy people engineered a coup, mind-controlling the Brave people to wipe out the Humble people. And now, in this new movie, the leader of the Brainy faction, Jeanine, blames the Divergent people, like Tris, for the massacre, and her people are hunting Tris down. Jeanine (Kate Winslet, with wonderfully severe hair) is trying to consolidate her hold on power.

But that's not the main plot of the movie. The story, this time around, really has to do with Tris going through lots and lots of bad therapy.

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Terrible, Terrible Therapy. Really Terrible.

Part of what seems to be going on with Insurgent is someone going, "Hey, everybody liked the personality tests in Divergent. What if the second installment is just one long personality test?" And indeed, this whole film is just one long dreadful therapy session. Every other character does his or her utmost to help Tris get over her issues.

See for yourself:

For much of the film, Tris and her boyfriend Four travel around from one faction to the next. They start out at the Amity faction, then make pitstops with the "factionless" people and the Candor faction. And wherever they go, people try to help Tris get over her issues. Including a lengthy sequence when the Candor people give Tris a kind of "truth serum" which forces her to reveal her innermost trauma (and guilt) to everybody who's standing around watching.

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There are many, many extreme closeups of Tris (Shailene Woodley) doing a "tormented laugh-cry" expression while processing her guilt and self-loathing. (As opposed to self-abnegation, because she left that faction behind.)

It doesn't help that every single faction's headquarters, this time around, looks like a cult compound. There's a very creepy vibe from the Amity and Candor people, which probably isn't quite as intentional as it is with the Erudite people. In general, a certain amount of grittiness has been leached out of the post-apocalyptic city this time around — although the long shots of the ruined Chicago are way more beautiful and well-realized this time, there's less of a sense of urban desolation in any of the shots involving actors.

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And when Tris isn't having long therapy sessions with various authority figures, she's having dream sequences. Some of the clumsiest dream sequences I've seen in ages, in fact, and they go on and on.

It all culminates in a storyline where the villain, Jeanine, has a McGuffin that will only work if Tris achieves catharsis. And so that's the whole second half of the movie: the villain trying to make the heroine work through her issues. This is done via having tubes inserted into Tris's back, which put her into a virtual reality therapy-scape that looks a lot like her earlier dream sequences, except with more CG confetti.

I think that's one reaosn why this movie fails so horribly: Most of the time, a movie can have dream sequences or virtual-reality illusions. You really have to pick one. Especially if the dream sequences and the VR simulations are covering a lot of the same topics.

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Our first clue to how self-absorbed Tris is going to be this time around comes early on, when she cuts off her beautiful long hair — and the film cuts to a hundred birds screaming in agony and taking flight, as if they've heard the unbearable sadness of Tris' hair follicles.

Dystopia, Dat-topia

There are a few assorted moments, here and there, where the dystopian setting feels effective and fleshed-out. The opening shot is terrific: a closeup of Kate Winslet, spouting propaganda on a video screen, which slowly pans out to reveal that the screen is on an armored vehicle which is part of the search for Tris and her friends, in the middle of a barren landscape. Uniformed thugs stomp around nearby, as we see other screens attached to other vehicles.

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In assorted moments like that one, the repressive regime feels as though it has some teeth. And the dystopian setting feels somewhat immersive. But the longer the film goes on, the more the bad guys start to feel like Keystone Kops, and the more the dystopia feels like a painted backdrop. And later in the film, the villains are forced to resort to cartoon-villain blackmail schemes in their efforts to entrap Tris — schemes which turn out to be laughably easy to defeat. Which is really the acid test of dystopia: if the mechanisms of social control feel flimsy instead of monolithic, then we're done.

And it turns out that the elaborate personality tests in the first movie weren't even necessary — because the bad guys have neat handheld devices that scan you in a few seconds and then "ping" if you're divergent. They even register exactly how divergent someone is, expressed as a percentage. It's an exact science!

The whole thing is filmed in a sort of washed-out, monochromatic style that's either beige or blue, as our heroes move through the wasteland on their way from one compound to the next. In the first movie, you bought into the faction system largely because it seemed as though all of the characters on screen did, and it had a certain amount of internal logic that carried everyone along. But this time around, that's mostly gone.

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Another big part of the problem is that the supporting cast, who were a big part of making all of this work the first time around, are mostly reduced to window-dressing. Especially people like Mekhi Phifer and Maggie Q, who stand in the background and react to stuff.

All snarking aside, Divergent had a point to make about the evils of pigeon-holing people, and the ways that peer-group conformity is a tool of social control for those in charge. But this time around, the dystopia feels both flimsier and more ill-defined, and there seems to be less of a point to it. Meanwhile, the plot twists keep getting more random and nonsensical — so that by the time you reach the end of the film and a huge reveal, it just feels like one more piece of nonsense.

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All in all, this time around, hell isn't people trying to force you to choose a rigid path in life. Instead, hell is watching someone else go through therapy, over and over.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.

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