Sequels are not well loved creatures for the most part.
Suffering from the law of diminishing returns, they are often Xerox copies of the much more memorable film that preceded them, riffing on the same ideas with the same characters and often same narrative devices, with nothing like the import or effect of the original.
But sometimes, sequels can surprise, as is the case with the second film in the adaptation of Veronica Roth’s dystopian young adult Divergent series, Insurgent, a film which takes what came before it, and enlarges on it in compelling ways, forging a muscular tale of being true to who you are and what you believe in, even in the face of a powerfully belligerent ruling apparatus that treats you as little more than an enemy to be vanquished.
Gone is the sclerotic stop/start storytelling of Divergent, a film that valiantly tried to forge a coming of age tale in apocalyptic times but failed in large part, drained of any real sense of urgency by a narrative that went too small and too inconsequential early on.
In stark contrast, Insurgent bursts out of the gate with sound and fury signifying a great deal of something, very early on in the piece.
The rural bucolic Amity idyll in which an angrily-hairstyled Tris (Shailene Woodley), and lover Four (Theo James) and the rest of the newly-minted rebels are hiding – Amity (The Peaceful) are one of the rather awkwardly-named five factions that make up the societal structure of the walled-off city on the edge of a ruined Chicago along with Abnegation (The Selfless), Erudite (The Intelligent), Dauntless (The Brave) and Candour (the honest) – is raided by thugs sent by the city’s ruthless leader Janine (Kate Winslet), forcing the supposed subverters of the established order to go on the run.
Though they are not directly searching for Tris at that point, the regret-filled heroine of the tale is acutely aware she is effectively a target, not simply because she is Divergent, a rare individual who is the sum of all the factions in one and thus extremely powerful, but because she has dared to challenged a power structure in which Janine is a staunch believer.
A staunch believer indeed, one that she will do anything to uphold, even if it means resorting to the sort of underhanded, cruel tactics that could well white ant it far faster than Tris’s slowly moving rebellion which at the time of the raid is barely much of anything beyond a desire to enact revenge on Janine for killing people near and dear to the such as Tris’s parents.
It isn’t until Four aka Tobias Eaton unwillingly reunites with his estranged mother, Evelyn (played by an under-used Naomi Watt) , leader of the ostracised, margin-dwelling Factionless that the fightback against Janine and her corrupt and often deadly practices gather some steam; although even then it isn’t until Tris gives herself up to Janine to be used in the opening of a mysterious box that contains a message from the Founders of the City, one Janine is sure will cement her authority, that things will get under way in any serious fashion.
Even in the face of a glacially-paced rebellion, Insurgent bristles with all kinds of anticipation and tension, a sense that something is about to change and change markedly, thanks in part to a well-paced script by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback and expert direction by Robert Schwentke who, in amping up the action, doesn’t forgo the sort of character moments integral to a well-crafted dystopian thriller.
And when Tris isn’t graphically battling her way through the mysterious box’s five fairly full-on CGI-heavy simulations – one for each of the five factions, which is why only a Divergent of her purity stands any chance of successfully working her way through all of them – or making turncoat Peter (gleefully played with anti-hero scene-stealing vigour by Miles Teller) pay for his treachery, there are intimate moments aplenty between a host of different characters.
It’s this focus on the characters every bit as much as the action that sets a vitally alive Insurgent apart from its rather lacklustre, though enjoyable, predecessor.
While the exact trajectory of Tris and Four’s nascent rebellion isn’t clearly marked out at first, you are always certain that intense emotions, both personally and societally-based, run deep especially in our tortured heroine, and that they will have to find an out at some point.
That they eventually do isn’t a surprise, nor really is the nature of her confrontations with Janine or the way in which she handles the simulations and the opening of the box, whose contents could well doom whatever challenge she wants to mount to the powers that be; what does cause a gasp of genuine surprise (to those who haven’t read the best-selling book series of course) is what the box actually ends up containing in its almost un-openable depths.
The journey to this great revelation, which fundamentally alters the landscape of power in the city, along with some nicely timed advances by a motley coalition of cross-factional rebels, is the sort of rollicking, character-rich ride that every thriller of this genre should be, a reminder that it is possible to have your screen-grabbing action sequences and your poignant moments of rich humanity too.
The good news is that Schwentke is back for the third film in the franchise, Allegiant, Part 1 in 2016 – yes they are pulling the old split the final book up into two moneymaking sequels trick – which means we can look to more taut, intelligent and well-executed dystopian storytelling well into our immediate not-yet-apocalyptic future.