“Insurgent,” the second film taken from Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” book trilogy, forces the achingly authentic young star Shailene Woodley into awkward acting moments to fit its sci-fi contrivances.
At such points, you wish Woodley, who was stellar in “The Descendants,” “The Spectacular Now” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” were not tied to this poor-woman’s “Hunger Games.”
Long and violent but lacking narrative momentum, “Insurgent” (opening Thursday night) is an inferior sequel to the already mediocre “Divergent,” released last year. Yet two more movies from the book trilogy are expected.
Director Robert Schwentke (“R.I.P.D.,” “Flightplan,” other bad movies), taking over from “Divergent” director Neil Burger, lends more visual luster to the sequel and shows skill in orchestrating a few exciting, effects-heavy scenes. But he does not prevent “Insurgent” from sometimes just seeming silly. That does not happen with the “Games” films, despite a similarly preposterous premise.
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Jennifer Lawrence also fits her “Games” role better than Woodley does hers as Tris, a “divergent” who qualifies in more than one of the neat personality categories the dystopian government uses to maintain control of its subjects.
Slim and not particularly athletic-looking, Woodley brought an every-girl quality that worked for “Divergent.”
When faction-choosin’ time came, Tris left the reasonable, civil-servant Abnegation faction in which she grew up for the daredevil Dauntless faction. As Tris jumped from trains and fought big men, Woodley let us see the effort expended, lending greater impact to the character’s feats. Tris’ eventual acceptance into the Dauntless ranks after a series of tests was hard-earned and satisfying.
But dystopia dictates that any sense of triumph is fleeting. By the first film’s end, Tris’ parents were dead as part of an attempted coup by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), steely head of the Erudite (smart people) faction.
“Insurgent” opens with Tris supposedly now an emotionally hardened fighting machine who wants Jeanine dead. In other words, Tris, her origin story complete, is less interesting and also less believable, because Woodley cannot pull off the tough-as-nails part.
Yet Tris is a key player in the fisticuffs and gunplay that dominate this movie, as Tris and boyfriend and Dauntless instructor Four (Theo James), along with other freedom fighters – all branded dangerous fugitives by Jeanine – try to elude the authorities and stop Jeanine.
Though full of altercations, the film lacks a story arc. Its takeaway is that Jeanine is power-mad. But as fun as it is to see Winslet move further along the Joan Crawford scale (a journey that started with “Heavenly Creatures” and really picked up steam with the HBO “Mildred Pierce” remake ), we knew that piece about Jeanine in the first film.
Pitting Woodley against Winslet also emphasizes how hard Woodley isn’t. Their characters’ interactions carry the quality of a wet noodle facing off against a brick wall.
Some of that is essence, not acting. But acting becomes an issue for Woodley when the movie requires her to perform in ways that do not serve her naturalistic style.
Woodley really puts her back into a scene in which Tris tries to keep suppressing the truth even though she has been given a serum that compels her to be honest. The sequence becomes laughable, in part because Woodley seems intent on embodying physically Tris’ internal struggle against the serum. She also seems lost in a scene in which Tris faces a mirror image of herself.
It’s hard to imagine any actress shining within these setups, though, with the exception of Patty Duke in the latter.
It’s hard to watch Woodley falter when “Insurgent” offers reminders of better performances she has given in better movies. Her “Spectacular” co-star Miles Teller brings a much-needed light touch as wise-cracking Peter, Tris’ Dauntless antagonist in the first film and an ambiguous figure here.
The soulful Ansel Elgort, Woodley’s “Fault” co-star, also returns from “Divergent” as Tris’ brother, who is an Erudite member but who goes on the run with his sister.
These former on-screen love interests show more chemistry with Woodley than James does. It doesn’t help that James’ acting style goes thusly: scowl, brood, scowl. But it’s mostly chemistry.
As in the first film, he looks too old for Woodley, though they are seven years apart. He has an old-soul quality and she looks younger than she is.
An implied sex scene between Four and Tris lacks sparks and, like this film’s ample violence, seems a bit advanced for a film taken from a YA book series.
James does show chemistry with Winslet and with Naomi Watts, who is fierce here as a rebel leader. But Watts also is playing Four’s mother, which, along with Elgort playing Woodley’s brother, moves us into weird territory when discussing chemistry.
Winslet’s and Watts’ prominent roles, along with a briefer appearance by Octavia Spencer as leader of the peaceful Amity faction, make this the most female-driven entry in the dystopian-cinema sweepstakes. That would be a great thing if this were a good movie.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
THE DIVERGENT SERIES: INSURGENT
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet, Theo James, Naomi Watts, Ansel Elgort
Director: Robert Schwentke
Rated PG-13 (intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language)