Insipid "Insurgent" Sinks Like A Stone

The only highlights to be found in “Insurgent” are in star Shailene Woodley’s cropped hair, a ‘do unwittingly symbolic of the cut-rate film it inhabits. Producers have taken a scissors to everything that made last year’s “Divergent” vaguely watchable, with director Neil Burger vacating that role in favor of Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan,” “R.I.P.D.”) and the project’s team of screenwriters stealing away screen time from the ensemble’s most deserving members.

Adapted from the second book in Veronica Roth’s trilogy of teen novels, “Insurgent” retains its predecessor’s impeccable cast while adding a few top-flight talents to the fold. With Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort both coming off the titanically successful “The Fault In Our Stars” and Miles Teller riding high from his leading role in “Whiplash,” the series’ youth movement seemed ready to stand toe to toe with its heavyweight antagonist – Kate Winslet.

The sequel sees protagonist Tris Prior (Woodley) on the run from the dastardly Jeanine (Winslet), with boyfriend Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Elgort), and frenemy Peter (Teller) in tow. While the quartet hides out in a commune on the outskirts of post-apocalyptic Chicago, Jeanine works to unlock a magic box that she hopes will extinguish those who threaten the hierarchy of her society – one that remains divided by personality-based factions.

Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) and Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts (“21 Grams”) each make their series debut in bite-size roles – Spencer as the leader of the peaceful faction Amity, Watts as Four’s estranged mother. They’re both welcome additions, but with the surplus of characters, screen time is spread so thin that no one makes any impact. Not even Woodley, who grimaces her way through what’s easily her worst performance to date. Worse yet, the previous film’s most enjoyable character – Christina (Zoe Kravitz) – is a mere footnote here.

The plot’s mechanics are timed like crosswalks, every move agonizingly linear, with a climax that’s the pinnacle of wheel spinning. Tris fights her own reflection, a dark version of herself that may or may not exist in the real world. But it hardly matters. By that point the movie has stockpiled indifference, within us, its characters, and ostensibly everyone involved in the project.

It’s not just that “Insurgent” suffers from a bad case of aimless middle film syndrome. It’s that it bleeds together with other non-descript young-adult fare, with entire scenes that could fit comfortably into the world of “The Maze Runner” or “After Earth” or even its main competition, the decreasingly interesting ‘Hunger Games” series.

Film adaptations of young adult novels are inherently risk-averse ventures, but they’re rarely this spiritless. “Insurgent” is standing water, non-potable for even the most fervent of fans. It’s easy to blame the director – Robert Schwentke is no stranger to bad movies – but all signs point to a conglomeration of bad decision makers. Here’s to rounds 3 and 4 (trilogy capper “Allegiant” will be divided in two) finding some spark. Any spark.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 20, 2015
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenwriters: Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback, Brian Duffield
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language)