As moviegoers, we will always have to make some concessions with a book-to-movie adaptation. We have to understand that what worked for the book won’t always translate to the big screen for any number of reasons, and that we will all never agree on one perfect actor or which tiny details deserved to be wedged into the script. And that’s fine, because at the end of the day we’re all looking for a story that not only makes sense for the medium in which it is told but also entertains us. “Insurgent“ accomplished neither of those.
“Insurgent” is the sequel to the previous 2014 movie “Divergent,” based on the series of books of the same name. Directed by Robert Schwentke, the movie stars Shailene Woodley as Tris Prior and Theo James as Tobias “Four” Eaton. “Insurgent” follows their story as they try to survive the civil war brewing in their isolated dystopian city of Chicago and restore peace to its ever-divided factions.
Whether you read the books or not won’t make much difference because “Insurgent” drew very little from its source material and shot itself in the foot. And we’re not talking something you could fix with enough time and some stitches. The foot is gone, “Insurgent” shot it clear off and there is no salvaging any of it.
This movie was desperate to be so many things. It wanted to be an action-packed thriller like “The Hunger Games” franchise, so it added clichéd and flat out silly fight sequences. It also tried to be a clever high-tech dystopia like “The Giver” by inventing unnecessary and convoluted technology when none of it was present in the books. It even tried to mimic childhood favorites like “Harry Potter,” which perfected our generations’s idea of young friendship-turned-love against the backdrop of war, but instead gave us out of character and often squirm-in-your-seat levels of awkward love scenes. Worst though, I would say easily 70% of the movie had nothing to do with the book.
I enjoyed “Divergent.” It was by no means completely faithful to the book, but it was entertaining, exciting and well-acted while still capturing the overall tone of its source material. “Divergent” was directed by Neil Burger and he truly made it his own, but the decision for Schwentke to take over the sequel was a terrible choice. It left Schwentke with the impossible chore of inserting important characters and scenes left out of the first movie that the movie’s franchise couldn’t feasibly skip over. Burger had already had a clear vision and script of his own in the works for “Insurgent” to fix those mistakes. Without the proper background, Schwentke’s attempt to catch up was a choppy, strangely-paced, genericized mimic of other, better book-to-movie adaptations.
Acting skill was not an issue here. Even a cast of this calibre can only do so much with a flawed script and poor direction. However, from the purely aesthetic standpoint of a reader, casting was a major flaw throughout the franchise as a whole. I can’t dispute Woodley is a talented actress, though she is an obnoxious person in real life. If I closed my eyes while she was talking, she portrayed a believable Tris, but she did not even begin to look the part of the character. Book-Tris is short, built like a slim boy, described as not being exceptionally pretty. These are all major components to her overall character and how she is constantly over-looked, underestimated and afflicted with a deep-seated need to prove herself. Movie-Tris tries to convey all of this, and to her credit Woodley nearly gets us there, but she’s still tall and conventionally beautiful, so it’s a hard sell. James kicked up the same issues in his portrayal of Four. Like Woodley, he played the personality and emotion well, but he doesn’t look the right age. He’s attractive and stoic enough for the part, but at the end of the day he is still a thirty year old playing an eighteen year old. Naomi Watts also didn’t quite fit the part of Four’s mother, Evelyn. She looked more akin to his sister than anything because of her age. Not to mention she’s also a white-washed version of Evelyn as the book describes her as a character of Italian descent and with a dusky complexion. I’m all for casting the most talented actors, and I get that I’m being nit-picky with how everyone looked, but a lot more effort from casting directors to cast actors that at least somewhat resemble the characters would be greatly appreciated.
Was this movie terrible? No. “Insurgent” wasn’t boring by any means, and it stuck to safe, tried and true tropes that are sure to keep you interested. But that was the problem. It knew who it was trying to please, and it had enough of a broad scope to pander to a general audience. While it wasn’t daring, it certainly will keep the masses moderately entertained—if condescended to—without having to think too hard. There is plenty of funny dialogue (mostly intentional), and the main cast is both talented and very pretty to look at. But with poor direction, headache inducing CGI and a ridiculous and convoluted plot from start to finish, I’m insulted that Schwentke could turn in this work and call it his best effort.
Verdict: 1.5/5 stars