Monday, April 6, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Insurgent

Insurgent (or The Divergent Series: Insurgent as it's also known) was written by Brian Duffield, Mark Bomback and Akiva Goldsman and directed by Robert Schwentke. It's based on the novels by Veronica Roth, and is a sequel to 2014's Divergent.

Of the three screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman is the most recognizable name. Over the years he's written Batman Forever (Oy!), Batman & Robin (Double Oy!), Lost In Space (Oy Infinity!), Starsky & Hutch, I, Robot, Constantine, The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend, Jonah Hex, Paranormal Activity 2, 3 and 4, Lone Survivor and A Winter's Tale, all of which range from meh to terrifically awful. Yet he also wrote A Beautiful Mind, which won an Oscar. I guess the lesson here is that anyone can hit a homer if they swing at the ball enough times.

Schwentke previously directed Flightplan (meh), The Time Traveler's Wife (meh), RED (OK) and R.I.P.D. (OK).

I freely admit I haven't read any of the Divergent books, and was not a fan of the first movie. It felt like nothing more than a lukewarm rehash of The Hunger Games, complete with the same post-apocalyptic setting, the same female protagonist/audience surrogate, the same "rebels vs. the evil government" story line, and even a precise recreation of the Reaping ceremony. 

Even worse than the rampant unoriginality was the lack of stakes. In The Hunger Games, teens are forced to fight one another in gladiatorial combat for their very lives. Here the teens are made to... um, take an aptitude test and work in one of five predetermined fields. How horrible!

This film fares slightly better than the first though, ramping up the action quite a bit as it pits the various factions against one another for control. I could have done without all the tedious scenes of simulated realities though. Same with the "Secret Box" McGuffin that we've never seen or heard of before, that somehow holds the power to save or destroy the world.

The series could also do with much less of the Peter character. He switches allegiances so many times that I finally gave up trying to remember who's side he was on. Naturally since he's the most annoying person in the film, he'll never be killed off and we'll be forced to watch him switch sides all the way to the bitter end.

Two of the series' major villains are killed off in this installment, which seems like an odd thing to do this early. Now who's going to stand in Tris' way? They're gonna have to introduce some new villains, stat!

Lastly, this is one of those trilogies that's been dragged out into a quadrology, so the studio can make an extra hundred million bucks. So brace yourselves— we've still got two more films to go.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Picking up right where the previous film left off, Eric (played by Jai Courtney), the leader of the mind controlled Dauntless army, searches through the wreckage of the Abnegation Faction for the Hellraiser Puzzle Box, er, I mean the Divergent Box, that contains  the symbols of all five Factions. He finds it and takes it to Erudite leader Jeanine (played by Kate Winslet). Jeanine believes the box, which we've never seen or heard about before, contains a message from the city's founders that will tell her how to end the scourge of Divergents, who frankly only seem to be a problem because she says they are. Oh, and for some reason the box can only be opened by a Divergent, so she orders them all to be hunted down and brought to her, which I'm sure wasn't supposed to be a Biblical allusion. And with that, we now have our plot.

Tris (played by Shailene Woodley), Four (played by Theo James), Peter (played by Miles Teller) and Caleb hide out in the Amity commune. Tris, as you'll recall, is the heroine of the story and one of the dreaded Divergents. Oh, and she's also trying to overthrow the evil Faction System. Four is her boyfriend and fellow rebel, who got his ridiculous name because he has four fears or something. Caleb is Tris' useless brother, and Peter is the movie's Designated Asshole™— a character who hinders the hero's efforts for no other reason than because the script says so.

Jeanine tracks them to Amity, but Tris, Four and Caleb escape just in time, jumping aboard one of the ubiquitous trains that service this world. On board the train they just happen to meet a group of Factionless, people who don't fit into any of the Five Factions and have been banished from the city. Tris and Co. are about to be killed until Four reveals his true name just happens to be Tobias Eaton, which seems to mean something to the Factionless. 

The Factionless take the trio to their leader, who just happens to be Four's mother, the preposterously namedEvelyn Johnson-Eaton (played by an unrecognizable Naomi Watts). Evelyn was supposedly dead but apparently got better. She suggests that Dauntless join the Factionless to overthrow the evil Jeanine and the Erudite Faction. Apparently Evelyn forgot that Jeanine had Dauntless under mind control in the previous film.

Tris and Four get the hell out of there, but Caleb goes off to rejoin Erudite, which I'm sure won't come back to bite them in the ass later. Tris and Four go to Candor, where they're given truth serum and questioned about things we already know in an effort to pad out the run time. Dauntless, led by Eric, then attacks Candor, shooting everyone (including Tris) with mind controlling squibs that can't be removed. Four executes Eric, which seems an odd thing to do, since we still have two more movies to go.

Meanwhile, Peter has joined Erudite, helping Jeanine as she burns through Divergent subjects as she tries to get them to open the Hellraiser box. Jeanine believes Tris can open it, and Peter suggests killing off her comrades to force her out of hiding. Jeanine then uses the mind control squibs to do just that, and Tris turns herself in to Erudite to stop the killing. Four follows her, but is captured and imprisoned.

Jeanine hooks Tris up to a virtual reality simulator in order to open this all-important box. She opens four of the box's seals, but collapses from exhaustion and dies before she gets to the fifth. Jeanine is furious that she's once again been denied a peek into this amazing box. Peter wheels Tris' body out of the simulation room, and reveals that she isn't really dead, and he's switched sides again or something. They free Four from his cell, and he and Tris go back to the sim room so she can finally open the box.

She does so, and the message inside is finally revealed. A hologram of a woman explains that the walled city of Chicago and the whole Faction System is all one giant experiment, and that Divergents are the result. The world outside the wall is waiting for the Divergents to return. None of this makes the least bit of sense, but the characters all seem to buy it.

Jeanine realizes the message will undo the Faction System, and orders it buried. Just then, Evelyn and the Factionless enter, and arrest Jeanine. Evelyn shoots and kills Jeanine, which again seems odd, as there are still two movies to go.

Tris, Four and apparently everyone in the city head for whatever lies beyond the wall. To be continued...

Thoughts:
• I really wish author Veronica Roth would have used normal human words for the various Factions. OK, I know that Candor means "honesty," and Dauntless means "brave," but who the hell knows what "Abnegation" means without looking it up? And isn't "Amity" one of those door to door businesses like Avon?

Every time they mention the Faction names, I have to stop and think about what they mean, which draws my attention away from the story (such as it is). Just call them Honesty, Bravery, Sacrifice, Smarts and Peace and stop trying to impress everyone with the fact that you own a thesaurus.

• Do you like that cool topsy turvy poster? I have to admit it's a striking design. Tris looks just like Trinity in The Matrix, firing away as she falls hundreds of feet through the air. Too bad nothing even remotely like that happens anywhere in the film though.

• I was fascinated by the "double train" in the film, which consisted of two sets of boxcars, side by side, pulled by one engine on parallel tracks. I wonder if that would work in real life?

• I asked this question in my review of the first film, but it bears repeating. We're told the Faction system has been in place for at least two hundred years. So why is Chicago still filled with the ruins of bombed-out buildings? They couldn't have rebuilt the place in two hundred years? What the hell have they been doing all this time? Maybe they should have had a Construction Faction.

The only building in the entire city that appears to be new is the massive Erudite tower. Maybe it used up all the limited resources?

• Jeanine orders her Dauntless troops to infiltrate the Factionless compound and shoot them all with tiny implants. These implants can completely control a person's mind and body.

Jeanine uses the implants to cause several of the Factioneless to walk off a high ledge and kill themselves, knowing Tris will turn herself in to stop the "suicides."

If the implants have that much control over a person, why doesn't Jeanine just use the one in Tris's shoulder to force her to march straight to her headquarters? Why all the "killing innocents" drama?

UPDATE: I've been informed that the implants don't work on Divergents like Tris. So that explains that. They might want to clarify such things a bit more though.

• Get used to this image, because you'll be seeing it over and over and over in the film. Apparently the director reeeeeaally likes to see people crash through glass. Tris bursts through numerous windows and glass walls during her simulation, and several of the simulated people even shatter and fly apart!

• Take one part Hellraiser Puzzle Cube, one part The Fifth Element Stones, mix thoroughly and you'll have the Divergent Box. Seriously, look at that thing! It looks almost exactly like the Hellraiser Cube, with the addition of a few blue LEDs.

• The whole "Mystery Box" thing makes absolutely no sense to me. Follow me here. The Faction System was put into place two hundred years ago, in an effort to keep the peace after a devastating war. Jeanine believes the Box contains a message that's vital to the continued survival of the city. But for some reason, only a Divergent can open the box. You know, Divergents— the people who share the traits of all the various Factions, who are considered a threat to the System and are to be killed on sight?

Why the hell would a message that can save and protect the System need a wanted outlaw in order to open it? That's like a doctor injecting you with polio to cure your flu.

And if the message in the Box is so important to the continuation of the species, why make it so hard to open? Why does Tris have to endure and pass five painful simulated tests? Wouldn't it make much more sense if she just walked up to it, placed her hand on top and watched it pop open?

It doesn't make any more sense once the Box is finally opened, either. The message states that the City and the Faction System was created as an experiment, in order to produce Divergents. I think they're implying that Divergents are being created through selective breeding or something like that, but I'm not sure. And these Divergents, who posses traits of all five Factions, are somehow the key to survival, but only outside the Walls of the city.

If you understand any of that, congratulations!

• Once again we see a futuristic civilization with tons of high tech devices, but terrible looking holograms and video screens with what appears to be fifty lines of resolution. This is an old, old trope that happens in virtually every sci-fi film.

• What a difference a dye job makes! I honest to god didn't recognize Naomi Watts in the film until I saw her name in the credits.

• At the end of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (the second one, for those of you keeping score), I noted that Katniss and her little rebellion had their work cut out for them. Their various backward Districts had 1930s Dust Bowl technology and were going up against the futuristic, high-tech Capital.

Then in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (the third one), we were introduced to the previously unmentioned District 13, which was fully stockpiled with weapons, ammunition and thousands of highly trained soldiers. It was obvious that the writer pulled this particular revelation striaght out of her ass, so the Rebellion would have an equal chance against the Capital.

The exact same thing happens here. Most of the Factions look to be pretty low tech (especially Amity), and wouldn't stand a chance against the futuristic Erudite Class and their mind controlled Dauntless army. That's why the heroes just happen to meet up with the Factionless Clan, that just happens to have a well-stocked armory and thousands of willing rebel soldiers. What a coincidence!

Insurgent is a little better than its predecessor, but ultimately the stakes just aren't high enough to generate much concern for all the convoluted goings-on. I give it a B.

4 comments:

  1. "If the implants have that much control over a person, why doesn't Jeanine just use the one in Tris's shoulder to force her to march straight to her headquarters? Why all the "killing innocents" drama?"

    The implant doesn't work on divergents. The reason they shot them at everyone was to identify who was divergent, as they would be the only ones unaffected after being hit.

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  2. Ah. That would make sense then. I guess they needed to clarify that a bit more.

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  3. I work in the rail industry. That train wouldn't work unless it was on a separate dedicated track that didn't pass over other normal tracks. It would also create all kinds of problems with any curve, switches, etc. It could work for a straight line without any other tracks, but it would be kind of pointless. It wouldn't add any extra capacity as the locomotive could pull just as much on a single track as it would the double track. The double track would also be unusable for standard cars as the tracks are too close together and the cars would collide.

    So, you could probably make a train like that, but it would be so specialized and limited for not much benefit I doubt it would be made. The ONLY reason I could see it is if you had extremely large/wide loads to transport from an inland facility to a sea port. But for the way it was set up in the movie, no benefit to have it that way and significant design and operational challenges.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting! Thanks for the specialized info. I hadn't thought about how curves would affect the double train. And you're right, pulling two cars side by side is no different from pulling two in a row! I guess they did it because they thought it looked "kewl" and futuristic.

      I had a feeling that this train wouldn't work in reality, so it's nice to have it confirmed by an industry insider.

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