“Insurgent”: Postive Essentialism

Dystopian Young Adult stories have to be one of the most frustrating things in modern entertainment. On one hand, these stories share the spirit of “The Twilight Zone” by plopping characters into various kinds of utopias/high concepts, using said characters to reveal the cracks within them. I can dig that because who doesn’t like the idea of being that one person who joins a group of badasses trying to bring down the New World Order in the name of freedom (or, at least, try to survive in one piece)? In the right hands, this can be good, even subversive (“Battle Royale”, “Animorphs”, “The Hunger Games”…well, ok, The Last Psychiartrist apparently thinks not, but whatever).

On the other hand, a lot of works (dystopian Sci-Fi included) are made to seize on what is popular at the moment and little else. They either try to do different things but bungle the execution, or are similar to what came before but mess up in ways showing just how much the people behind the copycat missed the point. “Insurgent” manages to fall into both categories at once. To give it credit: yes, it’s mean, quite violent, even quite romantic and has a portrayal of teenage sexuality (!), but what is supposed to be a series that rallies against essentialism and oligarchy ends up praising both just because they’re literal tests for the main character and the rebelling society it portrays (spoilers below).

To wit: a lot of shit went down in the previous installment, “Divergent”, leaving Tris, Four, Caleb and Peter to flee and seek shelter from the New World Order declaring them to be Divergent, the story version of rebels/outcasts in a caste system that marks people based on virtues/ideals. See, Divergents are bad because they just don’t fit into just one caste, and The Powers That Be want to kill them just to preserve the status quo. Obvious as it is, the central concept is fertile ground for a movie…but the execution is route. One chase sequence after another, followed by shootouts where the bad guys miss for 20 goddamn seconds just so Tris can flee right in time, romantic tensions, betrayals, the works. Two things are noticable: the amount of plot holes in the story, along with the central conceit of there being a shiny doodad that has some secret.

On the plot holes…for one, the relationship between Tris and her ladyfriend is given a lot of prominence when the characters return to the main city. Then there’s a tense moment where Tris, under the influence of a Truth Serum, confesses to killing said ladyfriend’s loved one Will…and then it just ends. The ladyfriend is just shown as no longer their friend, the guilt Tris carried over killing Will is gone, and then the movie just moves forward with Kate Winslet’s- I mean, Jeanne’s goons chasing after Tris, then luring Tris to them just so they can be in a simulation program meant to unlock the doodad. The movie suffers from trying to fulfill so many things while also trying to be as brisk as any normal action movie (to give it credit, the direction is quite neat-looking up until some of the actual action sequences arrive. Not too much shaky-cam, but “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” this isn’t).

Oh, the other thing? Tris goes through The Ultimate Test (basically a Virtual Reality simulation combining “Inception” with “Dragon Ball Z”-levels of disregard for physics, which I admit was kinda neat if a bit obvious), Tris passes…and the doodad displays a message from the creators of the society, saying that the entire central dystopia the “Divergent” series portrays was actually meant to produce the rebels it tries to crush. That’s right: Tris is definitely The Chosen One. All of that blood and carnage this shitty society spills just to keep people in line? Well, apparently, the very people who are running the show had the wrong idea. The Divergents aren’t meant to be crushed, they’re meant to be the key that allows the entire society to go beyond the city walls and try to bring back civilization.

So…let’s get this straight: the entire series up to this point was basically screwing with the characters, making them go through a lot of stuff and losing friends in the process, just so the central character can reveal a truth that not even the very people who run the caste system itself know about? And it was only after unlocking the truth that the dictatorship is no longer legitimate and people can just leave the city? The characters, after learning of this, are quite overjoyed to be able to leave the system and go outside the walls…but that’s unbelievable. I mean, Tris had to KILL PEOPLE just to get that information.

Tris had to kill Will, which means one of their friends forever hates them (though I’m sure they’ll just paper over that entirely in the next installment and/or have them forgive them for…some reason). Tris killed a lot of people, people who had families/friends and who were just pawns in a system unknown even to the people who run that system. Yeah, Tris is looked upon like the equivalent of Jesus (if Jesus ran around with cut hair, a leather vest and kicked ass), but given all of the bloodshed and loss they had to go through just for some “surprise” twist? Yeah, no, I don’t buy that being a good ending at all. Even if I got to sleep with Theo James in the end, I would still be kinda pissed at all the bullshit I had to go through.

The twist reveals the biggest problem with this series: it starts out being a rebellion against order, essentialism and dictatorship, only to reveal that the only reason it rebels against those things is because its main character and their friends aren’t number one within it. How is one supposed to buy that this series is portraying a populist rebellion against The Establishment when the twist makes said rebellion resemble the very thing it goes against, just with a younger and sexier cast? Yeah, the characters talk a little bit about “the lesser of the two evils”, civil war and all of that ethical dilemma claptrap, and the body count in this movie serves to augment those points. Yet the ending makes all of that moot. For a movie that starts out with fury and doubt, it ends in a huff and a montage. But hey, at least Jeanne- I mean Kate Winslet- I mean Jeanne…Winslet gets killed.

Young Adult novels are often derided by snobs as being porn for uppity young’ns who don’t respect their elders. At their best…yeah, that’s kinda what they are, but they at least have something to say, whether it’s about angst, oppression or both. “Insurgent” is proof that the “Divergent” series is not the rebellion it was advertised as. This isn’t Occupy Wall Street, this isn’t even the Koch Brothers-funded Tea Party, this is more like Men’s Rights Activism and Femen: stuff that puts on airs about being against the “status quo”, only to reinforce said status quo in shitty, shitty ways (content warning for rape apologia/whorephobia).

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