In the battle between dystopian science-fiction movies about butt-kicking young heroines, the new Divergent movie, Insurgent, is actually slightly more believably glum than the third Hunger Games movie, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1.
Of course, Divergent and Hunger Games are pitched at different registers. The Hunger Games, which plays like campy opera, is future-medieval, with forests and courts monitored on high-tech surveillance. Divergent is set in the Chicago of the future, where, despite the government's assurances that everything is perfect, the city looks like a forest of dead high-rises surrounded by collapsed parking garages.
The Divergent series, which is aimed at a slightly younger crowd than The Hunger Games, is a protest against conformity and social streaming, subjects that are a big deal when you're getting ready for college applications. But the movies' premise, drawn from Veronica Roth's books, is its weakest part, a gimmicky device that never makes much sense. Society, as we learned at length in the first movie, is divided into five "factions" based on different "virtues" – Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. The Erudites rule, though oddly they're not bothered that the names are an awkward mix of nouns and adjectives.
Tris (Shailene Woodley), born in the selfless Abnegation caste, turns out to be genetically "divergent," meaning she shares qualities from other groups. In practical terms that means she's smart, compassionate, ready to kill and bound to feel badly about it.
As we begin the second movie, the power struggle is already under way between Tris's cohort and the evil leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet with fierce Joan Crawford eyebrows) and her storm troopers, who race around carrying guns the size of vacuum cleaners.
Proving she's ready for action, Tris cuts her hair in a stylish punk warrior bob while hiding out on an Amity hippie commune. She's accompanied by her handsome but dull bodyguard-boyfriend, Four (Theo James), her milquetoast brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and the double-dealing Peter, played by Whiplash's Miles Teller, who looks like a sneering young Elvis and has a bad habit of stealing the movie whenever he's onscreen.
Soon, Tris and Four are chased back to the downtown and meet the various punky hordes of the "Factionless," who hang around warehouses like they're waiting for a rave to happen. In this female-centric film, there's a new player – Naomi Watts as Four's estranged mother, now a revolutionary leader who wants to help topple Jeanine and is bound to get more screen time in the next two movies.
Most of the best stuff is saved for Insurgent's last half-hour, in which the movie goes "lysergic," as on an acid trip. Tris, in a self-sacrificing gesture, goes to Jeanine's headquarters and allows herself to be subjected to a series of "sims" or virtual reality simulations. All this is thanks to a MacGuffin of a magic box (invented by the screenwriters) that was left behind by the city's founders to send a message to the future.
Finally, director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) opens things up with a series of Matrix/Inception-style journeys into Tris's inner world. As her body lies on a hammock of tentacles attached to electrodes (reminiscent of Jane Fonda in Barbarella), Tris's mind sends her chasing a floating burning house across the sky and engaging in a rooftop battle with her own double.
What any of this has to do with social conformity is unclear, but if they ever make a Divergent theme park, this ride should be worth the lineup.