Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015)

This is a surface level analysis from a surface level viewer. I skipped the books and saw Divergent (2014) after it came out on DVD and thought it was okay, repetitive enough in exposition, plot, and theme but interesting enough that I'd see the next one. For those who don't know, it's another one of those post-American dystopian stories with a teenage protagonist. Honestly, they're all the same when it comes down to it, and 2014 couldn't have demonstrated that fact any better. The Hunger Games (2012) was by no means original, but it made its entire campaign and cultural penetration in the preview trailer with Jennifer Lawrence volunteering for tribute and fucking Elizabeth Banks in garish garb hosting the militant lottery like a Stephen King game show host, and by flashing this vivid scene enough times on TV and in theaters it claimed the trite subgenre as its own invention thereby capturing fans galore. The movie was a big success earning over $600 million at the box office, and two years later (that's about how long it takes to make a Hollywood film, right?) there happened to be a slew of new movies that followed that exact same chain of events: Divergent, The Giver, The Maze Runner, am I missing any? They all have that immersion-breaking, show-and-tell sequence: this is the scene where the young adults get their job assignments/life-changing news, this is the scene where the main character is singled out by doing something brave or unexpected, this is the scene where the protagonist realizes he/she is different... I've never so consciously been spoon-fed a film the way they're packaging these new movies for the post-millennials. I bit on Divergent because I had three consecutive days with free Redbox codes with little else from which to choose and it was the first of this 2014 barrage that was available to me. By the time I got to The Giver, a book I had found mildly interesting when I was 13, I felt like a sucker and was truly in awe that all of these movies were the exact fucking same. I often hate on the Transformers sequels for being a rehash of the same thing, but imagine if all four of them came out in THE SAME FUCKING CALENDAR YEAR. That's what happened with all these new teeny dystopian movies, and I'm not watching any more of them, I swear. But because I'm a completionist I have to finish any series I start, so here we go!

The Divergent Series: Insurgent starts out in medias res which only serves to immediately point out how little I know about this series. There's some kind of warzone and leaders talking about who's to blame and Triss killed some people apparently or did she, but what the hell, is this a recap of the end of the last movie because I don't really remember the very very end all that clearly (just the near end) or is it a dream or some kind of vision, some kind of nightmare or what if it's actually the end of the movie and it's one of those ones that shows a glimpse of the conclusion and then starts back at the start? Am I supposed to know these characters? What the fuck is going on? Why am I watching this? These are probably not good questions to impose on a lay audience for a franchise which is so clearly and desperately grabbing for fans that're more hooked on something else (cough, hunger games).

Before I get any further, can we talk about this sequel's title? Of course this franchise's movies have to have their own branding so that everyone knows the series is its whole own thing. God forbid a single ticket-buyer may not put two and two together and realize Divergent and Insurgent are somehow related. To avoid the possibility of such confusion they called it The Divergent Series: Insurgent. Don't you love when they do that, put the series/franchise name in there which is longer than the actual installment's real title? It's a worse tripe than numbering the sequels or tacking on the cliché "Returns", "Revenge", or the like. Very rarely can there be a movie series with unique, thought-provoking or brief titles devoid of numbers, the franchise name, or some stupid word like "Forever". I think the Star Wars prequels covered the bases of what not to do by doing all three. If they weren't so iconic I don't think I could take their full names at face value. When did this terrible convention of inserting the series name in every individual title begin? As much as I like to blame Twilight for everything, my own parties are at fault here. The Lord of the Rings did it starting in 2001 with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Star Wars did it before that in 1999 with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace even though none of the original Star Wars movies had the need for that copyright and Roman numeral on the official title of the films. A less severe example is 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park. At least in this case the subtitle differentiates this film from the several other movies simply titled The Lost World which had already been released by that point in time. I can still pen the melodramatic multi-part movie/one book trend to The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part One and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part Two (they already used a colon after the series name so had to resort to using a dash between the novel's title and the movie's number, come on, that's rich), but the tasteless naming conventions go back much, much further.

That appeared to be the strategy with Divergent: call it something unique but script it and sell it like everything else. While performing the light research required to write this analysis, I couldn't help but notice that the icon on the first edition cover of the 2011 novel Divergent looks like they imposed the franchise symbols of The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, and the Dove soap logo. It's got the fiery outer ring like a solar eclipse, an indistinct bird-like image in flames, and wispy, golden strands cutting through it all from top left to bottom right in the suggestive form of an arrow. It's actually quite impressive. I couldn't make a better logo rip-off fusing three things virtually everyone likes that'd hold up under a court of law if I tried.

But back to the matter at hand. Excusing the slander, this was a fairly engaging and decently entertaining movie and thankfully progressive follow-up to the first film. I can't say I was emotionally invested in the story or felt like anything was truly at stake (did they actually expect anyone above the age of 12 to believe that Triss might actually die in the last act?), but I certainly wasn't bored during the two hour runtime. There's some crazy shit going on in this movie... suicidal cochlear implants, metaphysical personality tests, Inception layer surreality to the fourth degree. It's easy to get lost in the experience of watching it which is largely due to the fact that the film is extremely visual. There're a lot of cool virtual reality scenes, and the end credits have the look and sound of a James Bond intro.

While the aesthetic production value is high, the five distinct sociopolitical factions and their conflicting aims and perspectives are admittedly interesting and serve to add a layer of complexity (if thin) to the plot. I can't say it was abundantly clear which group was which until their members had manifested some overt character trait by the end of their respective scenes or that any of the individual leaders were memorable, but it was neat to see a plot with more potential intricacies then the simple "us vs. them". My favorite thing though about The Divergent Series: Insurgent was that it gave me great insight into what a franchise experience can be like for a relatively uninvested or lay audience. I was always a bit baffled that so many people who never read Harry Potter started watching the movies with a kind of avid interest that grew over time as mine happened to decline as I felt further removed from the joy of reading the early novels. To enjoy something for both the purpose of ridicule and proper entertainment without personal stake or risk of tarnishing or diminishing utility on something one loves (this has been a trying time for Star Wars fans, good God) is an experience to relish. For a select few, Divergent may be the series that resonates with them above all others, but for the rest of us who are in no way allegiant it's just good fun.

Another thing I really like about the Divergent series is its use of choice vocabulary as key words in the story: abnegation, dauntless, erudite, amity, candor, divergent, insurgent. Great words for people of any age to understand and command. Putting the books aside, I can't think of a single other movie that was as motivational to pick up a dictionary. In terms of its potential longevity I think Divergent is ultimately here today gone tomorrow, but I tend to think there'll at least be a handful of people like me who'll think of Shailene Woodley when they hear the word abnegation years from now (they probably just won't remember her name).