Shailene Woodley ‘is as ligneous as her name’ in the Divergent series’ second instalment Insurgent, says MacDara Conroy

Take an innocent but scrappy ingenue in a vaguely drawn post-apocalyptic world where society has been split into different clans, based on economic requirements or human behaviour. Pull back the veil just a bit so our heroine can see the cruelty of the system, and follow her journey as she fights back against it – but not too much, ’cause there isn’t a whole lot behind the curtain, and in any case we’ve got a trilogy to get through.

What am I talking about here? The Hunger Games, of course, but it’s also basically the plot of YA upstart Veronica Roth’s Divergent books. Roth’s twist on her near-wholesale plot lift from Suzanne Collins’ own unoriginal fable is a future America (well, just Chicago with a big fence round it) where society is divided into factions based on broad-stroke character traits (Dauntless for the fearless daredevils, Abnegation for the selfless volunteers, Erudite – or Eriudite, with four syllables as everyone insists on pronouncing it – for the smarty-pantses, and so on) and simply cannot abide when young adults express particular aptitude in more than one of these traits: the titular Divergent.

Last year’s first film of the book trilogy (like The Hunger Games, the final book will be split into two movie money-grabbers) brought us Shailene Woodley in the lead as Tris, raised in the Abnegation faction but who comes of age discovering she’s really Divergent, a pariah in their society to be hunted down by ruthless Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Other than that, there’s not much to say. Divergent is purely an exercise in fan pandering. Zero effort is made to really initiate anyone new to the story. Even the opening info-dump voiceover by our main protagonist leaves as many questions as it answers, assuming intimate familiarity with the source material, as simple-minded and one-dimensional and full of holes as it is.

Going by what’s presented on screen, Roth’s world pretends to be a kind of satire, but it only reinforces the cliquish mentality that identity isn’t manifold, that it’s something assumed as easily as putting on a coat. Afraid of getting stabbed by flying knives? Well you simply haven’t chosen to be brave enough, have you? Wanna get a tattoo that says something profound about your nature? Ah you sure don’t even have to think about it, just grab whatever design looks cool off the wall.

Those things actually happen in the movie, and probably in the books too for Divergent is not a thing that stands alone, it’s a mere recreation of its source as it plods from static scene to static scene. And all the while there’s an unsettlingly cold detachment that’s probably imperceptible to fans of the books. But it feels deliberate, like the work of an author desperate to appeal to as broad a base as possible by writing featureless characters the reader (or in this case, the viewer) can fill up with their own feelings and drives and desires. It’s actually kind of smart, making the audience do all the work without them even knowing it because they’ve yet to come across more challenging and ultimately more rewarding literature.

Still, I wanted to be fair to the sequel, Insurgent. Because I don’t like the first Star Wars film, either – it’s too long and badly paced with interminable stretches of boredom and paper-thin characters, and doesn’t really kick off till the end – but its follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back, is fantastic stuff, jumping right into the fray, maintaining a darker adult tone and maybe most importantly developing the cookie-cutter personas and relationships from the first film. Insurgent, too, is darker than its predecessor, but only in a superficial way, opting for grim but bloodless shootouts (there is a lot of shooting in this film, but the only blood comes from a punch to the nose) instead of taking on the fear that lies in the heart of mankind.

With RED director Robert Schwentke at the helm, the threadbare but weirdly labyrinthine plot ostensibly takes Tris and her renegade Dauntless comrades (love interest Theo James, gal pal Zoë Kravitz, mouthy Miles Teller, and shifty brother Ansel Elgort) into a guerrilla war alongside Factionless leader Naomi Watts (or is it Elizabeth Olsen?) against the Erudite and their propaganda campaign against the other factions. But like Empire and Luke’s facing of the dark side, what it’s really supposed to be about is Tris going up against her biggest enemy yet, her darkest fears. That’s a problem when those fears don’t resonate beyond her inner self, partly because of the bad writing but also because Woodley, alas, is as ligneous as her name. I’m talking Keanu Reeves levels of blank-faced disengagement. Literally the only change she undergoes between the first movie and this one is a haircut. Two movies in now, if she can’t connect with Tris on any emotional level, why the hell should we? In a strange way, though, she plays it perfectly: her indeterminate fizzog a tabula rasa for the fans to project their own egos and insecurities.

And she’s not the only one, as pretty much the whole cast continues sleepwalking through a story they must know in their hearts to be irredeemable shite. Only Miles Teller, last seen in the fantastic Whiplash, has the wherewithal to have some fun with it, using the story’s baked-in detachment to channel his inner arsehole to amusing and memorable effect. Speaking of effects, the CGI computer jockeys have, as one might expect, gone to town on this one with as many flashy but meaningless visuals as possible to distract from the emptiness of its core. Like a glittery bottle cap to a magpie, the fans will probably fall for it – pretending to themselves that a burning house, floating in the air because reasons, is profound in some me-against-the-world teenagey way. The rest of us don’t have to abide such nonsense.

Insurgent opens nationwide on Friday March 20th in 3D and 2D

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