The best things in the second Divergent picture, rhymingly titled Insurgent (I believe the third, in which the rebels clean house, will be called Detergent), are the dreams and visions of its heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley). Dreams and visions tend to be the dopiest parts of thrillers, especially when they’re fake-outs — i.e., the hero or heroine dies violently and then wakes up with a start. But in this case, those interludes are beautiful. The divergent Tris hurtles over sides of buildings and swings from ledge to ledge with the kind of speed and lyricism that would leave Spider-Man panting in his web. She reaches out to loved ones who slowly, agonizingly disintegrate, reduced to shards that scatter in the cosmic wind. Director Robert Schwentke stages the climactic, vaguely S&M setpiece — in which Trish hangs suspended from multiple electrodes plugged into her body — so sensationally that you can almost forget the silly, plodding script, which is like Flash Gordon with dystopian pretensions and creepy politics. Insurgent is not a very good movie, but it’s better than it needs to be.
That said, if you come to it not having seen Divergent, you’re fucked. No attempt is made to bring you up to speed — that would endanger the download revenue stream. You’ll just have to resign yourself to watching chases in a vacuum: The good guys run away, get caught and tied up, get freed by other good guys bursting in with guns, then run away and get caught and tied up again. The non-dream action scenes are reasonably well-choreographed, but there’s nothing memorable about them. I did, on the other hand, have a memorable evening in the theater, having been invited to the New York premiere at the Ziegfeld — where the entrances of most major characters were met with variations of yaaaahhhhhhh. Ansel Elgort (sitting about five rows behind me) was especially beloved, perhaps because he’s still so charmingly abashed by his celebrity. (In interviews, he has grooved on how easy it is to get laid.) Lost idol Daniel Dae Kim — leader of the Candor sect — sat a row behind me and was gracious about posing for selfies. My affections are easily purchased.
But I can’t extend that goodwill to the Divergent novels. The author, Veronica Roth, isn’t a tenth as talented as The Hunger Games’ Suzanne Collins, but she has a more powerful agenda. In this bleak future, humans are divided into factions, which I now can write from memory: Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and — uh, er, as Rick Perry would say, oops, gotta look it up — Amity (the Amish). The only ones you need to worry about are the Erudites, the scholars who enslave the Dauntless grunts with high-tech drugs and direct them to massacre threats to the state.
It’s a matter of record that the 20th century’s nefarious mass murderers — from Stalin to Hitler to Mao to Pol Pot — eliminated the intellectuals first because (the thinking went) educated people were equipped to resist deprogramming. But the ultrareligious Roth has evidently bought into the right-wing view of education as a dangerous thing. (Former senator Rick Santorum has openly questioned the wisdom of underwriting leftist indoctrination, while Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a college dropout, has proposed redirecting education money to provide property-tax relief for Pennsylvania's wealthiest.) Those who think Divergent is just a dumb “franchise” with no political agenda need to think a tad harder about why an author would target people who actually know things (and are not ideologues).
The first half of Insurgent is diffuse and uninvolving, but Shailene keeps us watching with her cool, unshowy, thoughtful acting, which lifts even the stupidest plot turns above the Flash Gordon level. She’s not especially fun, though. I don’t dare criticize the inhumanly hunky Theo James for fear of being shunned by my older daughter. Nor can I ridicule Elgort, who earned enough points from his noble death in The Fault in Our Stars to make Tris’s vacillating brother halfway compelling. (It’s odd, though, that this Erudite doesn’t have the intellectual equipment to make moral decisions.) As the smug, opportunistic Peter, the reliable Miles Teller is tripped up by the poor screenplay: His pivots in the novel made some sense, but in the film, he’s just a cheap device.
Erudite Kate Winslet is Insurgent’s Ming the Merciless, who seeks the key to a sacred box that can only be opened by a divergent — preferably a 100 percent, super-duper divergent, able to run the neurological gauntlet without her synapses being fried. The character is a one-dimensional fanatic, but my heart goes out to Winslet — another middle-aged A-lister who takes roles in “franchises” to be able to sustain her celebrity lifestyle. Naomi Watts — who plays James’s devious mom — is obviously onboard for the same reasons, and if her fee enables her to bless a few indie directors with her presence, who am I to grouse? There are many reasons to give Insurgent a pass, but none of them is pure.
Correction: A previous version of this piece misidentified Rick Santorum as the governor of Wisconsin. The governor of Wisconsin is Scott Walker.