Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Divergent and Insurgent

The first Hunger Games was frustrating. After an hour preparing us for intense ethical dilemmas, Katniss had managed to avert them all, lobbing righteous arrows from a tree while well-defined baddies did all the necessary heavy lifting. As successive sequels continued to polish her shiny Action Figure halo, I found myself wishing that /just once/ they would let a little darkness in. This weekend a duo, clad in underage angst and Hot Topic pleather, summersaulted out of a train and into my life as if to say “Be careful what you wish for, stiff.” The Divergent Series had arrived.

Divergent and Insurgent take place in a shameless mashup of every other Dystopian future, which really isn’t as problematic as it sounds. After freedom inevitably led to anarchy, society salvaged itself the only way it knew how: rigid structure and cautionary-tale-tailored naivity. The world is broken into five Factions, and the Sorting Ha—no, The Exam—pairs citizen with Faction based on well-defined archetypes. Self-Sacrificing (Abnegation), Peaceful (Amity), Honest (Candor), Intelligent (Erudite), and Bro (Dauntless). Triss (Shailene Woodley) is born Abnegation and chooses Dauntless, but (like all teenagers) she, like, doesn’t fit into your labels, Dad. She’s refuses to be any one thing: she’s Divergent. And that deeply threatens Kate Winslet’s Order Of Things™. No subtlety points in that regard, but far be it from me to trash a YA series for a little on-the-nose relatability. There’s a reason this stuff gets recycled: it connects.

My problem has more to do with priorities. Unlike The Hunger Games, the series — and Insurgent in particular — isn’t afraid to bloody its protagonists’ hands. Multiple people take their own life, bad guys effectively commit genocide, and Triss and Scowly Face (“Four”, the film’s romantic variant of Christian Grey and/or a sack of potatoes) shoot to kill. Sometimes it provokes genuine guilt, giving Woodley a chance to showcase her (fantastic) dramatic chops in an otherwise miscast role. But more often it’s ignored or, worse, acknowledged in service of bland teenage melodrama: grief from suicide is resolved by a hug and “Come here”, mass-killings are stopped (not prevented) with lamely empowering quips, and a single death haunts Triss till (fifty discardable bodies later) she’s learned to love herself again.

Almost every notable aspect of the series comes with regrettable sacrifice. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, but its largely male supporting players are unbearably vapid. (Rounding out the cast with Platonic-fixer-upper “Four”: The Fault In Our Stars-ex Ansel Elgort as her pouty Vulcan brother, The Spectacular Now-ex Miles Teller her inexplicably flip-flopping frenemy, and a thousand tattooed douchebags who hang out at “The Pit” and can jump real high.) It tackles ambitious themes, but only via contrived scenarios and totally irrational egos. And it introduces genuinely heavy concepts, but its follow-through is spotty and ultimately reckless. Somewhere on the cutting room floor lie a popcorn flick, a weighty epic, a Twilight reboot, and an episode of Tool Academy. Kate Winslet was right after all: it’s dangerous to try to be too many things.

See my review on Letterboxd