Teenage War is Hell Too: A Review of “Insurgent”

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reel Rating: (3 out of 5) 

In most artistic trilogies the sequel is usually darker than the original and Insurgent—based on the second novel of the popular Divergent trilogy, published 2011 to 2013—is no exception. Taking off shortly after Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) stopped the evil Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) from completely taking over post-apocalyptic, dystopian Chicago, the new rebellion finds that starting a war is easy but winning a war while keeping one’s morals intact is much harder. The result is a film that is sometimes unpleasant and much more uneven than the excellent Divergent (2014) but nonetheless manages to present a story and an important message in a way many teenagers can stomach.

In the months following the failed coup, Tris and Four have been hiding in an Amity community after Matthews falsely blamed them for the uprising. It becomes clear that Tris is suffering from PSTD, experiencing terrifying dreams at night and violent emotions during the day. As the film progresses, her mental state continues to deteriorate, frequently falling into fits of sobbing. Her problems only increase when Matthews finds a mysterious box from the ancient founders of their society, which—conveniently—can only be opened by Tris.

Matthews believes the message will confirm her prejudice against Divergents and begins killing everyone in sight, seeking to get to Tris. Meanwhile, Four’s estranged mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts) has forged an underground alliance between the Factionless and the fugitive Dauntless, creating an army that might finally challenge Matthews’ dominance. And hope appears to be on the horizon when a tiny sliver of the hidden truth beyond the Wall is revealed.

The central thread running through this second installment is the absolute hell of war—not simply the loss of life but the deep moral depravity that causes conflict. The society portrayed in Insurgent prizes secular order over personal familial bonds, and the consequences become shockingly evident. Tris is first betrayed by a close friend; Evelyn lets her son believe she was dead for years until he became political advantageous. The worst is Matthews who uses to mind control to force people to commit suicide.

Even the “good characters” begin violating their own ideals. Four executes an enemy out of anger rather than necessity. Tris calmly announces that Matthews must die in order for peace to be realized. While the rebellion may indeed be successful, what is to stop the next generation from perpetuating the violence? The great problem with political rebellions is that they often make people less free in the end. History has proven this again and again, from the French Revolution to the October Revolution to the Arab Spring. The American Revolution demonstrated that freedom is possible—but it is the exception and not the norm, and the liberties gained must be guarded by every generation.

One of the few moments of relaxation occurs when Tris and Four seek refuge at the headquarters of Candor, the justice faction that prizes honesty as the prime virtue. Daniel Kim plays Jack Kang, the leader of Candor, in a small but brilliant performance. Kang gives Tris and Four an opportunity to testify under a truth serum, repeating a familiar phrase: “may the Truth set you free.” Amid heartache and tears, the two pour out their deepest secrets. Once the truth about Matthews is objectively revealed, Kang agrees to help them, giving the rebellion a fighting chance. This wonderful little scene is like a breath of fresh air because while the truth can be hidden or obscured, it doesn’t change. Once it comes out unfiltered, the right decision can be made.

Insurgent is ultimately a brief lull in a much larger epic that will have its conclusion in the two-part finale based on Allegiant (the splitting of the final book being a deplorable tradition and pure money grab started by the Harry Potter franchise). This second film answers many questions but proposes even more, leaving the audience not far from where it began. Ultimately, the biggest question is not what is beyond the walls of the city, but, “What is real freedom and what does it mean?” Divergent showed clearly that real freedom comes from within, from being a moral person. That truth is less obvious in Insurgent, but is still stirring in the apocalyptic ash heap that was once civilization.

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About Nick Olszyk 185 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.