The best thing that I could possibly will myself to say about Divergent is that it was by whatever thin margin the more watchable of 2014's two virtually indistinguishable post-apocalyptic YA adaptations about the Enormously Special Snowflake whose pluck and to-heck-with-your-rules-man attitude helps to knock the legs out from underneath an inscrutable and preposterously contrived writerly conceit masquerading as a functional fantasy world, just besting The Maze Runner. And now all that stored-up goodwill I had gets quite spoilt by The Divergent Series: Insurgent, whose repellent death march of a title is one of the best things about it. This is the quintessence of what I mean when I call a film joylessly mediocre: everything about Insurgent is functional in the most detached, unimaginative ways, precisely in the places where an allegory built on a loopy sci-fi premise particularly needs to be imaginative. It is not merely a film that has no fun with itself, it is a film that constantly calls your attention to all the fun that really absolutely should be going on, and makes the whole thing that much more teeth-grinding and enervating than is remotely fair.

The film drops us, via a clunky but straightforward bit of "I am your fascist dictator for the evening, and let me tell you things on giant monitors" re-expositioning, back into the world of Post-Apocalypse Future Chicago, the last outpost of humankind, where all people are separated into factions based on their solitary personality trait. Candor is home to reliable truth-tellers, Amity does good work for the betterment of all, and Erudite is home to cold evil logicians who worship knowledge and try to kill Christians. I mean, Abnegation, the ones who put the needs of the rest above themselves and get all the shitty work done, and who were effectively wiped out at the end of the last movie by that selfsame dictator Jeanine (Kate Winslet). For some reason, Jeanine's lack of a surname really started to crack me up this time around.

So in addition to the loss of nearly all Abnegationeers, the miltaristic police sect Dauntless has been scattered to the winds, leaving Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), with a surprisingly fresh and salon-tousled new hairdo, considering that she gave it to herself with a pair of garden shears, hiding in Amity along with her hunky boyfriend Four (Theo James), her confused Erudite brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and her sullen, irritable rival from Dauntless, Peter (Miles Teller, completing the "Boys Who Have Played Shailene Woodley's Lovers" hat trick). But Tris, of course, is no Dauntless member at all; she is a Divergent, one of the magic special ones who combine all five extant personality traits. And for this reason, Jeanine wants to find her; for Jeanine, we now find, found a Box buried by the Founders 200 years ago and protected by Tris's now-dead parents, but the Founders made it so that only a Divergent could open the Box and thus receive their Message about what to do in this moment of Crisis, because having determined that just copying The Hunger Games was too limiting, the series at this point goes for the classics and starts stealing plot points from Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

In practice, this means a lot of trekking through parts of Georgia that make for a passable simulacrum of Illinois, encountering Four's estranged mother (Naomi Watts), and band of radical Factionless, which aren't the same thing as Divergents, but it's not totally clear why. And then Tris has to decide if she'll be the Mockingjay join with Mama Four's team to replace Jeanine's dictatorship with a different dictatorship or... not do that. The stakes are all a bit fuzzy. But eventually, she is taken by Jeanine and put through a series of video game levels to prove her righteousness to open the Box and discover the sequel hook. Except it's not a sequel hook at all: it feels precisely like the final beat of about a hundred other post-apocalypse films that that end with a slightly ambiguous "...and did they restore the world then? Perhaps, children. Perhaps" note as the limitless horizon stretches out. But there are in fact two more The Divergent Serieses to come, unless Insurgent's apparent inability to expand Divergent's audience even a tiny bit spooks Summit Entertainment into committing the unthinkable heresy of adapting a YA novel series with exactly as many movies as there are books.

The central problem of Divergent turns out to also be the central problem of Insurgent: this world doesn't work, and the screenwriters writing the adaptation - Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman (!), and Mark Bomback - don't have the creativity, or more likely the motivation, to find a way of fixing it. Inherently, this society can't work and doesn't make sense, though it's revealed in a mysterious film-ending transmission, by a mysterious woman whose identity the end credits totally give away (she's played, anyway, by Janet McTeer, completing the hat trick of stupidly over-qualified actresses who are reduced to this now? Fuck Hollywood), that it might have all been engineered to be this transparently artificial and synthetic. Which doesn't speak well of the Founders. Last time around, director Neil Burger directed with a deft enough touch and a good sense for how to work action sequences around characters that the draggy plot and nonsensical world-building at least felt like they had some momentum underpinning them, but his replacement, Robert Schwentke, suffers from a pronounced tendency towards flat visuals and too much time spent lingering on the barely present reactions of his actors, and his decidedly anti-epic staging leaves the feeling that the entire last kernel of humanity, spread throughout the city limits of a still semi-functioning Chicago, numbers around 1200 people.

Whereas Divergent at least felt like it took place somewhere, I mean to say, Insurgent feels like a cheap, jerry-rigged post-apocalypse on a budget. It's small and boring, and that just calls attention to how much the story is made up of jerky half-measures - go here, go here, stop, look sad, go here, get involved in some nonsensical battle with Shadow Link - and how utterly daft the whole allegorical conceit is.

It's so bland: it looks bland, and the actors play it excessively bland, either because, like James and Elgort, that's what they do; or like Woodley, they're aware that this is not going to be their $400 million ticket to Jennifer Lawrenceville, but they have to muscle through anyway; or like Watts, they've been weirdly made up to look like Elizabeth Olsen, despite being a 46-year-old woman. Winslet stands out: her absolute defeated dismay in ever single frame, like a starving person who just realised that the only food in the whole house is cream of wheat, is horrible sad to have to watch. Teller is the other; with a small part that has absolutely no shading, he goes for broke on playing up the most nauseating entitled personality of a lazy, self-satisfied asshole that he can muster - which is a lot, for Teller - and as a result emerges as the only onscreen human who feels like he has thoughts and feelings which aren't directly communicated by the lines of dialogue he says.

Anyway, there's not a single frame wrong with the movie, though some of the CGI is regrettable; but there also isn't anything in the whole of that's even fleetingly entertaining. It's as devoid of any energy as is possible, and it's every bit the soulless commercial calculation that has the word "Series" in its official goddamn title had ought to be.

Reviews in this series
Divergent (Burger, 2014)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent (Schwentke, 2015)
The Divergent Series: Allegiant (Schwentke, 2016)