I enjoy fantasy. There’s a place for big, broad, occasionally dumb movies like The Avengers and Star Wars and The Hunger Games. There’s so much cynicism in the world. Why question genuine enjoyment? Even with Divergent and Insurgent, which, let’s face it, are blatant knockoffs meant to fill the void left by better series, I can’t say I was bored. That zip line over the Chicago skyline in the first film is gravitationally dubious, but every ten-year-old in the world knows that when a five mile zip line ceases to excite you, you’ve lost something fundamental to the human experience.
Myths are all, on some level, daydreams. Daydreams are impervious to criticism. It’s no coincidence that Tris Prior, Insurgent’s hero, is a unique, one-of-a-kind hero — a chosen one if you will — just like Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker before her. It’s no coincidence that she developed special abilities far beyond those of her peers. It’s no coincidence that the society she lives in is marked by one central conflict to which she can respond bravely; nor is it surprising that she developed a deep bond with the hottest guy in her training regiment. As long as people dream about what they want; and as long as what they want is to be special, powerful, motivated, brave, and loved; then stories like this will be popular. I can’t say I would have it any other way, because anything else would be a lie. As Picasso said, “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” If you want to be able to enjoy anything, good or bad, you need to learn to unfurrow the brow a bit.
And yet somehow J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins managed to say something while indulging these impulses. Rowling’s sprawling narratives return some magic to life. Collins also tells an interesting social parable, weaving modern institutions like television, sports, art, and fashion into the story so her audience interacts with the way those things influence their lives. Even the admittedly grating soap opera between Katniss and Peeta becomes a commentary on how the media uses the cult of personality to distract viewers from what is really going on in the world.
Insurgent has no such delusions of grandeur. It exists for one purpose — to fill the void left by those other, better stories. The social structure of Harry Potter’s wizarding world is based off lingering notions of class and race that still pervade western culture. The Hunger Games’ districts similarly show how the rich countries distance themselves from the third world so they don’t have to think about how their happiness comes from the suffering of others. Even Lewis Caroll’s surreal Wonderland is based in European society and an acute knowledge of human psychology. What is the logic behind Insurgent’s five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Abnegation, Candor, and Amnity? They wouldn’t even pass for a high school outline because they’re not the same parts of speech! Does society today have any particular problem with separating brave people from selfless ones? Smart from honest? What vision of the future ends with the fate of the world staked on a simplified Meyers-Briggs test?
The same problem extends to the characters. Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslett) is once again the bad guy. No more effort is given to explain why she is so heartlessly, unyieldingly cruel and manipulative, except that she is a member of Erudite. You can’t trust those smart people. One minute they’re telling you the planet is warming and you should vaccinate your kids; the next they’re injecting you with mind-control serum and killing your children. Tris’s love interest Four, as played by Theo James, is similarly limited to about two facial reactions — smolder and sneer. No man is more deserving of being named after a number. In the first film at least he started as a jerk. That’s a terrible thing to tell young girls — that the guys mistreating them are just doing so because of their pain and the fact that they care too much — but at least it was dynamic. The only character who struck me as compelling or unique in any way was Peter (Miles Teller), the perennial dick who gets a million shots at redemption and keeps choosing not to take them. It’s not good when your most likable character by far is a sociopathic traitor.
All of this leads me to conclude that Insurgent isn’t actually about its story or characters, but about resembling other popular stories. What’s going on in the characters’ heads doesn’t matter, so long as they fulfill our basic need for more knockoffs of The Giver. This dystopian future came about because so many kids were reading about dystopian futures. If they were reading something else, maybe the tragedy could have been averted.
Consider the train sequence where Tris, Four, and Caleb must befriend the Factionless mob or the story would hit a dead end. However, the story also needs a fight sequence right about there to remain exciting. Tris and Four kill several people in the fight, then befriend their fellow gang members and everyone conveniently forgets about those bodies strewn on the tracks. The right story beats have been hit, but at what cost I ask you?
Everyone responds to these things on some level. Honestly, one major thought I had while watching the movie was how far fantasy and science fiction have come in the last decade. Compared to even the first couple Potter films, the effects here are very impressive, the storytelling efficient, the camerawork effective. On some level studios have learned they have to respect audiences enough to tell their favorite stories with dignity and class. Fans of Eragon and The Last Airbender have good cause to be envious. This movie looks good.
The trouble arises when we’re only watching because we’re addicted to the stories themselves. The story of Peter Pan cannot be about how great it is to be young forever, or else we would spend all our time wishing for something that was impossible. If it’s important not to wish away that part of ourselves that wants freedom, that wants to break the rules of society, then could we also admit it’s weird how many of our wish-fulfillment fantasies involve millions of people dying? There’s a part of us that wants anarchy, but it can’t be as strong as the part of us that would be upset if, you know, our family got caught in a nuclear war.
In the end, if the story doesn’t make you care about your own world; if it doesn’t enhance your appreciation of yourself or your family or the things you encounter in everyday life; then it’s really just a soap opera. Like its predecessor, Insurgent plays the part of a generation-defining myth. It plays it well enough to immerse viewers in the story so they don’t notice there’s nothing going on under the surface. I can’t blame you for indulging, but I can encourage you to try something a bit more rewarding first. To quote Four, “Sometimes people just want to be happy, even if it’s not real.” We all get to decide if that’s enough.
Photos courtesy of: Summit Entertainment