Second movies in trilogies are hard. They have the unenviable task of living up to the first film and the added burden of expanding that film's world and stories in a satisfying way, without actually being allowed to finish much of anything. Often a second film can be the best (The Empire Strikes Back) or weakest (The Two Towers) of a multi-picture arc. Nowadays these sequel often have to contend with the added fact that we as an audience instinctively know how the plot is going to work out. Act two is always where things get dark for our heroes, where they lose their allies and end the film facing the Biggest Bad, But Not Yet. The best thing about Insurgent is that it succeeds where a sequel should and yet finds a way to subvert so many tropes and expectations. I realized about five minutes into the film that, despite having seen a few previews, I had no idea where the story of Insurgent going to go and I found that thrilling.
Insurgent picks up right where Divergent (one of my favorite movies of 2014, which I'd recommend re-watching before you see this one) left off, with a helpful, if somewhat evil and manipulative recap from Kate Winslet's ruthless Jeanine. Tris (Shailene Woodley), dreamy boyfriend Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and slimy Peter (Miles Teller) wanted and hiding out in the perfect hippie commune of the Amity faction. Their peace doesn't last long and soon they are on the run, hiding with various factions and the factionless until Jeanine can get her hands on Tris to unlock a big ole secret.
The story trots on at a brisk pace and moves seamlessly from one locale to another, where we meet new enemies and allies to our heroine. This is where Insurgent is really at it's best: expanding the world of Divergent in so many different ways and introducing scads of compelling new faces, including Octavia Spencer, Daniel Dae Kim and Naomi Watts. Watts plays the mother to a character who looks about 4 years younger than her, which drew laughs in my theater - but she's actually 16 years her onscreen child's senior, so I hope she tells us what moisturizer she uses! Both the casting, and the art direction and production design, lend to the realness and uniqueness of the world. I loved the performances and the details on screen. This isn't necessarily a world I'd want to live in but definitely one I want to explore.
The film is anchored by the performance of Wodley, who does a fine job of portraying both Tris' strength and vulnerability. Tris is not just a Katniss knock-off, she handles grief and guilt in very complex ways and It was a great arc to watch. I especially liked that, though her love story was important to her character, it did not define her, or save her. Woodley holds her own against a formidable Winslet and their scenes of confrontation are some of the best in the movie. Another strength of the movie is that, in general, people make pretty good tactical decisions, and neither heroes nor villains get bogged down in their own schemes and moral conundrums so much that they screw up everything, which was refreshing.
As always there are a few elements that, while not bad, could always be better. Perhaps it was for ratings' sake, but there was very little blood in many scenes where it would have made things seem a bit more real. Indeed, everyone looked remarkably pretty and clean given some of their circumstances. I was continually distracted by the fact Woodley spends half the movie running and fighting without any sort of bra (I mean, that's just painful!) and there are a few technical macguffins solved off-screen with little to no explanation. Also, a few great actors like Spencer and Ray Stevenson were sadly underused.
From a fangirl perspective there's a lot to love in this movie. We have a complex female protagonist surrounded by other complex and strong female characters and people of color. Seriously, the only white men in the story all are peripheral to Tris, and every person in a position of power is either female or non-white or both. It made my social justice warrior heart sing! We also get to see fan favorites like Jai Courtney of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Kim of LOST tear up the screen.
Overall, I would recommend this film. It was consistently entertaining and lovely to watch. The conclusion was very satisfying in a way sequels leading into a third film are often not. It resolved things in a cool way and still left me very excited to see where this series will go.