Critical Dissent: Debating Insurgent with Alexandra Donald

Insurgent (Critical Dissent 1)Insurgent, the first sequel of the dystopian young adult series that began with last year’s Divergent, hasn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms by the critical community. It’s currently sitting at 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, with widespread accusations that it’s little more than a cut-rate Hunger Games clone. I’m not entirely convinced by that argument, but I’m not especially impressed by the film, either: I gave it one-and-a-half stars in my review, a half-star less than I gave the first film.

However, I was keen to hear the thoughts of this week’s guest on Critical Dissent, Alexandra Donald. A recent recipient of the Australian Film Critics Association Award for Best Review of an Australian Film, her writing has been featured by the likes of This Is Film, The Iris and The Essential. A portfolio of her writing can be found here. I was particularly intrigued by her three star rating for Insurgent on Letterboxd, particularly as she incorporated a thoughtful defence of the first film as an portrait of an assertive female character fighting back against sexual assault in her Screen Education piece, ‘Girls Against the World: Female Representation in Modern Hollywood’. So, Alex, what did you like about Insurgent?

Alex: Well to be clear, I think it’d be a stretch to call either Insurgent or its first instalment good films! I don’t necessarily think the story is derivative as it’s so often criticised, but I think the film adaptations treat their material as such – presumably because of the frenzied expectations of Hollywood studios to find the next Hunger Games in the wake of its monstrous success.

But I did enjoy Insurgent more than Divergent – probably due to the fact that I actually felt like it was moving towards something. The 139 minute runtime was interminable in Divergent and I think Insurgent kept things moving in a way that pretty effectively hid that there was really not much going on in terms of story. The action stuff was (mostly) well executed in my opinion, they got their budget knocked up a notch which I thought was pretty evident.

Dave: I’ll definitely concede that it moved and looked better than its predecessor. I touched on that briefly in my review: “Visually, we’ve definitely stepped things up a lot, trading the lifelessness of Divergent for a robust aesthetic that looks better: more substantial, more expensive.” Certainly, Divergent was way too long and its action scenes looked like what they were – actors firing fake guns on a backlot somewhere.

But at least there I felt like the action had a point to it! For all the failings of Divergent – a film that I felt curdled over its runtime from good to reasonable to mediocre – there was at least a sense of purpose behind those poorly-shot action scenes (something about Tris trying to save her parents from Kate Winslet’s evil brainwashed army; I admit the specifics are a little hazy for me at this stage). The narrative of Insurgent was so generic and piecemeal that I found it hard to care. Oh, so Tris is the extra-special special one (the most divergent of all the divergents), who can open up this mysterious box that Kate Winslet thinks will tell everyone how bad the divergents are…even though a divergent has to open it? I dunno, it’s just a mess – especially with all the fucking double crosses – so I found it hard to care that it looked prettier.

Alex: I’ll concede that the narrative of Insurgent leaves a lot to be desired. But I think that this mostly stems from Hollywood’s desire to milk a property for literally every penny they can get out of it. Quite simply, there just isn’t enough meat across Divergent + Insurgent to warrant two separate movies. I looked up the plot synopsis of the novel after I saw Insurgent and a pretty sizeable chunk of the film’s plot (including the goddamn box!) was not from the book. I hate to think what this means for the two movies they’re somehow getting out of Allegiant [the third novel]! I think that the narrative of the Divergent series has some strong stuff in it – as you said, Tris trying to save her parents gave the first film at least gave the poor filmmaking some sense of purpose  – but the three novels probably could have made two really solid movies, not four inevitably average ones. It’s just not a story that needs what will eventually be at least eight hours of film to be told.

Insurgent (Critical Dissent 2)Dave: It feels like we’re on the same page here more than the “Critical Dissent” title might suggest! Your point that the film differs greatly from the novel is really interesting; I’d just assumed that ~the box~ was a holdover from Roth’s novel, but it’s even worse as a clumsy invention of the screenwriters (three of them! It seems to be a good indication of a mediocre Hollywood product when you need more than a couple screenwriters). In particular, the film’s heavy reliance on “Chosen One” tropes bothered me because it over-emphasised privilege in a way that the first film (mostly) avoided. Like, sure, Tris was special because she was a divergent, but we quickly established that she wasn’t alone.

By making Tris extra-special (“100% divergent” – so bad) any of that nuance tumbles away and we get another clumsy young adult message that emphasises inherent qualities rather than actions; you’re special because you are, not because you’ve done anything much. Though it looks like the groan-worthy conclusion – where Tris must overcome her own guilt for killing one of her friends, because the real obstacle is self-doubt – is taken direct from the source. Anyway, browsing through the Wikipedia synopsis kinda makes me wish we’d gotten a more direct adaptation.

I guess, really, my biggest problem with these films is they have this abundant potential to work as a metaphor for the experience of a teenage girl finding her identity. The first film tripped up at the finish line, but I get the impression that Insurgent isn’t even running the right race. Like, Shailene Woodley is such a great actress and it’s amazing that she gets to lead a big blockbuster film (because these are big business now), but this just feels like a waste. Did you find anything of merit to the sequel’s subtext?

Alex: Haha! Your comment about the screenwriters is spot on, they’re not exactly attracting top tier talent to this franchise…

The message it’s obviously trying to get across is certainly clumsy but I don’t think Insurgent was completely without merit in that regard. The thing that springs to mind from the film – I think it was the Abnegation test, from ~the box~? – where Tris is battling the hatred of her own reflection in the mirror. It’s certainly a heavy handed metaphor which is, again, probably largely attributable to poor screenwriting – but I think it’s quite reductive to dismiss a representation of that kind of adolescent self-loathing on screen when so many teenage girls suffer such intense struggles with body image. I’ve seen just how much this franchise means to girls who are quite young – and while it’s certainly far from perfect, I don’t think the importance of Tris getting to be the extra special Chosen One should be underestimated when these films are being seen by such a huge amount of young women.

I don’t think indulging coming of age cliches for teenage girls is the worst thing in the world – filmmakers just need to be less lazy about it! The girl should get to be the action hero, the Chosen One, the one who gets to fight to save her family – how many times have we seen a guy in those roles on screen? Considering that pre-Hunger Games, it was still argued that females couldn’t lead successful franchise movies (and Marvel’s certainly sticking to that theory!). Divergent and Insurgent certainly aren’t great movies or even ideal examples of women getting to be their own heroes – but until Hollywood gets better at it I’m reluctant to write them off when they’re getting certain things right.

Dave: All of these are really great points! One of the things I try to be conscious of going into these sort of films is judging them too harshly as something they’re not, and I don’t know that I always succeed (for example, I had a blast with Fast & Furious 7, which is lousy with clichés and MacGuffins and the like). Of course, at the same time, I don’t want to give something too much credit simply because the rest of Hollywood is so terrible at providing substantial female roles – particularly in action films – but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Your point about girls relating to struggles with things like body image – and how that’s represented here – is a good one. Like you say, though, I just wish they could have done something more substantial with it. At the [all-girls] school I teach at, one of the art teachers has a rule that her students’ artworks can’t use broken mirrors, because otherwise every second student does it. I would hope that by the time a film gets this many million dollars to play with, it can be a bit more creative than high school art students. I think I probably am harsher on these films than I should be, simply because, unlike John Wick or whatever, I think it’s more important that they’re good.

Alex: Oh, it’s absolutely more important that they’re good. I think the population in general holds them to higher standards – but you’re correct, we can’t give them too much credit either! Hopefully by the time Hollywood moves somewhat closer to an even playing field, we’ll have found a middle ground.

Dave: I can get behind that. Thanks Alex!

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