Improvement, however slight, can be detected as Divergent morphs into Insurgent onscreen. There's less exposition, more action and a discernible spark in the acting that was missing before. But let's face it, the trilogy of young-adult novels that Veronica Roth cooked up to rival The Hunger Games never loses the stale odor of also-ran. The Divergent Series, to be completed by carving two films out of Allegiant, the third novel, isn't being goosed by inspiration — try box-office gold.
It's too bad. Shailene Woodley, who never gives less than her all, again plays Tris Prior, the film's Joan of Arc. Tris is a divergent, meaning she doesn't fit the molds set up by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who rules the dystopian futuristic society that is a walled-in Chicago. You know Jeanine's the boss because she's the only one in skyscraper heels.
As Insurgent begins, Tris foments rebellion in the company of Tobias Eaton (Theo James), a fellow divergent who goes by the name of Four because he fears only four things, sequels not among them. James, a solid actor, mostly glowered in the first movie. Here he busts loose, shows his vulnerability and runs afoul of a new enemy, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the mother who abandoned him as a child.
Yikes. Don't want spoilers for those not among the 32 million who bought the novels. It seems odd that a movie that celebrates divergence would conform so rigidly to formula. There's a new director, Robert Schwentke, in for Neil Burger, and a whole new army of screenwriters, but everyone's still connecting the dots. The film peaks with a series of tests for Tris that play like a gamer's fantasy of virtual reality. Surprise is lacking. Ditto humor, though Miles Teller (Whiplash), as a thorn in Four's side, gets in a few fun licks by not staying on the film's draggy tempo. Otherwise, Insurgent stubbornly fails to surge.