Friday, August 14, 2015

Insurgent (Summit/Lions’ Gate, Red Lion, Mandeville, NeoReel, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Insurgent, as just about everybody outside of Ulan Bator knows by now, is the second book in the Divergent cycle created by Chicago-based author Veronica Roth, largely as a knockoff of The Hunger Games with admixtures of Ender’s Game (an influence she copped to in the interviews and author’s notes appended to the end of Divergent), 1984 and dystopian science-fiction in general. It takes place in a city-state on the site of modern-day Chicago (including some of the unincorporated parts of Cook County around modern-day Chicago) in which society has been organized around five so-called “Factions”: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. The idea is that each person in the society is supposed to possess an aptitude for one and only one of those — self-sacrifice (Abnegation), universal love (Amity), total honesty (Candor), military and fighting skill (Dauntless) and intellectual pursuits (Erudite) — and as they come of age they’re supposed to pick one of the Factions with which to affiliate with. They can either stay with the Faction they were born into (since people aren’t allowed to marry outside their Faction) or “transfer” to another, and the central characters of the story are Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Tris’s lover “Four” (Theo James) — his true name is Tobias Eaton but he’s been led to believe his parents are dead, and he’s taken that name in honor of how few things he’s afraid of. Both Charles and I were perhaps unreasonably upset that Veronica Roth couldn’t come up with names for the five Factions that were all the same part of speech, instead of two adjectives (Dauntless and Erudite) and three abstract nouns (Abnegation, Amity, Candor), and we were also upset given that based on the sorts of people we are, if we were in this universe we would undoubtedly be Erudite — and Roth made them the villains! Well, one Erudite in particular — Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who wants to dethrone the Abnegation (who according to the faction system have been given the authority of overall governance because they are the least self-interested and therefore would presumably be most immune to corruption or seeking power for its own sake) and establish the Erudite in overall command, and she doesn’t care how many people she has to kill to do it. At the end of Divergent, she stages a raid on Abnegation and slaughters virtually all of them, including Tris’s mother, by using mind-control on the Dauntless and getting them to participate in what they think is merely a “sim” — a simulated reality — instead of an actual attack. Tris is immune to the “sim” because she’s a Divergent — a person with an aptitude to more than one Faction (in the book she’s described as having aptitude for three of the five; in the movie Insurgent she’s shown as being equally adept at all five) — but she kills her friend Will, who is under the sim, and though it’s clearly self-defense, Will’s girlfriend Christina is naturally mad at her.

Charles and I zipped through the Divergent books relatively quickly and remembered the overall plot lines but few of the actual details, and according to various posters, while the Divergent film was a relatively close adaptation of the novel, this one — written, in a typical example of Hollywood’s relay-race system, by Brian Duffield and action-script veteran Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback (those otherwise redundant “and”’s indicate that, rather than working on the script together, they passed it from one to the other like a relay-race baton) and directed by Robert Schwentke (so four men did the film adaptation of a book written by a woman and with a female central character!) — played fast and loose with Roth’s material. Good thing, I say, because while Insurgent the book seemed sloppily structured (the second-act problem; in classical play construction Act I sets up the scene, Act II complicates things and Act III resolves them, and that seems to be the rule in these multi-part young-adult novel cycles as well) Insurgent the movie seemed coherent and absolutely gripping. One reviewer complained that the original director of Divergent, Neil Burger, didn’t get to do the sequel because post-production on Divergent took too long, but Schwentke turned in an excellent job of direction, keeping the film moving at a fast, exciting pace and keeping us from dwelling too long on the anachronisms and plot holes in Roth’s story. I remember Charles was reading Insurgent while I was already on the third book in the cycle, Allegiant (which, following the precedent set by the Harry Potter movies and followed in the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises, is going to be split into two films), and he was lamenting that a lot of things in the plot weren’t explained. Without wanting to give too much away, I told him, “They are going to be explained in Allegiant, but you’re not necessarily going to like the explanations.”

The main issues in Insurgent are Jeanine’s genocidal campaign to wipe out all the Divergent, whom she regards as her only obstacles to total control of the city — until she realizes that the secret box she’s stolen from Tris’s parents can only be opened by someone who’s 100 percent Divergent, so she plugs potential candidates into an elaborate sim machine that will determine whether they have an equal aptitude for all the factions — and the attempts of Tris and Four to keep from being captured and/or killed by Jeanine and her security forces. They hide out first in Amity (Charles questioned why Roth had assigned Amity the duty of running the farms; it’s unclear in the books, but judging from the way the Amity are costumed in the film we’re apparently intended to associate “Amity” with “Amish,” just as when you read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath it quickly becomes apparent that the book is a Biblical allegory as much as a political one and the reason Steinbeck named his central characters “Joad” is it sounds like “Job”), where they’re “outed” when Tris’s temper explodes and she starts a fight; then in Candor, where Tris and Four are subjected to a truth serum and Tris finally reveals that she killed Will; and finally in Erudite headquarters, where Tris gets plugged into the sims (the computer-generated realities she’s subjected to — filmed, appropriately, with CGI — are the most spectacular and cruelly beautiful sequences in the movie), only fortunately Jeanine gets assassinated before the box gets opened (in the book there wasn’t a box; the Founders’ message was simply a file on Jeanine’s computer and the good guys had to hack her computer to reveal it) and the Founders’ message gets revealed: that, far from being this world’s Untermenschen, the Divergent are actually the Übermenschen, the linch-pin of the whole faction experiment. It also informs the restive masses that, contrary to what they’ve been led to believe all their lives, they’re not the only human beings left on the planet; there’s a whole world outside full of people — and Insurgent ends with some beautiful lingering close-ups of a sunrise over the wall that separates their world from the rest of Earth, promising their discovery of just what’s out there which will be the central plot issue of Allegiant.

The Divergent cycle doesn’t have anywhere near the power of the Hunger Games cycle that was its obvious model, and for that I blame Veronica Roth, who’s a good writer but nowhere near as imaginative as Hunger Games creator Suzanne Collins and hardly in her league at balancing action and social comment so the two elements reinforce each other. Roth’s world is also more full of inconsistencies than Collins’; in a class-conscious universe like the one of The Hunger Games it’s believable that the Capitol and its residents had access to high technology while the people in the Districts were just scraping by at subsistence levels (the way Karl Marx said would inevitably happen under capitalism), while in the more tightly knit world of Divergent and its sequelae one wonders how there can be so much high-tech in certain aspects and so little in others — including the same problem I had with the 1936 film of H. G. Wells’ Things to Come: how, in a world in which industrial production has ceased, do the soldiers on both sides get the ammunition for machine guns and other automatic weapons that would be useless without an industrial infrastructure to produce the bullets fired by the guns? Also, how do the trains the Dauntless so spectacularly jump on and off of keep running; where do they get fuel and how do they train the engineers? If I were thinking of it, I’d probably come up with the same explanation Orwell did in 1984: under the control of an all-powerful dictatorship, scientific and technological developments that might improve the physical lot of the masses have been stopped, but the government is still intensively researching the two things it’s really interested in: genocidal weapons and mind-control techniques.

Unlike The Hunger Games, the Divergent cycle seems to me to work better on film than as on paper, especially when you have a director who’s enough of a master of pace you don’t have time to think about the plot holes until the movie is over and you’re looking back on it. It also doesn’t help that the Divergent cycle doesn’t really have that many multidimensional characters (or that the relay of writers pretty much ignored the ones it does have in favor of the either all-good or all-bad leads); about the only really complex character is Caleb Prior, the heroine’s older brother, who transferred out of Abnegation into Erudite (whereas she went into Dauntless) and whose loyalties are torn, much like Gollum a.k.a. Smeagle in The Lord of the Rings, between his family and Jeanine’s vision for a future in which Erudite rules all. Because the characters aren’t all that complex, there’s little the actors can do with them; about all Shailene Woodley and Theo James have to do is keep a stiff upper lip at all the complications and dangers Roth and the screenwriters can throw at them — indeed, given the alliterative titles of Pearl White’s famous serials from a century ago, The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine, at one point I joked this could have been re-edited into a serial and called The Trials of Tris — but I still quite liked the movie (if anything, I think I liked it a bit better than its predecessor in the cycle, which was not my reaction to the books!) as a modern-day “thrill ride,” not especially moving or stimulating as drama but quite exciting and fun entertainment.