It was bound to happen: Tris, the misfit girl who battled a post-apocalyptic regime in "Divergent," has developed survivor's guilt. Played once again by Shailene Woodley, Tris is haunted by dead loved ones in her dreams. As one ghost puts it: "You killed us all."
That's the internalized theme of "The Divergent Series: Insurgent," the second in a four-film franchise based on Veronica Roth's novels. It doesn't ring true, but it serves two purposes. It's a narcissistic fantasy that allows Tris to play the reluctant messiah, and it adds the illusion of gravitas to a movie whose plot is purely mechanical.
"Insurgent" finds former military elites Tris and Four (Theo James) bouncing between their society's "factions." Chased by the Dauntless army (led by an excellent Jai Courtney as Eric), they hide with the peaceful Amity farmers (Octavia Spencer plays their leader, Johanna), argue with the honest Candor attorneys and finally join the Factionless renegades, led by a slippery Naomi Watts as Evelyn. Their common enemy is Jeanine, an Erudite usurper played by Kate Winslet with ice-cold eyes and a knowing smile.
With its calculated script and clunky direction by Robert Schwentke (replacing Neil Burger), "Insurgent" feels like a prime-time soap, full of big reveals, character kill-offs and some unzippered bodily contact between Tris and Four. James continues to shine in a shallow role, though the show-stealer is Miles Teller ("Whiplash") as the swaggering turncoat Peter. Ansel Elgort returns as Tris' wimpy brother, Caleb.
Despite some fine performances from an appealing cast, "Insurgent" won't help this series escape the shadow of "The Hunger Games." Woodley has everygirl appeal but lacks the magnetism of that franchise's star, Jennifer Lawrence. The overall production also seems smaller, less ambitious. The costumes are standard-issue gear and the futuristic technology doesn't impress (though in fairness, that's getting harder to do these days). The climactic set pieces in which Tris runs a gauntlet of virtual-reality scenarios are created largely with CGI.
Although the "Hunger Games" movies haven't lived up to their potential as political allegory, the "Divergent" series hardly bothers with such ideas. Tris, Four and their brethren exist in what is basically a giant, sci-fi high-school where the final exams are deadly. This franchise may be more honest about its intention to entertain, but it's also far less interesting.