Among "Insurgent's" myriad hot topics -- including tyranny, tribalism, violence, oppression and genocide -- one of the really burning issues has got to be the bedraggled heroine Tris Prior's self-inflicted haircut, which somehow makes actress Shailene Woodley look like she just walked out of the Salon de Coiffeur in Paris.

Still, amid all the terrible things going on in this second installment of "The 'Divergent' Series," a do-it-yourself 'do offers a ray of hope for the cosmetologically challenged.

"Right," Woodley agreed. "It's like, 'Life would be great if you could cut your own hair while looking in a broken mirror and have it turn out like that.' "

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She said six or seven short-haired Woodleys -- several stunt doubles plus the 23-year-old actress -- were assembled for some of the action scenes that highlight this latest installment in the Veronica Roth-authored series, which opens Friday. The series will continue -- taking a cue from the "Harry Potter" and "Hunger Games" franchises -- with the third novel, "Allegiant," being released in a two-part movie finale (set to shoot this year, and scheduled for release in 2016 and '17).

Fans are a long way from a conclusion: Tris, her fellow rebels and her fellow "divergents" -- those who don't fit into their post-cataclysmic society's "factions" of Amity, Candor, Abegnation, Dauntless and Erudite -- are on the run from the power-mad Erudite leader Jeanine (an ice-blond Kate Winslet), who is inducing suicide among the rebellious in an effort to force a surrender. Desperate to quell the violence, Tris gives herself up to Jeanine, leading to a series of computer-generated nightmare encounters between Tris and her subconscious, replete with architecture crumbling and physics defied.

The Robert Schwentke-directed "Insurgent" seems a deliberate departure from director Neil Burger's style on "Divergent," which prided itself on a limited number of computer effects. With "Insurgent," all bets are off.

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"We're spending a lot of time in Tris' dreamscape," said Octavia Spencer, the Oscar-winning actress ("The Help") who plays Amity's Johanna Reyes. "Since it's all her interior perspective, the only way to demonstrate that is through CGI," or computer-generated imagery. More important to Spencer, who said she was a fan of the books before the movies ever got started, is the thrust of the story and the population of Roth's novels.

"Veronica Roth really, really wrote a beautiful narrative that's very empowering to young people, especially women," said Spencer. "I'm appreciative that she was really inclusive and practiced a lot of diversity in her novel, and I'm proud to be part of a very progressive movie."

What its participants also express is a hope that "Insurgent" won't be pigeonholed as YA, or "young adult," but rather as a film for a much wider audience.

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"I thought it didn't feel like a YA film," said Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris' brother, Caleb. "It didn't feel like it had been made for a certain group of people. It's a movie for everyone. A little darker. And better."

Woodley concurred. "The demographic is very broad," she said, ticking off the raft of young up-and-comers (see sidebar), including Elgort; Theo James, who plays her love interest, Four; and Miles Teller as the double-crossing Peter. "But there are so many adults in the film as well, like Kate, Octavia, Naomi . . . "

Naomi Watts, brunette and inscrutable, plays Four's mother, Evelyn, who abandoned her son as a child and now wants a reunion. "You don't quite know her motives or how to read her," said Watts, who mentioned that she hasn't played a brunette since "Tank Girl" (1995). "Is she there just to make amends? A lot of things are left unanswered."

Among them: Whether audiences will swallow Watts, 46, playing the mother of James, 30. "I had to wrap my head around that one, too," the actress said with a laugh. She said she's played mothers of babies, and even kids 12 or 13. "But this latest jump was quite a dramatic one."

With two more movies, or about four hours of screen time, left to "The 'Divergent' Series," it's good the actors like their characters.

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"He's a conflicted guy," Elgort said of Caleb, "but he definitely has depth, which is very nice."

"She's obviously an educated woman," Spencer said of Johanna. "She's also the keeper of the keys. Her faction has resources that all other factions need; they all rely on each other for different things, but Amity is about sustenance and I think she takes the job seriously."

"I really do love the character," Woodley said of Tris Prior. "In the first film, she's trying to figure out who she is; in this one, she's trying to figure out who she is apart from her circumstances; what she is able to determine is right and wrong. Not according to her family. But according to herself."

 

 

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Stars about to be born?

Thanks to fate, destiny or the position of the moon, certain films have provided a snapshot of a certain generation of actors, in the moment just before they blasted off. "The Breakfast Club," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Mean Girls" were all comedies peopled with stars about to happen; a more recent and more dramatic example, "Lawless," featured Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Mia Wasikowska, none of whom was yet the personality he or she was about to become. It's too soon to tell, of course, but "Insurgent" -- thanks to the collective weight of its talent -- might just fall into this category, too:

 

SHAILENE WOODLEY Arguably a star already, ever since that breakout performance in "The Descendants" (2011), Woodley burnished her YA bona fides with the lead in "The Fault in Our Stars" (2014), showed an independent streak with Gregg Araki's quirky "White Bird in a Blizzard" (2014) and exhibited considerable range in "The Spectacular Now" (2013). She also has a little something called "Allegiant" (Part 1), due next year.

ANSEL ELGORT He made an indelible impression alongside Woodley in "The Fault in Our Stars," will reappear as her brother in the upcoming "Allegiant" films and starts shooting director Sasha Gervais' "November Criminals" opposite Chloe Grace Moretz, as soon as the "Insurgent" storm subsides.

MILES TELLER The "Whiplash" guy, he got slightly overshadowed by J.K. Simmons' Oscar-winning performance in that film, but Teller is a solid actor, not afraid of playing -- and fully inhabiting -- characters that are less than adorable (as he's done in "Divergent" and "Insurgent," and even in "Whiplash").

THEO JAMES In a movie full of beautiful people, James is still kind of ridiculously good-looking, but an actor, nonetheless. He'll be back in the two-part "Allegiant" (2016-17) but will have to show another side as Guy Clinch in the upcoming, long-awaited, much-anticipated adaptation of Martin Amis' "London Fields," due later this year (and which will also star Johnny Depp).

ZOE KRAVITZ She has a pedigree -- Dad is rocker Lenny Kravitz, Mom is "Cosby" alum Lisa Bonet -- but she makes an memorable impression all her own as the "Insurgent" character Christina, whose boyfriend Will was bumped off by Tris (in self-defense) way back in "Divergent."