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‘Insurgent’ fails as both a movie and a lesson in collective action

(Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

(Andrew Cooper / Lionsgate)

“Insurgent” is not a great movie. As young adult fiction goes, the “Divergent” series’ second installment runs through a relatively conventional set of genre tropes: a dystopian society with an ice queen (or king) figurehead, some fearsome world beyond its borders, warring resistance factions, a brawny love interest/kindred spirit, and a plucky, valiant — but traumatized — lady protagonist different from the world around her.

For all of these reasons, the “Divergent” series has drawn more than a few comparisons to “The Hunger Games,” the most recent film adaption of which out-classed “Insurgent” in leaps and bounds, at least when it comes to the art of filmmaking. That said, “Insurgent” is worth watching for what it might say about the culture that created it.

An adaptation of the second in Veronica Roth’s best-selling young adult book series, “Insurgent” takes place in hollowed-out Chicago. To maintain peace, the government says, society has been divided into five Harry Potter house-esque factions, each indicative of a profession and dominant personality type: Abnegation are compassionate bureaucrats; Candor are honest, and staff the city’s court system; Erudite are shrewdly logical; Dauntless are brave soldiers; and Amity, as we see in the film’s first several minutes, are communitarian, peacenik farmers. Everyone is born into a certain faction, but upon reaching adolescence, take a battery of tests to “pick” into their chosen one, where they’ll live and work for the rest of their lives. Those who fail the test become “factionless,” a sort of lumpen proletariat forced to live in squalor.

Amidst all this are the “divergents,” genetically (or otherwise) variant Chicagoans, who don’t fit cleanly into any category, but excel in multiple. Divergence is staunchly discouraged, as it disrupts the carefully brokered harmony contingent on discretion between the factions. Rather, those found to be divergent are taught to pick a normative team and stay silent.

In the climax of the last film, Machiavellian Erudites — believing themselves entitled to rule because of their superior brainpower — drug Dauntless soldiers with mind control serum and order them to kill off Abnegation, whose congeniality and role as heads of government present a threat to Erudite’s prospective rule. Tris, who chose Dauntless, is unaffected by the mind-control serum because of her divergence, along with her hunky boyfriend Four — another divergent played by Theo James. The two sneak into the lair of icy-cool Erudite leader Janine — played by Cate Winslet — and use the serum to foil her evil plot, injecting her before commanding that she undo the orders to Dauntless to slaughter Abnegation.

“Insurgent” picks up just moments after “Divergent” left off, with Tris, Four and company taking literal refuge in Amity’s eerily Jonestown-like farming commune. Tris is haunted by having reluctantly killed her friend, and the death of her parents at the hands of her hopped-up Dauntless compatriots. Jeanine and her thugs have declared martial law because “peace is illusive,” and charged the divergents with carrying out the attack on Abnegation. She has also found a mysterious object she was looking for that, surprise surprise, only a true divergent (read: Tris) can access. Sparing spoilers, the rest proceeds like you might expect: Tris and Fours’ relationship is tested, families are complicated, good defeats evil, and the world is not as limited as their cloistered, traumatized society thought it was.

So, what exactly is so compelling about “Insurgentand the “Divergent” series, more generally? The films, like a lot of dystopian YA fiction, are premised on the idea of some vast yet terrifying unknown. Accordingly, the society inside creates a series of rules like the faction system to keep themselves from expanding beyond their carefully defined limits, and — ideally — from killing each other within them. Unlike how “The Hunger Games” focused on inequality within a given world, “Insurgent” questions the validity of the world itself — undermining its characters’ assumptions about their own contexts. Almost anything — from Ayn Rand-style individualism to radical anti-capitalism — can be read into these films and books, and we may never know what complicated allegory “Divergent” author Veronica Roth had in mind while penning the series. That doesn’t mean we can’t draw new ones.

Fear of the unknown isn’t only a problem for Tris, Four and their friends, but for all of us. The idea is a simple one: Being raised entirely in one system makes it virtually impossible to imagine other ones. Capitalism rests on presenting a totalizing vision of the world, complete with interlocking forces like systemic racism and sexism. To imagine a world free of those is both difficult and terrifying, but, in their divergence, things like mass movements and parallel institutions offer glimpses of how that other world could look, taste and feel. In Greece, populist party Syriza rose to power by letting people imagine a country free from Troika-imposed austerity; in Spain, Podemos is poised to do the same in this year’s general elections. There are smaller examples, too, in solidarity economies and a whole range of alternative social and economic practices that buck conventional wisdom.

Still, “Insurgent” exists in a frame of revolution that’s not just outdated, but dangerously naïve. Keeping in mind that “Insurgent” is — first and foremost — a blockbuster, the movie misses a key opportunity to display the power of collective action. Chicago, as Roth imagines it, is primed for an uprising: a small, unpopular elite is dependent on capital that could be easily cut off through strikes, boycotts and mass noncooperation. Instead, a group of teenagers rather clumsily storms the Erudite headquarters, and, almost by sheer luck, kills its enemies through force. It isn’t too hard to imagine what their chances might be in a real-life autocracy: slim.

As too many revolutionaries have learned the hard way, taking out your enemy without shifting the broader culture can often mean sliding back into civil unrest, which makes it all the more baffling that the film’s treatment of violence is so uncritical. In Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s exhaustive study of violent and nonviolent revolutions over the last 100 years, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” they found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as their violent counterparts. Violent movements were less likely to result in peaceful societies after the fact and those that co-existed with armed groups — or featured them as a part of the campaign — were 22 percent more likely to “[experience] a recurrence of civil war within 10 years.” “Political recoveries from insurgencies conducted by a relatively small number of armed fighters,” Chenoweth and Stephan argue quantitatively and qualitatively, “are more difficult than those from insurgencies driven by large and unarmed segments of the population.”

While the “Hunger Games” series, too, lionizes violence as the key to a people’s revolution, it deals more honestly with the devastating toll that violence takes on those largely poor and working class citizens forced by Panem’s 1 percent to carry it out. Katniss, the series’ protagonist, spends most of “Mockingjay Part 1” reeling through the PTSD induced by the games and the civil war that’s followed the spark of revolt. What author Suzanne Collins’ is clear to point out is that Katniss’s power is as a symbol — her ability to inspire collective action. By the third film (and book), there’s no illusion left that Katniss alone can overthrow President Snow’s dictatorship.

Even if “Insurgent” falls short of spelling out a new world or how to get there, then, at least its popularity confirms that we want one. Thankfully, history offers better lessons — if less dazzling — in tactics and strategy.