"Insurgent" Is Annoyingly Contradictory
If this is a franchise about fighting for equality, why is its heroine's specialness all about the way she was born?
Like most dystopian YA protagonists, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), the heroine of the Divergent film franchise, is fighting to save her world.
It's a world that, as outlined out in Veronica Roth's trilogy of books on which the movies are based, is highly regimented but conceptually fuzzy. Everyone has been divvied up into five factions — Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite — based on their personality types, but also maybe on biological factors as well? Children are shuffled off for testing to determine their faction/personality type when they turn 16, though they're allowed to pick whichever faction most appeals to them at the big Choosing Ceremony — it's a huge decision, given that factional allegiance takes precedent over family ties. And by the sequel, Insurgent, which is now in theaters, people are able to whip out a scanner to read someone's makeup, which makes you wonder about the point of the whole simulation/ceremony aspect to begin with.
So the faction system, despite helping maintain peace, clearly sucks, placing the surviving members of society into one of five improbable virtuous boxes, with the remnants consigned to the outcast Factionless. Divergent and Insurgent have revolution on their mind, though it bubbles up indirectly, as Tris and her boyfriend Four (Theo James) discover a scheme in which some evil Erudites try to overthrow Abnegation in order to take control of the government. In Insurgent, Tris, now on the run, is initially only focused on revenge, though it's clear there are larger changes in the works. Meeting with Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the Factionless head (and Four's estranged mother), Tris is entreated to help "put an end to a system that says one group is more deserving than another."
It's a nice message, even if Evelyn's motivations are a bit questionable. The problem, and the most frustrating thing about the Divergent series — more than the preposterousness of its world building, more than its humorlessness, more than the general sense that it's just making things up as it goes along — is that it doesn't believe Evelyn's message at all.
Tris is undeniably the most special person in her post-apocalyptic Chicago universe, entirely because of qualities she was born with. By Insurgent, everyone is trying to find her, because of her unique qualities. Tris is Divergent, meaning her personality cannot be confined to just one faction, and she feels terrible about it ("I never wanted any of this," she tearily confesses) because it makes her stand out as the only person apparently capable of being brave and forgiving and honest and smart and nice, all at once. Even the nefarious Jeanine (Kate Winslet) ends up admitting "this girl is extraordinary."
The exceptional qualities overtly assigned to Tris rarely come through in her actions — though the bar's low in a world where it's a rarity for someone to be kind AND courageous. She makes some terrible strategic decisions in Insurgent, her main personality traits involve wallowing in unfounded guilt, and so few of her choices are active or part of any thought-out plan. There's even a dashing rescue sequence that turns out to be needless, because Tris realizes she's actually where she needed to be all along. It doesn't even matter.
Insurgent's convenient scanners affirm its heroine to be 100% Divergent, the most out of everyone, and that's good enough for the story. But it doesn't have to be good enough for the audience.