Compelling deconstructions of how our society functions can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Insurgent, the adaptation of the second novel in the Divergent series is a surprisingly excellent example. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would likely never recognize a movie like this, though a dystopian future sci-fi franchise aimed at a young adult audience can be more interesting in terms of gender equality than many of today’s “serious” films.
If you missed the first installment, allow me to bring you up to speed. Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a teen living in a future Chicago, where the city has been walled up from the outside world and the citizens have been assigned to function in one of five factions based on their personality traits. There’s Abnegation (the altruistic), Amity (the peace keepers), Candor (the truth tellers), Dauntless (the fearless), and Erudite (the thinkers). Tris discovers she is Divergent, meaning she holds too many qualities of all five factions, and is thus seen as dangerous, since the peace has been kept by forcing everyone to perform only the duties of their prescribed faction. Insurgent follows Tris and those who have decided to help her fight back against ruthless leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), who will do anything to stop threats to the rigid class society she oversees.
Obviously there is still a long way to go when it comes to women in Hollywood. Much has been written about the dearth of complex characters available for women to play, especially in leading roles. At the same time, movies like Insurgent and The Hunger Games franchise give me hope. The Divergent series examines Tris’ very struggle with what it means to be a well balanced person.
One scene deals very specifically with proving Tris is not just a female hero who has adopted those traits associated with ass kicking male action stars. One of her male companions, Tobias (Theo James), rather cold-bloodedly kills a threat to their progress and Tris is visibly upset by this. Later in the film, she has the opportunity to do the same, but doesn’t. As a Divergent, she holds within herself the power of empathy alongside aggression. She is a fully formed human being, eschewing simple gender stereotypes, be they male or female.
It wouldn’t be enough if this display of agency was limited to just one female character; thankfully that’s not the case. The ultimate villain at this point in the series, Jeanine Matthews, is also a strong woman, but her character explores what that means on the antagonist side of the coin. Winslet plays Matthews with an icy conviction that makes clear her character’s only concern is holding on to the power she has, at any cost. Her motivations are all her own, and she doesn’t depend on anyone, man or woman, to dictate her decisions, nefarious as they may be. We are also introduced in this chapter of the story to a third female leader, the head of a nascent revolutionary group planning to fight Matthews in order to free the masses from her tyranny. Disappointingly, Naomi Watts as Evelyn isn’t given much to do here, but the story sets her up to play a much more important role in the third film.
As promising as Insurgent is from a gender dynamics point of view, it is far from a perfect film. The screenplay suffers from some crucial logic problems starting at about the script’s midpoint. One sequence puts Tris in the clutches of the enemy and smacks of lazy writing, with the characters being in the right place at the wrong time merely to advance the story. There is also a decision made by Tris in the final twenty minutes that defies any coherent explanation, but, as these kinds of choices usually go in the movies, it “luckily” turns out to be the right one. Glaring as these flaws are, I was willing to overlook them because in addition to the progressive gender politics, Insurgent is action packed fun. For audiences who discovered Miles Teller in last year’s breakout performance in Whiplash, seeing the young actor as the sardonic Peter is also an unexpected treat. The energy of the pacing hooked me from start to finish.
Although the source material for Insurgent was written by a woman, the screenplay was adapted by three men. The irony is not lost on me. The ideal situation would be for more and more women to have access to all positions of power (not just writing) when it comes to film production. Hopefully, though, Insurgent will serve as an example of the kinds of well rounded, fully formed female characters that men are capable of writing. If they’ll just put their minds, and their keyboards, up to the task.