Teenage War is Hell Too

Shailene Woodley in Insurgent
“Teenage War is Hell Too”
A Review of Insurgent by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13

Reel Rating, Three Reels

            In any trilogy of art, the sequel is usually darker than the original, and Insurgent is no exception. Taking off shortly after Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) stopped the evil Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) from completely taking over post-apocalyptic Chicago, the new rebellion finds that starting a war is easy but winning a war while keeping morals intact is much harder. The result is a film that is more uneven and unpleasant than the excellent Divergent but nonetheless manages to package an important message in a way teenagers can stomach.
            In the months following the failed coup, Tris and Four have been hiding in an Amity community near after Matthews falsely blamed them for the uprising. It becomes clear that Tris is suffering from PSTD, experiencing terrifying dreams at night and violent emotions during the day. As the film progresses, her mental state continues to deteriorate, frequently falling into fits of sobbing like Jeremiah weeping for Jerusalem. Her problems only increase when Matthews finds a mysterious box from the ancient founders of their society, which ironically can only be opened by Tris. Matthews believes the message will confirm her prejudice against Divergents and begins killing everyone in sight to get to her. Meanwhile, Four’s estranged mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts) has forged an underground alliance between the Factionless and the fugitive Dauntless, creating an army that could finally challenge Matthews’ dominance. Hope seems on the horizon when a tiny sliver of the hidden truth beyond the Wall is revealed until the very last seconds.
            The central thread running through this second installment is absolute Hell of war, not simply the loss of life but deep moral depravity. This society prized secular order over personal familial bonds, and now the consequences become shockingly evident. Tris is first betrayed by a close friend, then her only relative. Evelyn lets her son believe she was dead for years until he became political adventitious. The worst is Matthews who uses to mind control to force people to commit suicide. Even the “good characters” begin violating their own ideals. Four executes an enemy out of anger rather than necessity. Tris calmly announces that Matthews must die in order for peace. While the rebellion may indeed be successful, what is to stop the next generation from perpetuating the violence? The great problem with rebellions is that they usually make people less free in the end. History has proven this again and again from the French Revolution to ISIS. America showed that freedom is possible, but it is the exception, not the norm, and must be fought anew with every generation.
            One of the few moments of relaxation occurs when Tris and Four seek refuge at Candor headquarters; Candor is the justice faction that prizes honesty as the prime virtue. Daniel Kim plays Jack Kang, the leader of Candor, in a small but brilliant performance. He gives them an opportunity to testify under a truth serum, repeating a familiar phrase: “may the Truth set you free.” Amid heartache and tears, Tris and Four pour out their deepest secrets. Once the truth about Matthews is objectively revealed, Kang agrees to help them, giving the rebellion a fighting chance. This wonderful little scene is like a breath of fresh air because while the truth can be hidden or obscured, it doesn’t change. Once it comes out unfiltered, the right decision can be made.
            Insurgent is ultimately a brief lull in a much larger epic that will have its conclusion in the two part finale – a deplorable tradition and pure money grab started by the Harry Potter franchise. It answers many questions but proposes even more, leaving the audience not far from where it began. Ultimately, the biggest question is not what is beyond the walls of the city, but what does real freedom mean? Divergent showed clearly that real freedom comes from within, being a moral person. That’s less clear in Insurgent but still vaguely present under the apocalyptic ash heap that was once civilization.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on March 28th, 2015.