The Brave New World of INSURGENT

Theo James as Tobias or "Four" and Shailene Woodley as Tris.

Insurgent, the second chapter in Summit Entertainment’s Divergent series, arrives over a year after the first film, but takes place only three days after the climatic battle that ended Divergent, where the heroine, Tris seemed to be heading with her boyfriend Tobias Eaton or “Four” towards the walled “outlands” of a futuristic Chicago, that has been divided into five factions. However, as Insurgent opens, we find that Tris and Tobias are now living in hiding among the Amity faction, led by the kindly Octavia Spencer.

Since I had forgotten much of what took place in Divergent, here is some background on the basic premise of the series, which no doubt will also be helpful for first time viewers:

In a Chicago of the future, survivors have been divided into five factions based on their abilities, temperaments and personal preferences. As the books author Veronica Roth explains, members of “Abnegation believe in selflessness, Candor believe in honesty, Dauntless are into bravery, Erudite value intelligence, and Amity value kindness, peacefulness and friendship. A person in the faction system believes that to be Faction less means to be without community, to be disenfranchised and on your own, and a failure in the most essential way. But, to someone who is Faction less, it means freedom.”

Insurgent gets off to a bang when Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the power crazed head of the Erudite faction has her soldiers ruthlessly search for Tris, and quickly discovers her in the commune like Amity faction. Jeanine also discovers a pentagonal shaped box that Tris’s parents had hidden away, with each side bearing the seal of one of the five factions. Apparently it contains an important message that may well determine the future direction of this dystopian society, but it can only be unlocked by a divergent person, who possesses qualities of each of the factions.

The good news, is that, unlike the second film in The Hunger Games series, Insurgent is not merely a thinly veiled remake of the first movie, but branches off in quite a different direction, as we explore the distinct world of the other factions in depth, as well as those who are “Faction less,” who turn out to be led by Tobias’ own mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts). But can Evelyn be trusted, or is she just as power crazed as Jeanine is?

We also delve into a surrealistic dream world, more on the order of Inception, as Tris has to endure five separate dream-style tests in order to successfully unlock the secret of the box. Indeed, with her close cropped hair, and also facing a series of seemingly desperate battles, Tris becomes a sort of Joan of Arc figure, who like Joan, willingly surrenders herself to Jeanine, where she will have to undergo a trial by dream ordeal. Shailene Woodley also tends to recall the young Jean Seberg, who of course, was first brought to stardom in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

Interestingly enough, with it’s future society ruled mostly by very strong women characters, Insurgent also recalls the future utopia portrayed in John Boorman’s Zardoz, where the society is also made up of very separate and distinct factions, in a world sealed off from the outside. In fact, in one of Tris’s dream ordeals, she must overcome a surrealistic building on fire, where her mother is entrapped, that is flying through the skies over Chicago, much like Sean Connery had to endure, to enter the sealed off vortex in Zardoz.

Robert Schwentke takes over the directorial reigns from Neil Burger on Insurgent and gives the film a suitable fast pacing, with two brisk opening action sequences, which unfortunately are just a bit too overloaded to be believable, but then he settles things down, allowing the story to focus a bit more on the characters, as well as the action, which makes for a more pleasing blend, as Mr. Schwentke did so nicely with The Time Traveler’s Wife. The film also benefit’s greatly from it’s top-notch cast, with most of it’s young actors having gone on to important starring roles in other films after appearing in Divergent, and now being more familiar, bring a certain gravitas to their roles, as well as a few twists, especially in the characters played by Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort.

Bringing back the dead in THE LAZARUS EFFECT

Olivia Wilde, Evan Peters and Mark Duplass star in Relativity Media's "The Lazarus Effect".

THE LAZARUS EFFECT is quite an effective little horror chiller, that benefits greatly by treating it’s subject–a group of scientists exploring the possibility of bringing the dead back to life–with deadly seriousness. The movie follows two romantically involved researchers, Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), who are operating with a grant from a Berkeley University, where they experiment with bringing recently deceased animals back to life. Just as they succeed in bringing a dog back to life–like the hapless Dr. Frankenstein–their project is halted in it’s tracks. Not by angry villagers, but by a biotech company, who seize all their research materials for there own corporate use.

What makes the film especially fascinating, is that it delves into metaphysical discussions about what actually may happen after death, with Frank taking a more scientific and atheistic point of view, vs. Zoe who brings a more traditional theological bent to their conjectures.

It’s also what attracted director David Gelb to the project, who said, “I loved the idea of really exploring the concept of being brought back to life. What would you experience while you were gone? How would you be different when you came back? And what might you potentially bring back with you? The young scientists in our film set out to give patients and loved ones hope, but they discover that there can be horrible consequences to playing with the power of life. As events begin to unfold, the story takes a sharp turn into becoming an absolutely terrifying thrill ride where you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know who the next character to disappear is going to be, and the scares are pretty intense.”

Indeed, it takes nearly half way into the film before we get any inkling about who might suddenly die, so they can conveniently be brought back to life. Of course, it won’t be a shock if you’ve seen the poster or the trailer (and I had not), so for me, it did add a bit more suspense to the first 30 minutes of the picture, while the basic premise is being developed.

Like any good FRANKENSTEIN movie, the subject of life after death is one of endless fascination, which is also the basis for movies like BRAINSTORM and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. In fact, rather strangely, the same weekend THE LAZARUS EFFECT opens, director John Boorman also talked about the subject when he was in San Francisco for the opening of his own delightful new picture, QUEEN AND COUNTRY.

When asked if QUEEN AND CONTRY might be his last film Mr. Boorman replied, “Yes, you saw the little signal in the last shot of the film. The camera stops. That was my little signal. I’m 82, so it’s high time I stopped. It’s high time I died, actually. I don’t want to be still working at 104!”

However, when pressed, Mr. Boorman admitted he does have a script he still would like to make, also about life after death. “It’s called HALFWAY HOUSE,” explained Boorman, “and there are some people who are encouraging me to do it. It’s about a man whose wife commits suicide and he has a recurring dream in which he visits a kind of clearing house where people go after they die. They are given a video of their entire life, and before they can move on, they must edit it down to three hours of highlights! If I live long enough and I’m strong enough, maybe I will make it.”