I had the opportunity to watch Insurgent in the theaters last weekend. It received mixed reviews, and had many storytelling problems that, if fixed, could have made it a much better movie. What can we learn from Insurgent’s flaws?
Before we begin…
First, I want to say that the flaws were not primarily the fault of the source content. (For those who don’t know, Insurgent is second in the Divergent series, based off of the YA book series of the same name.) Rather, the flaws mostly lie in the story’s interpretation from book to movie. The problems here are with the specific screenplay, not the overall narrative.
Second, I want to add that the movie did have some things going for it. For example, Shailene Woodley (Tris) is phenomenal, as always, and her acting really anchored the movie. Also, it seemed to be well-received by fans (although dismissed by critics). And of course, there were some interesting feats of cinematography and visual effects… but who cares? This is a storytelling blog. And we’re going to focus on the story, not the technical actualization of that story.
Besides, our goal shouldn’t be to just please the fans. Why not aim for a standard that passes critics’ tests, as well?
So, without further ado, here are the three problems with Insurgent:
1. Disappointing Dialog
The screenwriters did not try hard enough the dialog. Most of it felt stiff, unnatural, and expositional; the writers felt like they had to make the characters explicitly say everything, when it most often would have been more powerful for the characters to imply what they were thinking and feeling.
For example, when Tris confesses to having accidentally killed her friend Will, she says through tears:
“That’s what happens to people who get close to me; they get hurt and die.”
Do people really talk like that? (Yes, she was under a fictional “truth serum”, which would have made her more honest; but this is not a matter of what she would say, but how she would say it.)
We certainly think like that, but the deeper, more painful sentiments often come out in hesitating, uncomfortable fragments; we’ll keep some of the difficult words to ourselves, letting our listeners fill in the blanks.
In another example, Four’s mother refers to him by his childhood name, “Tobias”, and uncharacteristically he pounds the table, shouting:
“Don’t call me that! My name is Four!“
Then he storms away like a toddler with a temper tantrum. Sure, he had difficult memories associated with his old name, and it represented an identity and a life he wanted to leave behind… But still, do people really react that way in real life?
The answer is no. His outburst was not sufficiently justified. It was too exaggerated, too over-the-top; a more subtle expression of anger would have been more effective and believable. Instead, the dialog comes across as comical.
2. Expositional Emotion
This problem is closely tied to the disappointing dialog. In most cases, the screenwriters just fed emotion to us, explicitly telling us through the character’s dialog what we were supposed to feel, but not allowing us the opportunity to actually feel it for ourselves.
What do I mean by this?
For example, Tris feels guilty for killing her friend Will and responsible for the deaths of her parents. The screenwriters chose to have Tris experience dreams and daydreams where characters would literally tell her in her mind, “You did this. You are deadly.”
The effect is stiff and unconvincing. What if, instead, the screenwriters had implied this feeling through the hints characters leave, the unfinished sentences Tris mutters in moments of vulnerability, and the silent performance of the actress?
Emotion isn’t something that can be fed to an audience like apple sauce to a baby. You can’t press a button and say, “Okay, feel arbitrary happiness now! All right, now it’s time to feel sorrow!”
Emotion needs to breath, to live in empty air like a cushion around the characters, emanating from the silence and the unspoken. Or in other words: show emotion, don’t tell.
Let the audience fill in the blanks. Let the audience come to those emotional conclusions on their own – and then be swept along the emotional roller coaster right alongside the characters.
3. Arbitrary Action
This problem, I believe, is the root of all the film’s flaws.
The movie was filled with action/VFX sequences that were random, made no sense, and added nothing to the story. They were not epic or innovative enough to add to the experience.
For example, there’s the moment Tris breaks through glass in slow-motion (as seen in the trailer). There’s a heavy bass, telling us, “This moment is really awesome!!”… But the truth is, the moment wasn’t really awesome.
She was breaking through glass.
So what? Is this new, at all, in the world of action and VFX? (Um, definitely not.)
The action and VFX were overstated in the tone of the film. Most sequences were unnecessary. It could have been just as good of an action thriller without an extended sequence of Tris floating through a shattering city, or Four jumping just in time in front of the train, or Tris leaping off the edge of a building (in slow motion, of course) to grab a rope from a floating house.
This is where the filmmakers lost a critical opportunity.
They spent so much time trying to make the movie into an epic, Matrix-like action thriller that they lost sight of the most important thing: The story and emotions.
This kind of young-adult-geared storytelling has the opportunity to deeply resonate with teenagers and impact them with meaningful themes – such as courage, confidence, and conviction – which the books (and first film) were excellent at achieving.
The filmmakers here lost an opportunity to tell a meaningful, influential story because they were so caught up in creating shattered glass and chase sequences. And that is a true loss indeed.
Did you see Insurgent? What did you think of the movie? What do you think could have made it a better story?