Gorgeous-looking ‘Insurgent’ further explores ‘Divergent’ world (Movie review)

“Insurgent” further clarifies the political structure of the “Divergent” universe, features award-worthy set pieces in a run-down Chicago two centuries in the future and – like the original film – ultimately succeeds because Shailene Woodley is easy to root for as reluctant hero Tris Prior.

There are a few confusing elements to “Insurgent,” based on the sequel novel in Veronica Roth’s trilogy about a dystopian communist state. I thought Amity, the faction where our heroes find refuge in the opening act, was outside the wall. However, despite being in the countryside rather than the city proper, it is inside the wall. The mystery of what’s truly outside the wall, luckily, does begin to get addressed in the final act.

I had thought Erudite was the faction of political leaders, whereas Dauntless had the role of military and police. However, “Insurgent” makes it clear that Erudite has its own army, making this faction the stand-in for any large government that abuses its power.

I was also briefly thrown off by the eternally youthful Naomi Watts playing Theo James’ mom – but sure enough, there is a 16-year difference in their ages, so I guess it’s feasible.

Once I got those things figured out, I enjoyed the ride of “Insurgent.” I feared the movie might be a slog of our heroes – Tris; her boyfriend, Four (James); her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort); and their ally, Peter (Miles Teller) – struggling to build up a resistance to the power-craving Erudite government led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Somewhat inexplicably, but also refreshingly, there’s already a resistance in place — or at least Factionless, Dauntless, Amity and Candor are not blindly obedient to Jeanine.

Dauntless shows that a militarized police isn’t so bad, just so long as those police stand with the people rather than the rogue government. And Candor’s use of truth serum works out beautifully for Four and Tris, as they simply have to tell the truth about what happened in “Divergent” in order to gain these allies – although the truth-telling process is painful to Tris for personal reasons.

There are some plot holes in “Insurgent” – at one point, Jeanine’s top soldier, Max (Mekhi Phifer), reports back to her immediately after a scene where his team is apprehended by the resistance. Apparently Max escaped the cordon, but a scene showing that would’ve helped. And there is often a convenient ease by which our heroes move through enemy territory. I guess we can assume there is a lot of resistance-versus-Erudite action going on just off-screen — and that’s fine; it’s a long enough movie as it is.

As I said, there are some great set pieces in this Georgia-filmed movie, from a skirmish on a moving train to stairwell shoot-’em-ups to a rooftop battle where Erudite’s forces descend at vertical angles. The Factionless’ underground society, featuring rooms carved out of stone sort of like Anasazi structures, is eye-popping. Even talky scenes of Tris and Four climbing through rubble look great. As in the first film, there are some heavily computer-generated sequences, especially when Tris is tested with virtual reality simulations, but I was willing to put up with those since the reality of the world had already been gorgeously established.

One scene is staged rather poorly: Three mind-controlled people step slowly toward a ledge while the whole resistance dumbly watches, rather than helping. Only Tris and Four make a move. But for the most part, scenes are staged well.

There’s decent characterization, too, at least for the four leads. As always, Woodley – with short hair, perhaps due to filming “The Fault in Our Stars” just before this — seems to underplay her role yet had me rooting for her. In “Insurgent,” Tris holds herself responsible for the deaths of loved ones around her. Some badass gun-toting chicks who inspire a resistance against a corrupt government just don’t realize how cool they are.

While “Insurgent” drags a bit in a final act that twists between reality and a simulated world in Tris’ head, it recovers nicely with a set-up for the third installment, “Allegiant” – which, perhaps unfortunately, will do the usual movie thing of splitting into two parts. Is there utopia beyond the wall, or just a new set of problems? Almost certainly the latter, but I’m curious enough about the details that I’ll probably be back in the cheap seats about a year from now.