Tucked deep in the recesses of a Tuesday night, two large bits of entertainment news hit the metaphorical wire, lighting up the echo chamber of the Internet (and especially Twitter) with some good old-fashioned outrage. Our own Scott Beggs has already shared the heartbreaking news that (sad face emoticon) indie darling Greta Gerwig is now a huge sellout who will never again make another quirky and original film and will instead toil forever in the salt mines of corporate sitcom hell. Let us mourn. Amidst the Gerwig-centric rage, another piece of news also arrived – that Robert Schwentke is set to helm the second entry into Lionsgate’s Shailene Woodley-starring Divergent series, based on the very popular YA trilogy by Veronica Roth. If the Gerwig news did not already tap your rage reserves, come with me – we shall spend it here.
Divergent director Neil Burger bowed out of the second film, Insurgent, back in December, as he was reportedly disinterested in keeping up with the backbreaking filming schedule that Lionsgate has demanded of the series (with Divergent hitting theaters on March 21, the studio has already set similar March release dates in 2015 and 2016 for the final two entries, ensuring an eye-popping production pace). At the time, we mused as to who we would like to see direct Insurgent, a film marked with significantly more action than its predecessor, an action-heavy outing that could benefit from some a similarly action-minded director. We dropped names like David Yates, Paul Greengrass, Luc Besson, Jan de Bont, Peter Berg, and Kathryn Bigelow – big names, big directors, big bucks.
Instead, we’re getting Robert Schwentke (as reported by Deadline), who last directed the dismal R.I.P.D., a tremendous flop that only made $33.6M on its $130M budget. Amusingly enough, the film opened against Red 2, the sequel to the Schwentke-directed Red, and the second entry made over $142M against its $84M budget (the first Red is Schwentke’s biggest success so far, making nearly $200M at the box office).
Coming off the heels of R.I.P.D., it seems strange to reward Schwentke with what could be a blockbuster franchise gig, especially if this thing turns into a Hunger Games-styled juggernaut – but the director does have a surprisingly stellar track record, at least at the box office. Before R.I.P.D. (again, a flop) and Red (again, a major success), Schwentke helmed just two other big studio films – the highly forgettable 2005 actioner Flightplan, which made a staggering $223M at the box office, along with the 2009 adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was a horrific take on the beloved Audrey Niffenegger novel of the same name, which still made over $100M. Schwentke’s early work is rounded out with two smaller, German-language films – Tattoo and The Family Jewels.
Schwentke certainly has a mixed bag of a resume, and while his last two films have focused on comic book action, they are not even close to the kind of work necessary to make Insurgent good. The Woodley-starring series is already perilously close to getting lumped into the ever-growing YA pile, but Roth’s books are genuinely good, clever, and engaging (though, on a personal note, I have to express extreme disappointment in the series’ final installment, though the first two books are so solid that I can almost forgive Roth for her conclusion, almost).
Set in future Chicago (wait, don’t run away just yet), the books chronicle a society that has reformed after some kind of cataclysmic event that inspired its citizens to divide up into five very different “factions,” based on their dominant skills and personalities. At each sixteen, all citizens undergo a battery of tests to determine which faction they should be placed in (the faction you are born into is not necessarily the one you belong in), giving the teens the choice of picking a new faction. Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Woodley) has long sought to bust out of the confining Abnegation faction, but when her test results reveal that she is – gasp! – divergent, everything changes. Being divergent means that you fit into more than one faction, and that’s dangerous for such a rigorously divided society.
Woodley is a canny pick for the role of the once-wimpy Tris, and installing her in such a series is a good way to keep her going down the Jennifer Lawrence path. But Schwentke? For a feature that requires both big action and clever twists? Not so much.
While it might sound as if Insurgent is a second chance picture for the filmmaker, it’s not – he already has a staggering five other films in development, from the World War II thriller The Poison Kitchen to the Coast Guard drama The Finest Hours to the fact-based Enron film Conspiracy of Fools. Schwentke’s upcoming work is studded with the historical, the dramatic, and the high profile. In short, it’s a wonderful slate of films for a director who hasn’t created the kind of work that deserves such riches – or that can serve them well. Insurgent just might be the first victim of Schwentke’s diminishing returns and lack of real experience.