Most science fiction works on multiple levels, and the best of it cares equally about telling both its character-driven story and crafting its social commentary. My issues with the DIVERGENT films to date (DIVERGENT and INSURGENT) is that they are so focused on hammering their messages about the dangers of dividing citizens into factions that the characters turn into narrowly realized types in the process, which I guess enters the realm of irony. Every character is trying to out-badass the others, or out-hippie the other smart characters. What results is a film populated by people who are nearly impossible to care much about, despite the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to wedge love stories and other emotionally based relationships into the franchise.
I’ll give the latest film in the series, ALLEGIANT, some credit for not being afraid to expand outside of its crumbling Chicago-of-the-future setting. In this story, the characters make it all the way out to O’Hare Airport, or at least a highly advanced society that lives where O’Hare used to be. Having defeated Kate Winslet’s cold-hearted Jeanine in the last film, the seemingly united factions of Chicago are now bent on trying and executing her minions for war crimes, turning what should be a better world into a chaotic nightmare. The divergent heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley), and her tight-knit group decide to go beyond the walls that surround Chicago and into the unknown, convinced there are others out there.
Along with her love interest Four (Theo James) and friends Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Peter (Miles Teller) and Tris’ brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), whom they had to break out of prison for aligning himself with the previous leadership, Tris finds a toxic world that is barely survivable. They are quickly discovered by residents of the pristine Bureau of Genetic Welfare (built on the remains of O’Hare), led by David (Jeff Daniels), whose main purpose seems to be to breed and raise perfect humans and wait for a divergent to enter its environment to show them the way. They seem like a peaceful and righteous bunch, which of course means they’ll become horrible before long. Also true to form, some of the Bureau’s residents don’t agree with its practices and help Tris and her group stay on the path toward equality and not allowing the powers in and out of Chicago to kill any more humans.
We’re introduced to a host of new characters, but they’re ultimately just variations of ones we’ve already met and dealt with for the previous two films. Outside of Tris, these are sketches of people, with one or two defining traits and little else. Everyone tries to be cooler and less affected by the dire nature of the world around them, but they usually come across as poseurs with fancy laser guns. The film practically uses a megaphone to broadcast that something about the Bureau and David isn’t quite right, but apparently everyone is just so happy to be there; they turn a blind eye to the warning signs. David isolates Tris from the rest of her group with the promise of bigger work ahead in getting back into Chicago and fixing what’s broken, and for a while, it works, which again makes no damn sense because Tris is a natural skeptic who would demand action over words.
We also get updates from what’s going on in Chicago, now under Evelyn’s (Naomi Watts) unsteady leadership. The Bureau is able to spy on Chicago using highly sophisticated surveillance equipment, which opens up a whole new folder of questions about why they didn’t interfere sooner to pull Tris out, if they needed her so desperately. Nothing about the revelations made about this new group’s abilities really makes sense in the context of the new film. Plot points are nothing more than that—a means to keep the story moving forward without much regard for what has come before. But the bigger flaw in ALLEGIANT is that it’s strangely lifeless and stagnant. Its message of equality is certainly timely and important, but they’re also handled clumsily and with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The film parades a few familiar faces before us, mostly in cameos or small supporting roles, such as Octavia Spenser returning as Johanna. Spenser, Watts and others seem about as enthused with the idea of returning to this franchise once again as you’d imagine. They certainly convinced me they were as excited to be there as I was to watch them. Some of the production design and CG work in Allegiant is solid, but without a compelling story or characters to fill in the foreground, we’re left with dead-eyed science fiction, and an unexpectedly brutal take on author Veronica Roth’s book series. I’ve mostly been on board with this franchise up until this point. Directed by returning helmer Robert Schwentke (who also did FLIGHTPLAN, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, and RED) Allegiant is a wandering, lost movie trying to find its way home and not quite getting there.