The critic Roger Ebert had a resonant line in an old movie review that I stumbled upon when formulating my assessment of The Divergent Series: Allegiant: He said that "we Americans like to see evil in terms of guns and crime and terrorists and drug smuggling – big, broad immoral activities; rarely … about how one person can be personally cruel to another, through their deep understanding of what might hurt the other person the most." That quote is nearly twenty years old, and just as prescient now as a reflection on our culture as it ever was. I suspect it’ll still be prescient two hundred years from now, when the world of this franchise is supposed to take place. Allegiant, for I will not write out the entire laborious title more than once, contains a surprising germ of reactivity to this concept for a chunk of its running time, up until the point where you can almost hear the grinding sound as the plot consigns itself to genre convention.
Movie Review: The Divergent Series: Allegiant
March 22, 2016
I could choose to feel regret over this, or I could choose to feel regret over the fact that I used a perfectly wise Ebert quote about contemporary human nature on a film that will perhaps become best known as the first really big nail in the coffin of the dystopian YA subgenre in film. This series is about gifted young individuals in a post-apocalyptic wasteland version of Chicago, confronted with shifting and deceptive narratives and motivations from the various bureaucratic officials that run the city and the world beyond, and the best thing that Allegiant ever does is posit that the bureaucracy is not necessarily good or evil, but conflicted and suffused with the presumption of knowledge. And like just about everything else we could say regarding this series and its themes and characters, another franchise did it better—most recently The Hunger Games, if we’re talking just about the genre and the market Lionsgate and Summit are aiming for, but we could really toss a rock here at random and hit a more cogent and mature example of what this movie is trying to say.
These gifted individuals are Tris (Shailene Woodley), Tobias (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoe Kravitz), and Peter (Miles Teller); the list goes on, but these are the only five who get more than cursory or token dialogue. They are fugitives from the walled future city of Chicago, which has been previously divided into a system of five factions, with a single personality trait dominating each faction in order to keep the peace. In previous Divergents, the group has overthrown dictatorial leaders and Chicago is now led by what I guess you’d call drifters; they’re known as Factionless. Tris, who is Divergent (more than one personality trait) doesn’t like the Factionless system either, so she escapes from the city with her fellow rebels. Wouldn’t you know that there are parties and councils outside the city watching events transpire with some academic interest; we’re not given much if any information or insinuation as to these parties’ motivation or interest or purpose, but there’s a general feeling of detached pragmatism that I at least found plausible, if not exactly textured or subtle. Tris and cohorts are taken to the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, where they learn about a Purity War and the concept of Pure genetic material and Damaged genetic material.
What you should infer from that bit of word salad is more or less subjective; there’s very little about Allegiant that will make much sense on a storytelling level if you’re not intimately familiar with not just the plot of the prior entries but the ethic of the entire world. Even this is not much of an inoculation against getting lost in the weeds: since the Divergent universe really makes little sense and holds together mostly as a series of rattletrap conveniences with which to issue vague, half-formed pronunciations about individuality and bureaucracy, you can watch these three films back-to-back and still not have much of an idea of who’s doing what to whom and why, and who’s pulling the strings, if anyone really is. You can probably figure it out based on deduction and induction, which are two components of intelligent thought that this movie is in short supply on.
The movie loyally follows the ethic down this rabbit hole, to the point where it begins to seem as if the filmmakers simply give up and begin making the plot up as they go along and tossing out concepts as they occur to them, with little thought given to structure or pacing. In Tris’ first meeting with the Director of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare (Jeff Daniels; who gets the Kate Winslet Award this time around for appearing in some pain at the thought of this film occupying such a prominent spot on his resume), he is outlining the difference between her and (seemingly) everyone else in the world, and it’s really rather remarkable how many times the screenplay fits the word "damaged" into a single short monologue, and how clumsy the result sounds. You have to imagine that this went through a couple of drafts with a couple of different eyes laid on it; all of them signed off on this material.
This purity-versus-damaged narrative, coupled with her visit to a mysterious council that seems pointless from a storytelling perspective only in hindsight, is intended to place Tris front-and-center in her own movie, and Woodley gives it what is, for her, a fair shot (though, it must be noted, she’s not as convincing as she’s been elsewhere in this series). It’s not much fun for me to note that this approach fails pretty hard. Nobody else involved is really any more interesting (although Teller’s slimy, insufferable Peter at least engenders some kind of reaction from us), but the movie pretty much neglects its main character to give some mildly interesting but woefully undernourished subplots to its supporting characters.
Where is the sense of commitment, the confidence in the approach, the establishment of an internal logic? The opening scenario of the film, concerning underground trials and summary executions of the people involved in the previous regime, strikes intriguing and unsettling tones; a truth serum is used on defendants to make them say exactly what’s on their mind; in a culture that seems to have comfortably assimilated the virtue of judging others by their actions and perceived motives rather than actual ones, and the utility of comprehending complex situations in facile black-and-white terms, there’s a shivery plausibility in seeing sham justice carried out under the mantle of populism or the will of the people. This plot thread, embryonic to begin with, is never developed further, and soon we’ve settled on terse conversations, terse pronouncements, terse looks—all of which seem to be building toward something, none of which actually do.
More than anything else, Allegiant suffers from a feeling of mercenary disinterest on almost every front: the filmmakers know that there is a plot development here and one there, and it’s executed with a modicum of competence and no emotional or narrative charge at all. The screenplay is suffocatingly dim and juvenile in its approach to science and human nature. Laborious exposition is given (and given, and given) in lengthy dialogue scenes where the camera points on one character, and then over their shoulder to the other, and over their shoulder to the other. We are given to understand just how little a difference $110 million in resources can make, with sloppy greenscreen compositing work (even in mundane interior settings, for some reason) and deeply unconvincing CGI. Everything and everyone is just going through the motions; frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot of cinematic promise inherent in the material to begin with, but that doesn’t make the result any less enervating to witness.