Thursday, March 17, 2016

Movie Review: 'The Divergent Series: Allegiant'

There’s a definite hierarchy in the world of dystopian young adult movie adaptations. The Hunger Games obviously ruled the roost for four movies, and The Maze Runner films have found a nice spot in the marketplace. But for every successful franchise there are a handful of nonstarters—I Am Number Four, The Mortal Instruments—that never find an audience, despite the popularity of the source novels. The Divergent Series films are a kind of middle ground. They’re not huge, record-shattering affairs, but they’re popular enough that they keep coming, and while they’ve never been particularly egregious, they’ve been, at best, innocuous. The latest chapter, however, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, takes a precipitous nosedive from bland and forgettable to straight up terrible.

Because the studios are trying to squeeze every last cent out of these properties, and because this is the way of the modern world, The Divergent Series: Allegiant is essentially an adaptation of the first half of the final book in Veronica Roth’s trilogy of YA novels. The final installment drops next summer. As a result, of course, Allegiant feels like a part of a whole for the simple reason that’s precisely what it is. There are attempts to give the narrative a modicum of closure, but there’s only so much to work with, and the conclusion is an obvious set up for next time. It tries to leave us on a cliffhanger, but can’t help but wish it would just be over already.

While the previous two movies—Divergent and Insurgent—took place a walled-off futuristic Chicago, The Divergent Series: Allegiant does what many later chapters in this sort of saga do, it opens up the world. Beyond Chicago, heroine Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), her hunky boyfriend Four (Theo James), and a crew of their allies find a whole other civilization. The planet has been messed up by war and is an irradiated wasteland, and, for the last 200 years, their society in Chicago has been a social experiment. While Tris and Four are out there dancing around with David (Jeff Daniels), the leader of these outsiders who have set up shop in the remnants of O’Hare Airport, and having their minds blown, back in Chicago, Four’s mom (Naomi Watts) and her faction of Factionless are embroiled in a burgeoning civil war with Johanna (Octavia Spencer) and her new crew, the Allegiant. It’s a mess, replacing one form of fascism with another in a heavy-handed, half-assed sermon about repeating the mistakes of the past.

As you can tell, Allegiant has a great deal going on. Not only is there the conflict in Chicago that has been building for two movies to contend with, director Robert Schwentke and writers Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage have to introduce an entirely new world, a task that isn’t handled with much grace or deftness of touch. Allegiant positively bulges with fresh information, most of which is delivered in large chunks of exposition heavy dialogue that threaten to put the viewer to sleep. Unless you’re really into watching Jeff Daniels sit at a desk and lecture a sullen teenage girl about the history of a post-apocalyptic society. This causes the pace to be all over the place, and periodic action sequences are injected in an attempt to pull the movie out of these doldrums.

Like its predecessors, Allegiant falls into victim to its idiotically rendered world. Whereas the earlier chapters split the population into overly simplistic system of Factions based on a single personality trait, Allegiant divides people into even broader categories. This time out we’ve got the “Pure” and the “Damaged.” As before, the movie endeavors to make a point about how everyone, no matter what, has an inherent value, but again it’s brutally, painfully basic. There’s absolutely nothing deeper or more in-depth than that surface message, which is driven home by tedious speech after tedious speech.

The fact that Tris initially buys into the horseshit David shovels will frustrate fans of The Divergent Series—one thing I keep hearing over and over again is that even those who love the books hate the third book, and watching Allegiant I totally understand why. After spending two movies being brave and heroic and never accepting things because that’s the way they are, Tris swallows David’s vision of the world right away in the laziest, most na├»ve way. She’s never been the most nuanced character, but watching her be such a fool for no discernable reason is a betrayal to her established personality and she becomes a moody, petulant teenage brat.

This shifting disposition is just one of Allegiant’s huge inconsistencies. There are plot holes galore, and giant looming questions about this new society that are left unanswered and glossed over when that information should have been part of the world building. On the visual side, the landscape that has been built is a horrific green screen nightmare on par with the ubiquitous CGI of the Star Wars prequels, and is just as distracting and off-putting.

Yet again, Allegiant has assembled a surprisingly strong cast it does nothing with. At this point, Shailene Woodley is simply going through the motions and I was left with the distinct impression that she doesn’t want to be there anymore. Theo James is handsome and acquits himself well enough in the action scenes, but when he talks has all the charm and charisma of a lacquered two-by-four. Zoe Kravitz is, again, completely un-utilized in any real way—though a friend pointed out that, with the post-apocalyptic setting, maybe this is a precursor to Mad Max: Fury Road, a theory that makes Allegiant exponentially more watchable. As the key new addition, Jeff Daniels is little more than a talking head. His character is supposed to be cunning and manipulative and sinister, but he comes off as disinterested and almost goofy instead.

There is one person who is having a damn fine time in Allegiant, however, and that’s Miles Teller. On the press rounds for Divergent a few years back, he talked about how much he hated the experience, about how miserable he was, only to walk it back when he realized—or, more likely, was reminded by the studio—that holy shit, he’s contractually obligated to make three more of these. He appears to have found a way to do fulfill his responsibilities while enjoying himself, playing Peter as a shit-eating, self-interested sleaze who is too fun to watch to hate too completely.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant has interesting themes and ideas, but absolutely zero clue how to execute them with any depth or insight. Indifferent acting, mediocre special effects, and an overly simplified, dumbed-down dystopia, sink the movie. And we still have one more of these to get through before it finally goes away. [Grade: C-/D+]

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