Release Date: March 18, 2016
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper & Bill Collage (screenplay); Veronica Roth (novel)
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels
MPAA Rating: PG-13
There’s an irony to this series’ core message of bucking conformity in favor of being a “divergent,” which is that these movies so desperately want to be like every other film franchise that came before them.
It’s not hard to see the obvious influence The Hunger Games series had on the Divergent series (reluctant young female hero, oppressive futuristic government, brutal teen-on-teen violence), but Allegiant feels like a pastiche of many sci-fi films (most notably The Matrix). The problem is that while it borrows from other, better franchises, it often misses the point of the elements it lifts. Good sci-fi is typically an allegory for modern societal woes, but these films never get beyond a surface examination of the elements they co-opt.
The biggest problem is the flimsy premise this entire series is built on – which is that future Chicago is run under a system of government that essentially has teenagers take a Buzzfeed quiz to discover “Which of these five arbitrary personality traits would you like to base the rest of your life on?” Earlier films have our protagonist, Tris (Shailene Woodley), discovering that she is a divergent, meaning she doesn’t fit neatly into any of society’s five boxes.
This film attempts to justify that frail premise by looking at how their system of government was formed. After unlocking a message from the outside world at the end of the previous film, Tris and her band of generic teenage archetypes break out of Chicago to go searching for the city that left the message for them. They discover that Chicago is a sociological experiment being conducted by David (Jeff Daniels), a scientist who believes they are the key to saving the world.
(Side note: It’s baffling that the one thing this series didn’t lift from The Hunger Games was its use of future-sounding names like Katniss or Panem. It just feels clunky and underwhelming to have characters referring to their dystopian future city as “Chicago” or the architect of their civilization as “David.” David sounds like the guy in your office who uses up all of the toner without telling anyone, not the futuristic god-like figure whose been secretly pulling the strings the whole time.)
While introducing David and this other, more-evolved city does justify the weak “five factions” system of government they’ve been living under, expanding the world only further muddled my understanding of the cinematic universe. Answering one question only raised a slew of other questions, like: “What is David’s endgame?” or “Is David over 200 years old (since the last film explicitly stated that Chicago had been removed from the rest of society for over 200 years) or did he take over this project?” or “Why is a scientist who is running a Truman Show-esque experiment also in charge of his whole city?” or “What the hell does everyone else in that civilization do all day besides creepily watch the citizens of Chicago?”
The longer the characters spent in the outside world, the less any of it made sense. Every reveal only raised further questions. For example, we learn there’s an orange gas that can completely wipe people’s memories, which is a fun idea, but there’s no explanation of what happens once their memories are wiped clean. Instead, the film makes it seem like people are just left to wander around like Leonard in Memento, having absolutely no memory of who they are or what they should be doing. This is just one example of a cool idea that wasn’t thought through enough, which the film is filled with.
Another big problem is just how dull the middle of the film is. The beginning and end have a certain amount of momentum, but there’s a large stretch in the middle where nothing of note happens. This is likely because, like Twilight and The Hunger Games before it, the book this is based on is being stretched out into two films. (Ascendant, based on the second half of that novel, will come out next year). Making matters worse, the film keeps relying on a really lazy crutch to solve any of the problems the characters face, which is that at any moment they are about to get caught, someone from the other side turns on his own people in order to help them out. (Seriously, this happens at least four different times in the film.)
Speaking of dull, Shailene Woodley seems to be coasting through this film. Tris is sidelined for much of the film and Woodley seems completely disengaged. It’s not just her though, most of the younger cast (with the notable exception of Miles Teller) is similarly boring to watch. The older cast members are much more charismatic and engaging, but it mainly just bummed me out to see talented actors like Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Jeff Daniels cast in such uninspired roles.
The film’s climax is fairly ridiculous, but was snappy enough to keep me engaged. It wasn’t enough to redeem the underwhelming middle of the film or the underwhelming performances by the bulk of the cast, but it at least left things on a peppy note … until it dawned on me that there’s another one of these dull, derivative films yet to come.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org