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Entries in Allegiant [2016] (1)

Friday
Mar182016

Allegiant, Part 1 (2016)

YA(wn)

It’s a good thing I didn’t write about Insurgent last year. The sequel to 2014’s Young Adult hit Divergent wasn’t awful, but it offered too little new material to warrant another two-plus-hour movie, much less inspire a review. The third film, Allegiant, is more of the same. Fortunately, I’ll only need to repeat myself once.

In the last five years, we've seen too many movies about dystopian futures in which a Chosen teenage girl must rise up to defeat a fascist menace—usually while deciding between two cute boys (one hunky and brooding, the other dopey-looking and squirrelly). Divergent offered a smart and compelling alternative to the bloated and confused (now, thankfully, dead) Hunger Games pictures, while also fitting comfortably within the genre. Author Veronica Roth stood out by layering mystery, politics, and science fiction into her plot, and creating a protagonist in Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) whose humility is genuine; whose romantic relationship is focused and understandable; and whose adventures take place primarily within the Matrix-like confines of a virtual world: Tris is literally a video game heroine, rather than a heroine who fights like she’s in a video game.

If you’re unfamiliar with the first two films, here’s a little background:

In Divergent, the tyrannical Jeanine (Kate Winslet) oversees a post-apocalyptic Chicago where people are divided into strictly defined factions (workers, scientists, warriors, etc.). At the end of the film, Tris and hunky ex-instructor Four (Theo James) incapacitate Jeanine and lead a small band of misfits to freedom in the nuclear wasteland beyond the city’s electrified wall. In InsurgentTris and company return to Chicago and incite a revolution. After killing Jeanine, much of the freshly awakened populace sets out to find freedom in the nuclear wasteland beyond the city’s electrified wall.

The third chapter opens with Four's mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), assuming control in the new power vacuum. She orders the remnants of the military to keep people from leaving the city, and orchestrates public executions of anyone remotely connected to Jeanine’s regime--including Tris’s brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort). Tris, Four, and the rebels escape into a sprawling, radioactive desert marked by downed satellites and blood-red rain.

The group stumbles upon a city-oasis camouflaged by digital mirrors and protected by armed drones. Turns out Chicago is a centuries-old petri dish created by the nuclear holocaust’s sole survivors, a cabal of scientists dedicated to reversing the effects of a global genetics war.1 Each Windy City refugee is assigned a role in the metropolis’s hierarchy—except for Tris, who draws the attention of David (Jeff Daniels), the facility’s director.

David reveals that Tris is the Doubly-Chosen One, the first human in two hundred years to have pure DNA. He brings her before a leadership council to obtain permission to further explore Tris’ potential.2 It’s not a spoiler to say that our rebel heroes eventually return to Chicago and wind up leading a revolution against their previously unseen puppet masters—or that the film ends with much of the freshly re-awakened populace setting out to find freedom in the nuclear wasteland beyond the city’s electrified wall.

I enjoyed Allegiant, but it has a lot of problems. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone outside the target demographic. The special effects often don’t support the ideas that inspired them. It’s pointless to set up an immersive 3D surveillance system, for example, if the dramatic payoff is tainted by dodgy CGI. What should be awe-inspiring moments for the characters become beacons of mockery for the audience. Same goes for the love story, which often interrupts the story-story's momentum, solely to produce trailer-ready shots of the attractive leads kissing. And the attempts at humor are as intrusive as they are unfunny.

Allegiant doesn’t need humor. This is dark material that, were it not shoehorned into the crowd-pleasing YA model, might have made for a timely and serious two-part sci-fi thriller. Instead, we’re now six hours deep into half-considered ideas, doe-eyed drama, and cut-rate special effects. Hot-button topics like genetic modification, technological addiction, propaganda, and even vaccination are deployed at the highest level of high-concept, only to be either discarded or shaped into McPatties of plot convenience.

It’s a shame, too, considering the stars’ apparent investment in the material. Woodley and James make the increasingly ridiculous and repetitive elements3 entertaining; James, in particular, has more going on behind the eyes than Allegiant's script requires of Four. Watts sells the conflict of a revolutionary who suddenly finds herself at the helm of the power she once railed against. Daniels plays a sufficiently insidious bureaucrat whose inviting demeanor almost explains away Tris’s borderline-criminal naivete in the second act.

Watch Daniels in the last ten minutes, though, as his character loses the upper hand. Something in the actor’s face suggests that he—in real time and in real life—knows he hasn’t seen the last of Tris and her friends. Lucky me, only one of us is obligated to show up for the next movie. If you don’t see a review of Allegiant, Part Two: Triumphant (or whatever they’ll call the “last” one) on this site next year, just know that either the target audience finally came to its senses—or I did.

1 In case you’re wondering, no, Khan Noonien Singh does not make a cameo appearance.

2 In case you’re wondering, no, the council does not tell Tris that they sense much fear in her, or that fear is the path to the dark side, that fear leads to anger, that anger leads to hate, and that hate leads to suffering.

3 The Divergent series now has as many mind-control climaxes as Star Wars has Death Stars.