Take heart, Newsroom fans. If you were hankering for more scenes of Jeff Daniels standing around talking, you’ll find an unlikely ally in the new young-adult sci-fi sequel Allegiant, the third entry in the Divergent series based on Veronica Roth’s hit novels. Too bad the stuff he’s saying is so dopey. The more these movies try to explain themselves, the more they undermine the initial simplicity and relatability of their concept.
In the first Divergent, we were presented with a futuristic dystopia divided strictly along personality lines, not unlike an American high school. There, we watched our teenage heroine, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), aka Tris, break ranks with her own faction of Abnegation (known for its selflessness) and join in with the wild, physically fit folks of Dauntless, falling in love with her trainer, Four (Theo James), along the way. In the follow-up, Insurgent, Tris and Four helped lead a rebellion against the Kate Winslet–led Erudites. That film’s finale showed our heroes discovering that their enclave of Chicago wasn’t actually the last remnant of civilization — that a battered, bruised but resilient world continued on outside the city walls. Chicago, we were told, was merely an experiment to help “re-create the humanity that we have lost.”
But good fences make good neighbors, as Robert Frost once ironically declared, and the walls aren’t coming down quite yet. In Allegiant, the third entry, the old order’s breakdown has plunged Chicago into chaos (which never happens). The city’s new leader, the formerly factionless guerrilla leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who also happens to be Four’s mom, is preventing anyone from trying to go beyond the walls — not that it stops Tris, Four and a group of their friends, who are determined to run, leap, rappel and fight their way over to the other side.
What they find there, however, is a dystopia of a different sort. After making it through a red, ravaged wasteland called the Fringe, Tris and the others are led to a massive, futuristic base called the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, overseen by fatherly bureaucrat David (Jeff Daniels). He explains that, many years ago, humans developed the ability to modify their genes, which led to a cataclysmic war. Now, the Bureau is trying to undo the damage by trying to breed genetically “pure,” unmodified individuals. Tris herself is a rare, pure creature, so she’s held in very high regard by David and the others. Four, alas, is deemed “damaged” like the rest, and forced to join the ranks of the Bureau’s subservient military force.
You’d think humanity would learn the perils of categorizing people like this, but no. Allegiant’s dedication to working every possible variation of the social-hierarchies-are-bad allegory is admirable, but there was a straightforwardness to the initial idea that gets lost amid the rapidly accumulating details. We immediately understood the basic factionalism of this world as presented in the first film, with its divisions between peaceniks, intellectuals, jocks, etc. But Allegiant confuses and bores with endless scenes of David and others explaining things: how the world got to be this way, how it is now, how it needs to be, and so on and so forth. The film at times feels like wall-to-wall exposition — some of it lies, some of it true, all of it awkward. David also needs Tris to testify before some sort of Council, to which he answers, so that much of the film is building up to … yes, more exposition.
That’s a real step down from both Divergent and Insurgent, which, whatever their many flaws, at least engaged us with the compelling romance of Tris and Four and, in the second film, some memorable action. Insurgent in particular alternated between dreamy mindscapes and a welcome physicality enriched by Woodley and James’ compelling chemistry. The actors still give it their all in Allegiant, but there’s only so much they can do with such a clunky, verbose script. And on the rare occasion that the film actually quiets its characters and delivers something resembling action, it’s woefully inert.
The previous entries relied on hand-to-hand combat and acrobatic stunts to get our pulses going, but this time we’re treated to scenes of people sitting uneasily as they fly around in (hilariously fake-looking) futuristic aircraft and shouting at one another across walls, windows and doors. Much of the time, they’re yelling more exposition. These movies were never going to transform cinema, but watching Allegiant, it’s hard not to feel as if someone has pulled the rug out from under an otherwise modestly entertaining franchise. And a YA series that had distinguished itself with both romance and action now finds itself undone by a film that has very little of either.