I arrive at the cinema and am stopped at the top of the escalator by a man dressed in black, who wants to know why I’m here. I’m here for the screening of Allegiant, the final film in the Divergent series, adapted from the books by Veronica Roth. I give the secret password and he directs me toward the Security desk.
At the desk, I am asked to hand over my phone and other recording devices. My new Sony Xperia arrived only yesterday so we have a bit of a tussle on that one. It’s touch and go for a few seconds but I eventually surrender and am ‘rewarded’ with the Insurgent DVD. I mount the final flight of stairs and am halted by security to check that I am not, in fact, a cold-war spy, concealing a camera in the lapel of my coat or a recording device inside an elaborate coiffure.
Inside the cinema, we’re once again warned of a security presence and anyone seen attempting to take photos or record the film will be removed.
So far, so very futuristic dystopian totalitarian regime.
It all seems like overkill for a YA sci-fi film, especially given the track record of final instalments in this particular genre. The Hunger Games‘ final fling fell prostrate at the feet of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, before Christmas; the final Twilight movie had to telepathically hallucinate a battle to bring any kind of dramatic conclusion to that drawn-out mess: a triumph of studio greed over cinematic story-telling.
The Hunger Games’ books were highly praised and, for the most part, well written. The same holds true for Roth’s Divergent series — a great premise, with a well imagined dystopian future society, where people are divided into five factions based on their abilities — Erudite, Amity, Abnegation, Candour and Dauntless. A socially-engineered reality, where things are not what they seem.
Divergent had an interesting cast of not-quite-the-usual-suspects including, Shailene Woodley as Tris (who was nominated for a Golden Globe, alongside George Clooney in The Descendants), Theo James as Four, (previously seen shuffling off this mortal coil en flagrante with Lady Mary in Downton Abbey), the excellent Zoe Kravitz and Miles Teller (Whiplash), with strong support from Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet.
We met Beatrice / Tris Prior, our heroine — a Divergent, someone who embodies all five factions, an anomaly feared by the establishment. She faced choosing a faction, then then fighting to belong, as she discovered a plot by uber-geek Erudite faction leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), to overthrow the government and create a new regime, picking up the brooding and mysterious Dauntless team leader, Four, along the way.
In Insurgent, having successfully prevented Jeanine’s coup, Tris and the Divergents are blamed for the insurrection and on the run, looking for allies — chiefly in the form of Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) who now leads a Factionless army — before being drawn into Jeanine’s new plan to eliminate Divergents, once and for all, by unlocking the secret of a mysterious box left behind by the city founders.
This should be the final chapter, but in true YA film style is only Part 1, and in Allegiant the secret is out — there are others living outside the boundary wall of the city — and, as the faction system collapses into civil war between Evelyn’s Factionless and the followers of former Amity leader, Johanna (Octavia Spencer), Tris and
Co. head over the wall to find out who is out there and why they created the faction system in the first place.
As with the previous films, the special effects are top-notch and in the IMAX setting they have the opportunity to play off their tricks with maximum impact. There are some great action sequences, particularly the ascent of the wall, under attack from Evelyn’s security, and Four getting kick-ass on a cruiser, as it plummets out of the sky — punching is Four’s primary function, now that all his secrets have been revealed.
The scene where Tris and Co. enter the clearly militarised city of O’Hare and are ushered separately into
decontamination showers are genuinely creepy and suspenseful, bringing to mind the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps; Bill Skarsgård‘s lurking science officer adds to the sense of menace.
But, the penultimate film in a series is a tricky beast to pull off. You not only have to deliver a film that works in its own right but one that satisfies the set-up of the previous films, and leads the way to a final conclusion.
And this is where Allegiant, like so many before, falls down. The new storyline of the city beyond the wall —unlike Four — lacks punch. New baddy, Jeff Daniel‘s David, head of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare and guardian of the faction experiment, is not fit to fill Jeanine’s pumps. His avuncular demeanour has none of the is-he-or-isn’t-he ambiguity that Skarsgård nails in a much lesser role.
The face-off between Evelyn and Johanna lacks conviction — neither character seems properly motivated (or dressed) for war. Johanna is permanently swathed in a collection of scarves Johnny Depp would, frankly, kill for. Evelyn is decked out in boho curls and a satin dinner jacket, suggesting she might fit in a rock gig later, if all goes well with the revolution.
The convoluted pseudo-scientific genetic engineering basis for the faction system is both way too involved and yet not nearly satisfying enough — plot-filler set-ups that allow characters to make specific discoveries but have no real life of their own — before landing us at the all too familiar shoot-em-up conflict and trite why-can’t-we-all-get-along ending.
And there are some howling gaffs in both plotting and dialogue.
Like when Tris and Co. reach the top of the wall, under heavy fire from Evelyn’s troops, then stop to gaze in wonder at the world beyond, without one of these Dauntless-trained warriors (never mind multi-tasking Divergents) providing cover fire.
As Tris turns to Tori and chirps: We made it, you can almost hear the entire audience think, Uh-oh. Sure enough, seconds later, it’s ketchup.
If this were Star Trek, the character in question would be wearing a red shirt.
But for me, the biggest problem with Allegiant is Tris’ lack of agency. Having had the courage to reject her native faction, take on Dauntless, prevent a military coup and unravel the mystery of the box, in previous outings, she is now curiously passive in the world beyond the wall. She leads the charge to leave but loses all will when she arrives in the new city, following David’s lead, without question, when he invokes the spirit of her dead mother.
Tris only partly recovers her mojo when she discovers David’s real agenda at a futuristic board meeting.
Writers and film-makers take note — never have a major plot point hang on the convening of a futuristic funding committee board meeting.
Tris quickly falls into the arms of Four, apologising for not listening to him sooner. There are countless scenes where she looks little more than blank or slightly worried (possibly wondering who talked her into this movie in the first place), and simply oscillates between between Four, David and, occasionally, her brother, Caleb. A disappointing outcome for such a promising character.
A final film, Ascendant, is due out in 2017, though it’s hard to see what’s left of this horse to flog.
I know I’m not the demographic for this film and, if you’re a fan of the books or the previous instalments of the film franchise, you’ll want to see how it plays out. But genres and age-groups aside, good story-telling is an ageless, timeless thing and, sadly, Allegiant misses the mark.
If I were the promoters, I would want people sneaking out images of those special effects or kick-ass fight scenes. At the end of the day there’s not much else here to get excited about.
Plus, I really missed Jeanine. Say what you like about her, the woman knew how to dress for imposing her will on a futuristic dystopian totalitarian regime.
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