ALLEGIANT, or: Unfit to Carry Katniss’ Quiver

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ALLEGIANT (2016). Director: Robert Schwentke. Cinematographer: Florian Balhaus.

Can a two-dollar drink special save ALLEGIANT from being a disaster? No. No, it can’t.


 

RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.


 

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was going to catch ALLEGIANT during its theatrical run. It’s true that I was very impressed with Neil Burger’s DIVERGENT back in 2014, but I was considerably less enthralled by Robert Schwentke’s 2015 follow-up, INSURGENT. Schwentke returned to direct ALLEGIANT and judging from the trailers, it sure looked like the negative trends he started in the previous film were continued here.

But, it was a night at the movies, always something worth looking forward to. And like every other movie, I put aside past prejudices and kept an open mind as the film began. Besides, I had two other things in my favor. For one, it was bound to be a less solemn experience than seeing BATMAN V SUPERMAN for a second time, which was the original plan. For another, it was $2 Tuesday at the local cinema café, meaning that as teenage freedom fighters from the future emoted on screen, I could at least be mowing down some cheap chicken tacos and alcoholic beverages that were about twice the size I expected them to be. Lights, camera, action I say.

Yes, ALLEGIANT is upon us, the third installment in a series of four films that most everyone stopped caring about by part two. At the conclusion of INSURGENT, the faction system which sustained and oppressed this society has been abolished as the previously disenfranchised factionless have taken over. But with that comes a new wrinkle, the revelation that everyone within Chicago was merely part of an experiment. There is a world beyond the walls of the city and they would welcome those labeled “divergent” to join them. By this point, you should realize that if you haven’t seen the first two films, you’ll have no idea what’s going on here.

This has caused Evelyn (Naomi Watts) to impose martial law on the city. She has forbidden anyone from going over the wall on penalty of death. Troops which now resemble the wild-eyed types from a Donald Trump rally patrol the city as Evelyn finds herself putting the conspirators from earlier films on trial. In an attempt to give the people what they want, she immediately caves into mob rule and it is now a common sight to see people executed to the cheers of bloodthirsty throngs.

Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James) and a small group of others decide to see what’s in the world beyond. As plans go, it’s probably the worst you can imagine as they make their daring escape across an open field in the middle of the brightest day possible. They really don’t have a right to be surprised when Evelyn’s goons start gunning for them and we don’t have any reason to believe they’ll actually make it. Except they do for the most part and any casualties they take on are quickly forgotten as soon as the next scene starts.

After a brief trek through an unconvincing radioactive wasteland, they are whisked away to a futuristic society housed in what used to be O’Hare Airport. None of our heroes even know what an airplane is, but don’t worry. They’ll all be jumping out of helicopters and piloting airships by the end of the film without any real explanation.

First our heroes are shown an exposition video to familiarize themselves with this world which involves yet another faction struggle, this one based on genetics. The people in charge believe that those with a “pure” genetic matrix, one untampered with by science, should be in control since genetically-enhanced people were responsible for World War III. To be honest, it’s not very convincing or interesting.

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Schwentke has a few interesting directorial touches, particularly in an early scene depicting the factionless’ kangaroo court. Unfortunately, most of the action is shot without a great deal of creativity and cinematographer Florian Balhaus has been instructed to give everything the same bland, flat look as the previous film. It gives ALLEGIANT an ordinary complexion which no amount of post-production can mask.

The character of Evelyn has hints of complexity, even if they aren’t fully realized. More so than in Veronica Roth’s novel, you get a sense that this is someone who is feeling the burden of assuming power. She is in over her head and doesn’t fully approve of her own actions, but she is bound by a misguided loyalty to her people and fears being responsible for the city’s descent into chaos.

But the script, which includes contributions from the writer of the very similar MAZE RUNNER, is sloppy. With INSURGENT, the trend of being slavishly faithful to the narrative of YA novels was bucked and major alterations were made to the storyline. That’s all well and good, but the changes managed to take a story that had holes in it to begin with and dumb it down considerably more. What’s left is a story that has hints of something special but feels like it’s been filtered to be relatable to the most inattentive viewer. And in the process, the films look far more like Swiss cheese than the books they were trying to translate.  

Certain characters are expanded from the original storyline. Most notably, Miles Teller’s Peter character who is given a larger but less challenging role here.  are reduced and several are dropped entirely. Also dominating his scenes is Edgar (Jonny Weston), a skinhead-looking thug who has somehow become Evelyn’s right-hand despite having no qualifications and the composure of a starving animal who has just been thrown a piece of red meat.

ALLEGIANT offers a few unintentionally funny moments as well, such as the previously mentioned escape attempt. There is also a sequence in which Tris and her compatriots are picked up in floating bubbles and brought into their new world. Tris grins and tries to touch bubbles with Four and the whole thing is some of the most guffaw-inducing green screen seen in a major motion picture for some time.

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But now onto our second act, in which things improve quite a bit. I should probably mention that by this time, my second round of drinks had arrived and by what I’m sure is pure coincidence, I started to come around to this film.

Things improve the moment the film introduces us to David (Jeff Daniels), the person who oversees the Chicago experiment. Right away, he takes an interest in Tris, informing her that he knew her mother and thanks to a surveillance system which no one has discovered for generations, he even watched her being born. While we immediately sense he is hiding something, he comes across as altruistic. The scenes between him and Tris are among the film’s strongest. Tris becomes more interested in helping the people from her world through David, which strains her relationship with the suspicious and genetically-damaged Four. There is a multilayered complexity to David that took me by surprise. Daniels plays this part well, with a calm, measured delivery that only hints at what lies beneath.

Around this time, Four is shown some of the nasty things Tris’ new friends have been up to. This too is intriguing, more so than the ham-handed revelation that was given in the novel. Unfortunately, the film never stays with the Four character long enough to explore what this or anything else means. Instead of creating an emotional undercurrent to the story, they only serve to deliver the next plot point. Actually, ALLEGIANT abandons practically everyone except for Tris and David. Did you think I forgot that there were more people on our team than the ones I mentioned? I didn’t; the movie did. Sorry, Zoe Kravitz and Ansel Elgort.

In fact, why is the film called ALLEGIANT anyway? Well, the Allegiant are a group of people who begin to lead an uprising in Chicago in an attempt to unseat Evelyn from power. While one would think this would be a major component of the film, this band of rebels is in fact given less than ten minutes of actual screen time.

As you can tell, my romance with the film’s second act was short-lived, quickly emptied 16oz. cans of booze be damned. As the film speeds to its conclusion, Tris is given some last minute information that causes her to do a 180 just in time to play a heroic role in the film’s last half hour. What follows is a textbook example of how not to write a third act. It’s exactly the type of unfocused mishmash that requires previously intelligent characters to act irrationally if not idiotically. Evelyn is used as a pawn that forces her to ignore how basic human physiology works. David gets one last truly interesting moment, telling Tris, “You want change with no struggle; you want peace with no sacrifice. The world doesn’t work that way.” But soon after that, even David turns into a boring and unconvincing stock villain with no clear motivation for his rapid escalation.

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Some have criticized the DIVERGENT series for splitting the last book into two parts, much like HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT and THE HUNGER GAMES. The argument being that there wasn’t enough story in the third book justify two separate movies. These critics are right, but they too miss the point.

Veronica Roth’s last novel in the DIVERGENT series wasn’t very good, save for a really impressive ending. The problem in the book was that lots of things were brought up but never fully developed: the new order set up by Evelyn, the rise of the Allegiant, the idea that a society could have stepped in to stop the atrocities committed in Chicago but didn’t, the conflict between genetically altered people, the people who live elsewhere in the world in other experiments and the so-called “Fringe,” etc. Really the only things the book addressed satisfactorily was the relationship between Tris and Four, the strained relationship between Tris and her traitorous brother Caleb and the tragic and preventable loss of a couple of allies.

By now, audiences have gotten used to the idea of splitting up books into multiple films, whether the result is successful or not. Also, one cannot discount the new golden age of television that we currently live in. Whereas television used to be episodic and scheduled, people can now binge watch as much or as little of their shows as they want. Those shows in turn have become more and more like massive serials where a story can unfold slowly over an entire season.

With additional running time at their disposal, the makers of ALLEGIANT had a golden opportunity to retain the human drama of the novel while expanding on the plot points and themes Roth seemed to gloss over. It was a chance to add much needed complexity to a story with loads of potential. It was a chance I am sorry to say was squandered. All of the human drama I previously mentioned, anything requiring actual emotion in fact, has been jettisoned from the story altogether. What replaces it is mere information, meant to usher the characters along on a conveyer belt of firmly established YA tropes. A few new pieces of info are introduced, some are dropped and others are repeated verbatim, but none of them add up to anything.

By the time the film ended, I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened. It all seemed so illogical, so random, abrupt and haphazard and I can’t blame all of it on the inexpensive drink specials. This is a film that cost over a hundred million dollars. Yet it looks as cheap as any straight-to-video film and lacks the forethought or coherence of even those productions.

Word has it that Robert Schwentke is not returning to helm the last installment in the DIVERGENT series and that’s probably for the best. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. Not only will Summit/Lionsgate scramble to find a new director, they’ve also been forced to drastically slash the budget thanks to the dwindling returns of these last two installments. Schwentke and his crew took the promise of DIVERGENT and turned it into a generic and incoherent mess. The only question about the fourth film is whether anyone from the original audience will bother showing up.  Awful.

 

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