The plot of The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the third yet somehow not the last installment in the Divergent franchise, focuses, in part, on the ramifications of genetic engineering. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Allegiant also feels genetically engineered. It’s a movie built using the elements that one associates with successful YA-inspired dystopian action sagas — intense but not overly bloody fight scenes, numerous plot twists, computer-generated visions of a decimated future America — but completely devoid of a soul.
Allegiant picks up where the previous Divergent film, Insurgent, left off when it was in theaters exactly a year ago. With the ruthless Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) now dead, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) is trying to maintain order within the series’ futuristic, closed-off Chicago, where residents had been organized into various factions (Dauntless, Abnegation, Amity, Candor and the aforementioned Erudite) based on their dominant personality traits. With the factions now dissolved and unrest escalating, Tris (Shailene Woodley) — whose positive attributes defy simple classification, thereby making her “divergent” — attempts to finally scale the wall that seals off Chicago from the rest of the world. Joined by boyfriend Four (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), friends Christina (Zoë Kravitz) and Tori (Maggie Q), and the colossally untrustworthy Peter (Miles Teller), they make it to the other side, only to find a toxic landscape where both the earth and the rain look as starkly red as the clay that seeped into the estate in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Eventually they are taken to the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, which is based (where else?) in the location formerly known as O’Hare International Airport. That’s where Tris meets David (Jeff Daniels), the bureau’s leader, who reveals the truth about the organization’s relationship to the citizens of Chicago and, eventually, the real, sinister reason the factions were originally created.
For those who haven’t recently read Veronica Roth’s Divergent books, processing all of that exposition and plot detail — and the above summary only covers half of it, at best — may require a reliable set of CliffsNotes or at least a few sneaky cell phone visits to Wikipedia from your stadium seat. But don’t feel too badly for not fully grasping the nuances of the narrative because, at times, it appears the actors may not fully understand or care about it, either. As usual, Shailene Woodley acquits herself well enough as Tris, though her subtle, low-key approach, so effective in films such as The Descendants and The Fault in Our Stars, still feels a little out of sync in such an overcharged action picture. Daniels can play vaguely intimidating in his sleep, and it’s possible that he’s actually doing that at certain moments in this movie. That’s the problem: no one seems fully invested in what they’re doing or saying in Allegiant. It’s like they’re going through the motions as scripted and just trying to get to “That’s a wrap” as efficiently as possible. In one scene, poor Elgort gets stuck swiping and typing on a digitally rendered, Minority Report-style interface that was clearly added in post-production; as a result, he winds up looking like a child playing an intense game of Pretend Keyboarding.
It’s not fair to solely blame the actors for the movie’s shortcomings since they are done no favors by the direction of Robert Schwentke or the editing by Stuart Levy, both of whom worked on Insurgent. There are moments, as when Tris and her crew become encased in protective plasma globes and hitch a plane ride to the Bureau, where it’s painfully obvious that much of the dialogue was looped in later in ADR. (At one point, it’s possible to hear an awestruck Teller actually saying the word “Gadzooks.”) Even the extras in Allegiant come across as awkward and inauthentic in some of the larger crowd scenes, particularly early on, when they’re repeatedly yelling “Kill ’em” during an extremely one-sided “trial” for Mekhi Phifer’s Max.
These minor instances of clumsiness would be less glaring or at least more forgivable if the story of Allegiant, adapted for the screen by Bill Collage, Adam Cooper and Noah Oppenheim, were more engaging. In fairness, there are a few highlights. The striking sideways dash up that wall that insulates Chicago from the rest of the world is a moment of genuinely engaging, propulsive action. And Teller is convincing as the sarcastic, perpetual turncoat Peter, although a) the character’s lack of loyalty is becoming unrealistically tiresome (why does he even get to hang out with these people anymore?), and b) Teller probably doesn’t have to stretch super-hard to play a jerk who’s never at a loss for a smart-ass remark.
Like the actors, audience members may find themselves laboring to get to the finish line of Allegiant, which ends, like Insurgent, on a cliffhanger that serves as a jolting reminder that Roth only wrote three of these books, but, in keeping with the Hollywood tradition of milking every last drop of YA franchises, there’s still one more of these damn things coming to theaters next year. Woodley and many of her castmates may have signed a contract that commits them to return for all four, but in the real America — the one that, at least until Donald Trump gets elected, is not bordered by walls or controlling segments of its population — the rest of us are under no obligation to keep coming back for more Divergent. After Allegiant, some moviegoers may decide their work with this franchise is done here.