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Non-Review Review: Divergent – Allegiant

In terms of dystopian young adult science-fiction/fantasy franchises, Divergent is solidly mid-tier. It is in technical and production terms superior to The Maze Runner, but markedly inferior to The Hunger Games. It lacks the sort of spectacular camp that made The Mortal Instruments stand out, for better or worse. It is a reasonable execution of a fairly reliable (although also heavily problematic) central concept, but without anything that really elevates it above its competitors.

Allegiant is the first part of a two-part finalé to the series, as has become the norm for these types of films. However, it all feels rather rote. Allegiant does not feel like the first part of a two-parter, instead feeling like its own story that could support a sequel but alternatively would be a perfectly fine place to wrap up if the studio decide to all it a day. The fact that it is the first of a two-part adaptation of a source material feels like a decision that was made because that is just how you adapt young adult franchises at this point in time.

Hate to burst your bubble...

Hate to burst your bubble…

Allegiant has no real surprises, no real dynamism or excitement to it. The plot is quite predictable, but also largely episodic. It builds on what came before, but not in a way that feels particularly organic or structured. Allegiant feels like a sequel that was produced because these sorts of film franchises usually have a few sequels to pad out the box set. This might sound unduly harsh, but it’s not meant to be. Allegiant is generally a competent film. It has a clear arc of its own, employing familiar tropes in logical ways.

The anti-intellectualism that marked the first instalment has been dulled somewhat, rendered as background noise in the forward churn of the franchise. There is still anxiety about the application of science and those who are educated in such things as compared to more tangible (and traditional) professions, but that is expected in a film like this. Allegiant might have fairly stock scientist bad guys who are obsessed with eugenics, but at least it is not a film about how lawyers and scientists are preying upon farmers and social workers.

I love you until the end of the world...

I love you until the end of the world…

It feels very much like the rough edges of the earlier film have been smoothed off, with any sharp corners duly corked. The bad guys of Allegiant are even more explicitly Nazi analogues than their predecessors. The film is astonishingly blunt its handling of these adversaries. When our heroes stumble across a bunch of well-organised strangers in the middle of a radioactive desert, they are oblivious to the various warning signs; an obsession with genetic purity, occasional child kidnapping, identifying themselves as “pure” and others as “damaged.”

Then again, the worst aspect of Allegiant is the way that it patronises and panders to its young audience. It is not enough to communicate what is happening through imagery. Vital (and non-vital) information is constantly repeated to ensure that the audience has not been lost in the process. The fact that only one individual ship can cross a particular barrier is mentioned repeatedly. It is not enough for the film to show three vehicles pursuing our heroes, the script has one of our heroes immediately and bluntly state that there are three vehicles pursuing them.

Well, at least the apocalypse has a nice colour scheme...

Well, at least the apocalypse has a nice colour scheme…

To be fair, there are points at which this bluntness is almost charming. Early in the film, an accused traitor is brought before a crowd of aggrieved locals. His crimes (and complicity) have been clearly established in dialogue leading into this scene. The mob is clearly restless and divided. However, the soundtrack goes out of its way to have one member of the crowd loudly shout “murderer!” like something from a Simpsons gag. It is a very silly choice, but marks a point at which Allegiant veers into camp.

For most of its runtime, Allegiant skirts the very edge of camp. If the original Divergent played as a young adult adaptation of apocalyptic seventies and eighties science-fiction like The Warriors, then Allegiant pushes back a little further to riff on classics like Logan’s Run. This is most obvious at the point where our heroes wander out into the desert wasteland. Rejecting the drab muted colour scheme that pervades so many post-apocalyptic horrors, Allegiant is positively saturated with bright colours that pop off the screen.

Hang on in there...

Hang on in there…

The irradiated wasteland is not black or grey or brown. It is a deep red. Red water flows through the scenery, even seeming to simmer. Red rain falls from the sky. “The sky is bleeding,” quips the resident comic relief, Peter. Once our heroes stumble upon their neighbours, the film is populated with strong whites and blacks to contrast with the reds. Everything is sterile and clean, while even the post-apocalyptic armada wears red camouflage instead of dull fatigues. The production design is quite impressive, with Allegiant having a distinctive visual identity.

Indeed, Allegiant is at its best when it embraces the surreal technicolour aspects of its story. There is creepy neon-lit decontamination scene with blue fire burning in the incinerator. There is a strangely chipper PSA that welcomes our heroes to the secret headquarters “here at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport” in the distinctive tones of Jeff Bridges. There is a tense sequence where a vat of what appears to be red lemonade threatens to wipe out an entire city. There is even a ridiculous slow motion shot of a jeep flying through the air as its driver leers out at our protagonists.

On top of the world...

On top of the world…

These are the moments at which Allegiant embraces its zanier impulses. These are the moments at which the film seems to find a distinctive voice. These are all absurd images and soundbytes, but they stand in marked contrast to the grim seriousness of The Hunger Games or the cookie-cutter elements of The Maze Runner. These elements might not necessarily add up to a good movie, but they are certainly more memorable than the familiar ingredients of most contemporary post-apocalyptic cinema. (Although still less lively than Mad Max: Fury Road.)

Alas, Allegiant backs away from these elements, rather than committing to them. Although the film embraces the bright colour schemes of its new surroundings, the script constantly cuts back to a half-baked and under-developed schism unfolding in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Early stretches of the film are given over to the sort of hefty “what happens when a dictatorship falls?” plot that was done much better in The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, Part II. Joseph Trapanese’s score evokes the heft of The Dark Knight or Tron: Legacy, without capturing their soul.

Red planet...

Red planet…

In a way, this is the biggest issue with Allegiant. The film is never going to fare well in direct comparisons to The Hunger Games. Shailene Woodley is a great lead, but Jennifer Lawrence is even better. While The Hunger Games has a reasonably solid teenage supporting cast, the best supporting player in Divergent is the superlative Miles Teller, who is wasted on the vaguely villainous comic relief character. Allegiant has a solid adult cast in Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts and Jeff Daniels, but its bench lacks the depth of The Hunger Games.

As such, Allegiant suffers when it invites these direct comparisons. Jeff Daniels might be a smooth talker and a ruthless villain, but he lacks the meat that The Hunger Games gave Donald Sutherland as President Snow. Naomi Watts is reliable as a liberator-turned-dictator, but she can’t match the nuance of having Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman play off once another. Maggie Q is charming, but she is filling a niche that The Hunger Games allocated to a pairing of Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks.

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

Allegiant is strongest when it attempts to do its own thing. There are glimpses of that threaded through the film, with a unique visual palette and an aesthetic that occasionally leans into camp without embracing it. Unfortunately, the film spends far too long trying to be a reasonable solid copy of something that was done much better before. (And recently, at that.)

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2 Responses

  1. I have to disagree with you regarding the leads: Katniss is a better written character than Tris but Woodley is a better actress than Lawrence, critical darling though the latter might be. Lawrence plays Katniss with a kind of grim, unrelenting tenacity that is effective but exhaustingly one note after four films. Woodley plays Tris like a real person, especially a real teenager.

    • Interesting. To a certain extent, it’s splitting hairs. I think both are great.

      But I find more nuance in Lawrence’s performance. (To which the obvious response is that it’s easy to read nuance into an “exhaustingly one note” performance.) You are right about Woodley playing Tris more like a teenager, though. Although I think I’ve stopped seeing Lawrence (and hence Katniss) as a teenager in recent years. I never read the books, so I have no issue with late-stage Katniss being played as a young woman (which is still within the cusp of “young adult.”) rather than a teenager.

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