I’ve been onboard with the dystopian adventures of Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley: The Fault in Our Stars, The Spectacular Now) in her postapocalyptic future Chicago, but this third outing — with the fourth and final installment due next year — is a disappointing downfall from the first two films, which only just about skated by on the novelty of a very cool female action hero and the appealing metaphor for the struggle against enforced conformity her world offered. Here, in Allegiant, based on the first half of the novel of the same name, the reasons for the apparently precarious foundations of her world are revealed, the metaphor suddenly fails as a metaphor, and the concrete reality it is replaced by is far less intriguing.
Classified as dangerously “Divergent” in a society where almost everyone is easily slotted into five “Factions” based upon their temperament and skills, Tris had — in the first two films, Divergent and Insurgent — been leading a fight in Chicago to regain control from a ruthless leader who was cracking down on Divergents and the rogue Factionless. That culminated, at the end of Insurgent, with the revelation that Chicago was in fact the site of a grand experiment, that the rise of Divergents meant the experiment had been a success, and that the people of Chicago were welcome to rejoin the rest of humanity outside the wall that has contained them. And this is the big decision to be made as Allegiant opens: Shall they go out to meet the people who have been experimenting on them, and if so, how can such people ever be trusted? But Factionless leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts: While We’re Young, Diana), effectively in control of the city and inciting mob hatred against the defeated Erudite Faction, has pushed Chicago to the brink of total civil war, and perhaps those unknown outsiders can help restore peace. So off go Tris, her boyfriend and lieutenant Four (Theo James: Underworld: Awakening, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), and a handful of others, over the wall and through a blasted and inhospitable hellscape to see what — and who — is out there.
The small pleasures of getting answers to the mysteries of Tris’s world are instantly overwhelmed by the practical considerations of what those answers bring… and those aren’t, alas, further questions and more intriguing mysteries, just accidental conundrums of plot and character that smarter scripting and a more cohesively considered science-fiction culture-scape could have avoided. (I haven’t read Veronica Roth’s Divergent novels, I cannot say whether these problems exist in the books or are unique to this adaptation.) There is one honking huge plothole here that brings the entire story crumbling down into its obviousness, one that will echo through the whole rest of the film: Why didn’t those experimenters just do X? Without spoiling, it concerns a matter of how order and control are handled in the city Tris and her friends discover beyond the wall, and it’s something that she and they should have found themselves subjected to as well. There would barely be a story if they had, but that’s hardly an excuse… and if there is good reason why they are spared this treatment, it is never offered — no one among the people they encounter even seems to consider that it was an option. We see it, though, and the stakes for the experimenters — led by David (Jeff Daniels: The Martian, Steve Jobs) — are so high that it is wildly implausible that it was not part of their plan all along.
Between that plothole and the loss of the metaphor about conformity that has informed Tris’s journey up till now, all we’re left with — if we want to find anything of substance and meaning in Allegiant — is a weak and barely acknowledged philosophical clash between Tris’s young and eager idealism and the messy, complicated reality she discovers beyond the wall, as embodied by the pragmatic David. But even that quickly gives way to the dullest sort of black-and-white, good-versus-evil battle that throws away the potentially complex sci-fi concepts it had been playing with and reverts to a simplistic box-checking exercise in action filmmaking, complete with a ticking-clock countdown that must be stopped. The ending is so foregone as to be downright anticlimactic… and there’s still another whole movie to be gotten through. I had been looking forward to seeing where Tris’s story would go, and now I feel as if I can confidently guess it all already.