Friday, March 18, 2016

Diversion: THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT


Blandly proficient brand extension, The Divergent Series: Allegiant was presumably made because they’d already made two of them and there was one more book in the YA series by Veronica Roth. The predecessors didn’t flop, so why not? It even splits that final book in two, pushing the back half to another film to be released next year sometime. Hey, Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games did it. Since The Divergent Series was already an amalgamated knockoff of every other teen-centric genre franchise, why not copy them right down to the money-grabbing two-part finale? The trouble is it’s not nearly as imaginative or interesting as its inspirations. A calculating lack of passion bleeds into every frame of the film, in which a talented cast and crew are here mostly because they’ve already signed the contracts, enacting a remarkably uneventful story somehow swollen to 121 empty minutes.

As the movie starts, the previous movies’ routine teen dystopia, a crumbling far-future Chicago, once made up of a populace divided into temperament- and talent-based factions, has collapsed. The very special person at the center of the collapse is Tris (Shailene Woodley), who fought off mean Kate Winslet’s efforts to take over the city. Now, though, a new leader (Naomi Watts) is determined to reshape the populace under her control, installing puppet courts and whipping her followers into a frenzy with wild prejudice and violent impulses. “You’ve incited a mob. I hope you can control it,” says her son, who also happens to be Tris’s lover (Theo James). Together the tough lovebirds – along with returning cast members Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Zoë Kravitz, and Maggie Q – decide to flee the deteriorating society and jump over the gigantic wall into the wild unknown, leaving poor Octavia Spencer behind to deal with the trouble they started.

Considering that each of these movies so far has ended by intimating that we were going over that wall, it’s about time. Once they get there they find a muddy red desert where in our world is Lake Michigan. They wander around just long enough to give Elgort the chance to stare dumbly at a bubbly puddle and utter the following line: “This hole looks radioactive, or it was some time in the last 200 years.” I wrote that down immediately, relishing its pulpy sci-fi nonsense. Anyway, the teens end up getting taken to a gleaming grey-and-white futurist building which a man in a suit (Jeff Daniels) tells them was once O’Hare International Airport. Why that should be a detail worth telling to these future kids is beyond me. They don’t know what that is. In this future world it’s the home of a militarized band of scientists who confess that Chicago and its factions are really their experiment to see if they can undo humanity’s downfall: customized genes. It’s not exactly the most thrillingly examined idea.

It all turns out to be a nefarious set-up by which genetically perfect people want to keep the damaged dopes locked away in city-sized labs. Obviously Tris won’t have any of this and, after well over an hour spent wandering around this dully-developed new location, finally decides to do something about it. Screenwriters Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage glumly hit all the expected bits of a film like this in a creakingly mercenary, sparsely developed plot. The arc of each of these Divergents is identical. An evil adult has bland middle-management style and a plan to wipe out her or his inferiors, while Tris slowly learns that she’s not only special and the only one who can save the world, but she’s even more perfect than she’d last been told. This all happens while pretty people stomp around anonymous sets – warehouses, mostly – and interact with flavorless effects, trading clunking dialogue and staring at each other with what I can only assume is a mixture of boredom and brooding.

Director Robert Schwentke returns from the last time, still happy to merely keep things brightly lit and occasionally move the camera in surprising ways. He finds a few interesting images, throwing in some unexpected split focus diopter shots early on, filming a decontamination room in inky silhouettes, and visualizing the effects of a memory-wiping mist by making a man’s recollections float next to him while slowly burning away. But mostly he just dutifully watches what has to be one of the most bored casts I’ve ever seen sleepwalk through endless exposition and fuzzy motivation. During a scene in which the teens catch a ride to future-O’Hare in glowing bubbles, Teller gapes at a CGI spire and gasps the least convincing “gadzooks” you’ll ever hear. (Really.) Later a pro forma dogfight of sorts is accompanied by lackluster shouts and screams from the leads, sounding like completely nonplussed theme park patrons trying to whip up their enthusiasm for an underwhelming roller coaster’s dips and swerves. There’s so little going on here, just charismatic performers resigning themselves to the lifeless nonsense around them.

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