As is the wont with these franchises based on young adult novels, THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT, the third in the series, begins where the last one left off. No flashback montage, no character narration bringing us up to date. Instead, there’s just a quick reminder that Jeanine is dead, and that everyone on screen is very happy about that. From there, there’s just enough time for a quick but steamy kiss between heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodely) and her true love and fellow warrior, Four (Theo James), and then these two lovebirds must once again save the world while looking very good in their carefully tailored casual wear.
There’s a new big bad boss in the ruins of Chicago some 200 years from now. She’s Evelyn (Naomi Watts), and that she’s also Four’s mother adds yet another layer to the rebellion Four, Tris, and their pals are fomenting against her. They are convinced that she’s just as bad as Jeanine, a point the film makes by having her preside over a kangaroo court of a trial and summary execution of one of Jeanine’s storm troopers. In retrospect, it’s a little odd that he’s not given a chance to say that he was just following orders before being dispatched, considering that the thrust of the plot, a sketchy little affair with far too much exposition, deals with a decidedly Nazi-esque themes of eugenics and the disposability of people who aren’t genetically pure enough.
After a suitably splashy escape from Evelyn’s clutches, Tris, Four, her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), fellow Dauntless faction buddies Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and Tori (Maggie Q), as well as everyone’s favorite slimeball, Peter (Miles Teller), go over the wall. If you don’t know what the factions were, you should probably not be at this film, at least not before catching up with parts one and two.
Of course Tris et als, being the central characters of an action/adventure film, don’t go peacefully. Evelyn, in a fit of both maternal and political pique, sends her own storm troopers to stop them, and in one of the film’s many splashy effects extravaganzas, they blow things up, shoot big guns, outrun the storm troopers, and make their way across the blazingly red wasteland that may or may not be radioactive. Eventually, they find themselves safe inside the Bureau of Genetic Welfare where they are decontaminated, cleaned up, given some fetching active-wear, and stamped with wrist tattoos. The specifics of where they are and who their saviors are is explained to them, and us, by means of an industrial power-point presentation explaining the Bureau’s Mission Statement, along with a brief history of how humanity messed with its genetic code, which, as fans of sci-fi know, never goes well.
Tris, thanks to her genetic purity, becomes the pet of the Bureau’s director, Dave (Jeff Daniels), a character so patently shifty that it’s remarkable that he remains in focus. This causes trouble with Four, of course, whose genetic makeup doesn’t make the purity cut. Meanwhile Peter, the most entertaining element in the flick, always ready with a clever quip and/or put-down, attempts to smarm his way into a better job than being locked in a surveillance pod, and things go to hell in a handbasket back in Chicago. If we need a clue about the nature of the Bureau, perhaps, and without giving too much away, they can be summed up by what Tris is wears for her meeting with the board. Instead of the sensible shoes she favors, she sports a pair of stiletto heels, proclaiming both the formality of the occasion, as well as the torture required of those paying obeisance to the money people. The sleek and chic sheath dress she wears to that meeting, though, while less binding, nonetheless does restrict her ability to deliver a wheel kick. Not that Tris would let even the luxe double-knit of which her dress is fabricated, completely stymie her.
There is a great deal of exposition, as I mentioned before, punctuated with exclamation points of story dropped in at random. Much of this exposition is accompanied by whiz-bang hi-tech gadgets, like those nifty memory pods that Tris uses to remember someone else’s memories, and those even niftier flying hockey pucks that function as drones for the Bureau’s own storm troopers when they go off on their humanitarian missions. That eugenics subplot about genetic purity, which could have been intriguing, instead goes klunk under the heavy hand used for its inclusion, including a final solution that involves a roiling sea of gas. On the plus side, Woodley is great, having poise, presence, and a seriously intimidating stare when ticked off, bringing the only real gravitas to the proceedings, while Teller provides the much needed comic relief as well as a, ahem, purity of egotism that is as refreshing in its self-satisfaction as it is dastardly. The nurturing warmth of Octavia Spencer as a peacenik gone over to the dark side is wasted in an extended cameo, and Daniel Dae Kim’s charismatic intellect says hello and goodbye before we have a chance to register its presence. As for the rest, James broods beneath his assertive eyebrows, Elgort smiles bravely as big sis saves him over and over again, and Watts glares menacingly when she’s not slapping people around.
For all the pyrotechnics, vehicles crashing from great heights, and Woodley’s bracing way with a confrontation, ALLEGIANT: PART 1 is a somber effort. With a story that is facile and predictable, devoid of energy, paced at an irksome creep, it never engages the adrenaline or the heart the way that it should have, making the prospect of part two enormously underwhelming.