It’s no secret that the process of adapting young-adult fantasy book series into a blockbuster film franchise has become somewhat ritualized: Start with a screenplay that sticks as close to the source material as possible, hire a competent journeyman with a good eye for casting to start the first movie or two, eventually settle on a more technically polished journeyman to take the series home, and split the final installment into two films. The Divergent Series, as the sequels to Divergent refer to themselves in ads, has trudged through this routine with grim determination, receiving neither the hearty box office and critical reinforcement of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games films nor the kind of utter indifference that lets these franchises die on the vine. Even their behind-the-scenes shifts seem halfhearted: Director Robert Schwentke replaced Neil Burger on the second installment, remains in place for the penultimate Allegiant, and was presumably expected at some point to return for the fourth, but has been traded out for Lee Toland Krieger.
None of this has dramatically affected the series’ low-rent vibe, but there are signs in Allegiant that Schwentke is having some fun on his way to an early exit. Insurgent left off with designated special hero Tris (Shailene Woodley), her taut, glowering boyfriend Four (Theo James), and the rest of the previously sorted citizens of Chicago discovering that their entire stupid trait-sorting society was an experiment conducted by a mysterious group that lives outside the city’s walls. In the new movie, Four’s revolutionary-leader mother Evelyn (Naomi Watts) wants to keep the borders closed and mete out justice to former oppressors, while Tris and her YA boyfriend brigade (James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort; Zoe Kravitz is also there) defy authority yet again by venturing beyond the big wall.
Their immediate surroundings turn out to be a Mars-like wasteland of irradiated crimsons and browns, with ominous red rains occasionally pouring from the sky. At this point, Allegiant starts resembling the covers of old sci-fi paperbacks, an eye-pleasing trend that continues when Tris and company reach a futuristic city built on the former site of O’Hare Airport. Even before the new scenery that features far fewer blown-out buildings, Schwentke exercises more style than he did last time around, using richer colors and fluid camera movements to enliven a humdrum mob-led “trial” conducted in Chicago. He makes particularly dramatic use of Woodley’s perfectly lit face, looming in the foreground of the chaos (hair perfectly restyled since the previous sequel, naturally).
But after about 30 minutes of agreeably junky sci-fi that often exceeds the energy levels of its predecessors, the inevitable happens: Allegiant becomes a Divergent movie. This means it endlessly recombines Screen Gems action aesthetics and the worst bits of The Matrix Reloaded, minus the R ratings. It also means that Tris meets David (Jeff Daniels), an architect, if you will, of her whole life so far, as she and her friends attempt to integrate into a brand-new society—because the characters of Divergent have never met an ill-advised form of government they couldn’t embrace, then mistrust and attempt to overthrow.
For an ongoing series about breaking free from categorization, these movies really enjoy denying their characters forward momentum. The actors have the makings of an enjoyable ensemble, especially with wiseass Miles Teller in the mix, but for the third movie in a row, his character Peter tags along with the heroes before turning duplicitous and selfish, while Caleb (Elgort) is a pointy-headed nerd who doesn’t always understand the nuances of human emotion, and an older authority figure played by a name actor (here Daniels) may not be what he seems. There are neat sci-fi touches, like personalized miniature drones that accompany characters into battle and trippy visualizations of the effect of a memory-erasing serum. But Allegiant, while arguably the best in the series so far, still winds up in the same dopey place—in this case with a particularly laughable final shot that essentially affixes an awkward on-screen asterisk to yet another call to arms.
Maybe that call will be answered next time with enough incremental improvements to finally notch a good Divergent movie, a possibility Allegiant raises repeatedly and frustratingly. Ultimately, though, this movie isn’t just adhering to a formula; it’s carefully following a recipe designed to offset any good ingredients that get mixed in there by mistake.