Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The cinematic adaptations of author Veronica Roth’s Divergent series have taken audiences all kinds of places – mostly because of their ability to tap into a rather extreme range of reactive emotions. Director Neil Burger’s DIVERGENT had us root for a reluctant “chosen one” who transforms herself into a formidable force. Director Robert Schwentke’s INSURGENT (or as I call it, INDIGNANT) took this now-badass heroine and led her on a maddening no-stakes adventure through an orgy of generic CG set pieces, filling the time with “it was all just a dream” cheats and convolution. While Schwentke’s ALLEGIANT splits Roth’s original tome in half and dumps a lot of story into our laps, the sci-fi action-adventure surprisingly sets itself apart from previous YA dystopian franchises, improving upon its predecessors creatively and aesthetically. It’s the best one yet as it diverges (pun intended) from anything the franchise has done before.
As you can tell from the title, this iteration will put all the characters’ allegiances to the test. Though the threat of Jeanine’s (Kate Winslet) reign of terror has been diminished, a new world order has sprung – guided by the bloodlust of the just-as-megalomaniacal Factionless leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts). To escape this brutal anarchy, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and her squad – boyfriend Four (Theo James), traitorous brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), duplicitous Peter (Miles Teller) and bestie Christina (Zoe Kravitz) – escape beyond the electrified walls surrounding Chicago. They stumble into the MAD MAX-esque wasteland of “The Fringe” before being rescued and whisked off to a chic, futuristic world by David (Jeff Daniels), the director of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. And he’s got big plans for perfectly pure Tris! However, what she assumes will be sanctuary may be more than she’s bargained for.
Thematic ties to real world touchstones swirl throughout the narrative – courtesy of Roth’s source material and screenwriters Noah Oppenheim (who also adapted THE MAZE RUNNER, another YA dystopian “chosen one” story), Adam Cooper and Bill Collage. – Reflections on politics, surveillance, chemical warfare and paranoia infuse the picture with a Le Carre/ De Palma-esque quality. In fact, Schwentke flexes his auteur muscles, utilizing squeeze-zooms to connote similar ideas. It’s also welcomed that Schwentke, a filmmaker whom I’ve never liked before, looks like he’s trying to add suspense through action – like the close-quarters fight on the bullfrog ship. Most surprising is that this doesn’t feel like a middle portion of a story, nor are we left on the precipice of a cliffhanger.
Either the filmmakers have gotten better at hiding contrivance, or they have really stepped up their game, or I have severely lowered my expectations for this series (methinks it’s the latter), but there are many underlying subtleties buoying the narrative, provoking viewers to think. This chapter works better as an emphasis is wisely placed on practical versus CGI. Don’t get it twisted; the green screen work is still there, but at least it’s not completely unreal environments and unbelievable stakes. The script is also better balanced between the large ensemble than the previous iterations. Plus, unlike THE HUNGER GAMES series, the stereotypical male love interest isn’t played by someone who’s cardboard dullsville (I’m looking at you, Liam Hemsworth). It’s debatable whether that’s James making his character multi-dimensional, or the screenwriters.
Nevertheless, there’s still lots of infuriating nonsense (which, I’m theorizing, is the real connective tissue to each of the films). It’s a #NoDoy revelation that David, who clearly isn’t the most savory of fellows, is LOGAN’S RUN-ning the place, yet it’s treated as a twist – twice! After two films and countless situations, it’s beyond me why any of these characters trust Peter, or think it’s kosher for him to tag along, knowing he’ll sell them out at the drop of a hat. Christina disappears only to reappear when it’s convenient. The mounting Chicago conflict/ unrest is clumsily handled. And finally, the third act action is exasperating in its laziness.
That said, I was completely entertained – a feat considering I was ready to write off this series entirely after the second film. ALLEGIANT doesn’t make my want to pledge my undying devotion, but it’s won me back – at least long enough to make me want to see it through to the bitter end.
THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT opens on March 18.