It's Always Too Good to Be True

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

So I'm going to say something that sounds utterly ridiculous at this point: the third Divergent film, Allegiant, is actually pretty good. It's not high art by any standard but when you compare it to the two films that came before, this movie actually manages to correct many of the wrongs committed by the series. It's tightly focused, it has a clear through-line, and it actually gives characters development. I think, had the series managed to come out with a film like this in the first place it might have been a watchable series. That, of course, didn't happen.

How did we get one decent film out of a series of three, and why did it happen to be the last one? There are a few factors that could have gone into this. For one, director Robert Schwentke (who has actually directed a number of middling films in the past, like R.I.P.D. and Red, and who directed the second film, Insurgent) could have gotten comfortable with the material and grown into his role with the series. Each film had a different writing crew attached, and between a comfortable director and a good scripting team, this could have just hit that lucky sweet spot creatively.

I think, though, the biggest change between this film and the previous two was that this time around the creative team didn't have to force a whole book into a single movie. This was a trend that happened with a lot of YA films: take the last book in whatever series you're adapting and split it into two films. We saw that with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and Part 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 and Part 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 and Part 2, and now here with Allegiant. The key difference was those were all series where the single novel entries were condensed well into single movies, so the last split part 1 / part 2 films felt over-long and tedious. The Divergent Series series was different because those previous films sucked.

Let's be clear: a bit reason why the previous two films in this series, Divergent and Insurgent, sucked was because the movies rushed their storytelling. They had 400-some-odd pages to fit into a two-hours or less film and a lot of the key world building and character development was likely cut (I'm guessing since I still won't read those books). If the films could have taken more time to let the world breathe, to let the characters grow and change without rushing the whole story, they might have actually seemed good. The Divergent Series: Allegiant is allowed to breathe because it's film arc is broken into two films (one of which didn't get made) so this "Part 1" actually works as a fleshed out, well told story. It's wild that it worked for once.

Certainly this film had no right being good. It's built on the shaky ground of its two predecessors, telling the continuing story of Tris and her gang. At the end of the last film it was revealed that the walled city they've been living in, Chicago, was an experimental civilization put together by the founders to encourage the growth and development of divergent citizens, those folks who didn't fit into any one faction in the city. This was done, apparently, so that humanity could develop citizens who could be civilized, who weren't ruined by the past wars and bad decisions made before and could be whole, undamaged humans. Tris is one of those lucky few, and once she and her companions -- Caleb, Peter, Four, and Christina -- escape the city to find the original founders, their whole world gets opened.

Of course, this being the first part in a planned two-part finale, the founders aren't exactly who they seem. Although things seem great at first, with Tris being embraced as the hero of Chicago by experiment leader David (Jeff Daniels), Four has his doubts that David is all he seems. This is only confirmed when Four goes on a "rescue party" with other members of this founder city, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. Going out with Bureau agents to the fringe of civilization, Four finds out that these agent kidnap kids from the less developed settlements in the world, mind-wiping them and forcing the kids to live and work in the Bureau. Once 4ris finds out about this, they all flee the Bureau to go back to Chicago, which of course David can't stand. This sets up a new war, not between the factions but between Chicago and the Bureau for the fate of the divergent and all their damaged friends.

What I appreciate, more than anything, about this film is that it has real character growth and storytelling. The characters start off with a goal, escape the city, only to reach their goal and realize it's not all they expected. This then forces them to grow as characters, change their expectations, and realize that what they had back home was what they really needed. Thus, they then venture back home having learned something, ready to embrace new lives in their old world. It is, in effect, a "hero's journey" and it's the kind of character development most films need. Up until now, of course, we never had that kind of development in this films.

That's not to say, of course, that this story is a total winner. It's pretty obvious from the minute the Bureau agents show up to "save" our divergent heroes that something isn't right. Things seem off, a little too fascistic. The agents seem a little too like the Dauntless enemies the heroes had fought before, and this only heightens Four's anxiety. When the heel turn happens and David is revealed to be a villain, it's expected and not a surprise. The film (and I assume the book) would have gotten way more mileage from making someone other than David into the villain, but that's not the kind of depth the writers were going for.

Frankly, at the same time, it's Four that has the real character development, not our actual heroine 4ris 4ris gets fooled by David and it's only after David is revealed to be the villain by other people that 4ris decides to go back to Chicago. By that point, though, Four has already learned the truth for himself, has ventured off to the Windy City, and has gone through a whole arc. 4ris is our lead protagonist, the "special one" of the story, but frankly Four is more interesting here. He does all this despite not being as special or as divergent as 4ris That's the real, interesting story here but the film doesn't really focus on it.

Thankfully, despite those storytelling flaws, the film is very watchable. It's well directed and very pretty, and the action is pretty solid. There re goofy moments, to be sure (the characters flying around in floating orange blob-bubbles is a particularly terrible looking moment) but when the film gets down to basic fight scenes and gun battles it does actually work really well. This is the first film in this action series that has competent action, and it's fun to watch as well. The production team finally got their shit together, just in time for the series to get canceled.

It's not really surprising that a fourth film never materialized. This film cost as much as $142 Mil to make and only made $179 Mil at the Box Office, which (after advertising budgeting and everything else) likely meant Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate lost money on the film. I think the team realized this film was going to be the last one, though (or at least there was a strong chance of that) because they ended this film in such a way that while the villains aren't truly defeated there isn't a strong enough cliffhanger that demands further sequels. Lionsgate did contemplate continuing the series in some way, such as a TV movie that would lead to a TV series that would expand the world past the books, but that too was canceled and the series ends here.

All things considered that's a good thing. These films weren't great but with Allegiant they managed to end on something of a high note. Whatever else that could have been, this is a solid place for the series to stop here, our heroes victorious and the villains sent off to lick their wounds, maybe never to return. It might be the author's original ending but it's good enough for this shitty series of films.