Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2016

Allegiant

There and back again

With Allegiant, the patterns of the Divergent series have finally repeated themselves into oblivion

Allegiant
Summit Entertainment
Director: Robert Schwentke
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, based on the novel by Veronica Roth
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Naomi Watts, Miles Teller, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort and Octavia Spencer
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours
March 18, 2016
(out of four)

Allegiant may officially have originated in young-adult fiction, but it seems to have taken its modus operandi from the hard-boiled crime writer Jim Thompson - that there are 32 ways to tell a story but only one plot: things are not as they seem.

The third installment of the Divergent series that began two years ago and continued with last spring's Insurgent, Allegiant really only has that one move, which it uses over and over again. All is not as it seems.

We come to trust a particular authority figure ... but nope, that person is secretly evil. We pull back the curtain, escape one system of civilization and embrace another ... but nope, that system is secretly just as oppressive as the one it replaced. We're sent out on a humanitarian mission by the powers that be ... except nope, it's secretly a completely different, much more heinous task. We finally get an explanation about what's happening in this world ... but nope, there's actually another story behind that story, and behind that one, and behind that one.

At this point, it should hardly surprise us if it turns out that our heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley), is secretly a deep-cover agent, planted amongst society's noblest do-gooders to take the rebellion down from the inside out. If nothing else, that would at least be consistent with the way this world works, in which every trusted character is hiding something; in which there's a big reveal behind every big reveal. We could keep doing this forever.

The series seems to be stuck in this pattern. The characters are told one thing, they completely believe it, and then they're shocked - baffled - when it turns out to be false. In their third movie, you'd think they'd be a little more jaded by now.

If you're being kind, you could say this ongoing story is simply emblematic of power structures that are systematically and cyclically exploitative. Less generously, and more practically, you come to the conclusion that it's just lazily convenient storytelling.

If you're being kind, you could say that the perpetual naiveté of its teen characters, and the inevitable duplicity of every adult they come across, is merely representative of the coming-of-age discovery of the harsh realities of the world at large - a cynical lesson about the dangers of acquiescence to authority. Less generously, you realize the film's authors probably don't have any actual ideas, and the continuation of this narrative is almost cynically contingent upon the necessity of the characters' gullibility.

In any case, we've long passed the point where any of the franchise's many twists had any impact. Now they're just par for the course, something you expect to get every half-hour or so. There are certainly other movies that do the same thing - last year's Maze Runner sequel The Scorch Trials comes to mind, but at least in that case its string of twists opened up the film's landscape, expanding its genre experimentation as a means to expand our understanding of its narrative stakes.

But with Allegiant, and the series as a whole, the effect is self-reinforcing. We keep winding up back where we started; this postapocalyptic world could almost be interpreted as a proverbial circular hell if it had the ingenuity to pull that off. Instead, we get a barrage of cagey Authority Figures whose explanations of their own roles are guaranteed, by the film's own internal logic, to be lies.

The latest such figure to seemingly betray the values of Tris and Friends is Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the would-be revolutionary leader and mother to Four (Theo James), Tris' boyfriend. When she decides to supervise a series of "trials" from the previous regime, all of which are bound to end in public execution, Tris, Four, Christina (Zoë Kravitz), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller) dramatically escape, make their way to the wall separating the only world they've known from the world beyond, and eventually find themselves rescued by the magnanimous Bureau of Genetic Welfare and its heroic leader, Obvious Bad Guy (Jeff Daniels).

Tris being the most special of this special group of refugees, she is taken under the wing of Obvious Bad Guy, much to the chagrin of Four, who is not allowed upstairs in the secret fancy offices where those two have their daily sessions. Obvious Bad Guy is cooking up what seems to be an altruistic new vision for society, with Tris' help, and she buys in wholeheartedly, despite Four's skepticism. But then we're back to that inevitable Jim Thompson decree: all is not what it seems. Of course it isn't.

At least when it gets the opportunity to do so, Allegiant - directed by Robert Schwentke, who also helmed Insurgent but recently departed the upcoming series finale - has a propensity to go for distinct sci-fi visual cues that give this whole affair a more interesting flavor than its many scenes of plotting and romance. At times the film kinda looks like an old Star Trek episode, or calls to mind the splashy cover of a sci-fi novel. There's a committed use of color here - the bright orange of a gassing agent that plays a crucial role in the plot; the red jumpsuits worn by the Bureau's soldiers; the swaths of purple and red peppering the barren, mountainous landscape that separates the Bureau from apocalyptic Chicago.

But for every merit the production design earns for its locations and sets, it loses its goodwill elsewhere - namely for its hokey sci-fi concepts and visual effects that make it seem like we're watching an outdated SyFy series, or one of those "high-concept" network genre shows that has neither the budget nor the imagination to pull its concepts off. The moments when Allegiant is at its visual worst only underscore how much screen talent is being wasted on a mawkish, second-rate teen soap. There's one more movie to come from this series, and if history is any indication, next year's Ascendant will only serve to dismantle and disprove everything we've "learned" in these first three movies.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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