The Divergent Series was doomed from the get-go when they cast cardboard cut-outs Shailene Woodley and Theo James in the lead roles, and despite respected veterans Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts and Jeff Daniels joining the cast in each subsequent installment, it was always clear they were only there to cash a check. Word got out that the first movie was kind of a Hunger Games ripoff, and it was such a massive Hunger Games ripoff on both a high conceptual level and low execution level that that’s all anyone saw it as. The creative bankruptcy only got worse in the second one, and this third one feels like it was produced on autopilot by the same automaton that made Insurgent. No one really gave this series a chance, and it never really merited one.
Looking back on the series with one more movie to go, it’s impossible to ignore how bad these movies are in the theater, but also hard to be angry. You kind of have to just shake your head in wonder.
The Divergent Series: Allegiant follows Tris Prior (Woodley) and her merry band, Four Eaton (James), Caleb Prior (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz) and Peter Hayes (Miles Teller) beyond the wall surrounding Chicago. After helping to depose Jeanine Matthews (Winslet) in the previous movies, Eaton’s mother, Evelyn (Watts) has taken power, and has sent her soldiers after the group for stupid reasons that don’t matter. Eventually, the heroes run far enough to discover the facility behind the Chicago enclosure and begin to unravel the mystery of their entire lives. It goes south, and the man in charge, David (Daniels), tries to kill everyone, once again for stupid reasons.
What can you say about this? It’s awful! Just like the first two were, and for the exact same reasons. The script and blocking are boring. The performances, Woodley’s in particular, are absolutely atrocious. Since the turn of the century, the movies have been full of adaptations of book series aimed at the same age group focusing on the same themes and messages, and everyone is sick of it. It felt like a cashgrab even before they announced this series would be following that awful split-the-last-one-up trend. Worse, where most other movies in this post-Harry Potter book series craze at least seem to have some appeal outside the age group, this feels like the fad that it is — or, more accurately, was. The Divergent Series, both on page and on film, is the kind of thing 11 year olds are certain is super-cool, but 14 year olds think is for little kids.
These flaws have applied to every movie in this series, and they’ve only become more pronounced. The people making these things, they’re not listening to their audience. They’re not interacting with their audience in any way. Each movie in sequence is made on the assumption that everyone loved the previous one and wants more of the same. The apparent detachment from reality from the brass is staggering.
The movies themselves are also clearly divorced from reality — not in the good escapism way, in the bad, none-of-this-makes-sense-because-there’s-no-frame-of-reference way. It shows up at a low level with characters that don’t feel like real people after being failed by writers, actors and directors alike, and it shows up at a high level with plot development.
The plot of this series is impossibly poor. It’s completely focused on fundamental questions of identity — What makes us who we are? Is it nature, nurture or something else? — and it’s kind of amazing how wholly this theme is fumbled. It makes these movies confusing to watch and seem like the people who made them are confused themselves.
It’s a tapestry of nonchalant storytelling that is frankly too complex to fully break down in writing, but I want to talk about the other thing that’s consistently and obviously wrong about these movies, and that’s the way they’re designed visually. The core idea revolves around making it look like it’s set in a future where technology has tamed the laws of physics.
Watch this sequence from the first movie, with special attention to the fight scene starting at 0:50. This is something I harped on when it came out — their stance is ridiculous, and doesn’t seem to be based on any knowledge of how the human body works. It’s so inefficient, they don’t actually use it for anything — right before actual action starts, both fighters shift to a stance from which they’re actually able to throw and guard against punches — but it’s cool and future-ish, so that’s how fights are choreographed in the first movie.
Fast-forward to Allegiant and they’ve cut that out, but the design mentality now extends to their weapons. They’ve gone from what look like M16s with wood furniture to revolvers reinforced with way too much metal around the barrel to weird future-ish ray guns straight out of Mass Effect complimented by ridiculous, color-changing camo outfits, modeled in the image to the right. The front of the gun lights up like a laser tag toy when fired, but there’s no apparent projectile and absolutely no recoil. There’s a lot of gun action in this movie, but it doesn’t seem like it at all because all the drama that goes with guns being fired has been taken out.
When the Bureau of Genetic Welfare’s virtual-reality esque surveillance technology comes into play later in the movie, characters watching through the cameras are placed inside the frame of the shot they’re watching. The movie cues the audience in on this with an awful pixelation filter that divides the screen into nine shimmering squares. The effect manages at once to be difficult to notice in the couple of shots when it’s necessary to let the audience know what’s happening and extremely annoying once spotted. The movie has a habit of shifting between regular and surveillance filters from shot to shot, making the effect even more invasive and jarring.
These may seem like details, but film is a visual medium. It was the pinnacle of storytelling for decades before the talkies came along, and the best films remain the ones that would be able to tell their story without any auditory cues. The way a movie looks matters, especially if it’s set in a futuristic environment, one rife with opportunities for creativity but one that needs well-done, consistent details to work. These movies work with a fantastic setting, and absolutely fail to bring it to life visually. Even if everything wrong with the story was corrected, they would still be cinematic duds.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Bluuue velvet! I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.