Every now and then, Hollywood suffers from fatigue — the hot new thing that catches everyone’s attention and is insanely popular gets reproduced over and over and over until it’s everywhere, and everyone loves it even more . . . until they don’t. Then, there are the last few gasps of a trend until it finally fades away. It is my distinct opinion that we have reached full dystopian saturation, which saddens me, because the source material for this recent trend is SO GOOD, yet the onslaught of adaptation after adaptation has grown old, and the quality is lacking. Today, I suffer not only from book-to-movie remorse; I also suffer from dystopian fatigue. It’s a sad day.
Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy is one of the best series of young adult books I’ve read in recent years. Most trilogies wow me with their introductions — a first book that sucks you in and has you frantically turning pages to see what happens next. Then, typically, I start to lose interest halfway through the second book, which functions only as a bridge to get readers to that GRAND FINALE third book, which more often than not, goes so far into the political realm that I’m bored and just ready for it all to be over. (Why can’t we just have stand-alone stories anymore? Why does everything have to be a series??) Roth’s Divergent books were different. I reached the end of Insurgent, and my copy had extra pages remaining — I didn’t realize they were blank, and was stunned when the story ended and I was left with a cliffhanger that wouldn’t be resolved until the release of Allegiant months later. The third novel captivated me just as much, despite the obligatory political angle. I thought Roth’s third novel was bold and engaging, and I’ve been saying for more than a year that I was excited to see how it would unfold on the big screen. My frustration began when discovered that Allegiant has also been touched by the Harry Potter curse, and has been adapted into two films: Allegiant and “Ascendant.” Most YA books should NOT be two movies — they’re not long enough and the stories are not that involved. This is a grudge I’ll never get over . . . but I digress.
Allegiant begins with Tris (Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now”) and Four (Theo James, “Underworld: Awakening”) looking out over the city to the wall that blocks them from revelations revealed in “Insurgent.” They are not alone; there are others beyond the wall, and salvation beckons. In Chicago, Four’s mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts, “St. Vincent”), presides over the trials of defeated former leader Jeanine’s co-conspirators, galvanizing the people into a frenzy of bloodlust. With the faction system in shambles, the people look to her for leadership, and she is all too happy to oblige, despite the warnings of former Amity leader Johanna (Octavia Spencer, “Snowpiercer”). Johanna, Four, and Tris witness the trials, marveling at how angry the members of the former faction system have become. They decide it’s time to leave — Johanna takes her followers elsewhere into Chicago, but Tris and Four gather Caleb (Ansel Elgort, “Men, Women & Children”), Peter (Miles Teller, “Fantastic Four”), and Christina (Zoë Kravitz, “X-Men: First Class”), and escape over the wall, searching for those who called to them in “Insurgent.” Hopeful for a better life, and a way to save the people of Chicago, Tris engages with David (Jeff Daniels, “The Martian”), the director of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, who tells her that she is the key to saving the world. She learns things about her mother, and about Chicago’s faction system, and discovers that there are more cities like it out there, and she might finally learn the answers she’s been searching for.
Allegiant runs for 121 minutes, and while it encompasses a complete story (thank God for small favors — at least there’s no cliffhanger here!), it still slows down the plot of the original novel to a crawl. The events of Roth’s third novel are fast-paced, with new characters introduced through the Bureau’s activities and recruitment, and with the spreading out of our heroes Tris, Four, Christina, and yes, even Caleb and Peter (at times) over new responsibilities. However, director Robert Schwentke’s film focuses more on set design and CGI than on furthering the story, and we are frequently exposed to stilted scenes of computer-generated showing-off that’s often cheesy and overdone. In fact, at times, the CGI is jarring and distracting, making me wonder why there are still instances when it’s so clear that a scene is computer-generated when we’ve come so far in our movie-making technology. Green screens and overlays shouldn’t be this obvious anymore. The production design of the environments behind the wall is incredibly beautiful, but doesn’t seem very original, calling to mind the mind-blowing production design of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and even the Scorch desert in “The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.” This only adds to the feeling of dystopian saturation — if your movie is calling to mind the set design of other movies, you’re not doing your job well.
An unfortunate result of the over-focus on CGI and set design is poor character development. Granted, we know who these characters are, since we’ve been following them for two movies already; however, quality characters grow and change, and our heroes come across as flat and tired. Shailene Woodley’s Tris, a remarkable breath of fresh air in “Divergent” is disappointingly stagnant and predictable in Allegiant, and is only surpassed in predictability by Theo James’s Four. My frustration with casting reaches an apex with Miles Teller as Peter — this is an actor who has proven again and again and again how incredibly talented he is, yet these films relegate him to a flip-flopping weakling who’s only out for himself. In “Divergent,” at least, Peter is fascinating and enigmatic, but in the following novels and films, he’s just annoying, and screenwriters Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage are wasting Teller’s ability by feeding him horrible one-liners that are supposed to be funny and witty (“Gadzooks!” anyone? *eyeroll*).
While love for Veronica Roth’s YA trilogy remains unscathed by the downward spiral of its adaptations, I regret that now I dread “Ascendant,” simply because I’m so disappointed in its lead-in. Perhaps my optimism will return, and I’ll go into that film remembering how wonderful the final novel was. Maybe they’re saving the good stuff for the final film? Only time will tell. They sure didn’t use much of the good stuff here.