Poor The Divergent Series. I mean it. You come into the world raring to be the new Hunger Games - made by the same studio no less, Lionsgate - with a new Hot Young "It" Actress to pin your hopes on, and then it's all downhill after a kind of solid start. Eventually, you flare out so spectacularly - having done incommensurate damage to that same actress's formerly promising career - that the studio paying for you eventually throws in the towel and announces that they're going to send you off to television to die your unmourned death. It's actually sad, even while it's kind of hilarious. It's hilariously sad. It seemed like the ideal time to take a look at the film that performed so woefully that it staked this particular vampire: just how bad is The Divergent Series: Allegiant, anyway?

In fact, not that bad at all. Let me rephrase that: it's bad. But it's the best of the Divergent movies, managing to tell a largely coherent story with well-defined stakes, something the original Divergent couldn't manage. To say nothing of the gaping chest wound that was The Divergent Series: Insurgent,which remains among the most profoundly uninteresting YA adaptations of the current decade. Unquestionably "the best of the Divergents" is a pretty shitty, snide compliment, akin to "the smartest Lionsgate executive", whom I hope and pray was not the one who first came up with the TV idea. Or "the finest actor out of Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, and Theo James", which is unquestionably Miles Teller for the third Divergent film running. That's pretty much entirely because at this point the movies have stopped asking him to do anything at all besides dial the Insufferable Douchebag shtick up to 11 and spend the whole feature sarcastically auto-critiquing it, like he's secretly starring in the Divergent/Deadpool crossover that nobody else knew they were making. It's enough to make him not merely the best - by far - of the three disposable white boys in the cast (it helps that he alone does not look like an Abercrombie model set loose in the wild to fend for himself), but really the only person onscreen who expresses any emotion other than a wisp of sorrow that they signed a multi-picture contract.

So anyway, Allegiant starts up mere seconds after Insurgent ended, with the teeming mass of Factionless rebels about to storm through the newly-opened Wall that has till now cut off the post-apocalyptic city of Chicago from the wasteland outside. Don't worry if you've forgotten who the fuck the "Factionless" are, the movie escapes that part pretty quickly. Anyway, with the villainous Erudite dictator Janine now dead (Kate Winslet doesn't put in even the tiniest cameo, though she apparently lobbied for such a thing, which if true is the saddest thing in the history of Winslet's career), Factionless leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts) has sidled without too much hesitance into the role of replacement dictator, much to the annoyance and concern of her former ally Johanna (Octavia Spencer). I had forgotten how hilarious it was that nobody in this universe has a surname outside of the main character. That being, of course, Tris Pryor (Shailene Woodley, abject - even more than in the last film, it's extraordinarily tangible how much she wishes she was someplace else), revealed at the end of the last movie as the Specialest Special of them all, and she is not at all excited by Evelyn's immediate decision to close off the Wall once again. So she plots a trip over the Wall with her usual band of friends – smoldering boyfriend Four (James), brother Caleb (Elgort), generic friendperson Christina (Zoë Kravitz), and the flagrantly unreliable Peter (Teller), who has been the snakelike asshole for two films in a row, and yet the characters put real effort into making sure he joins them so that he can betray them yet again.

Outside of the Wall is a rust-colored wasteland, but eventually the group is picked up by the shock troops of the Genetic Testing Bureau, run by David (Jeff Daniels), who re-explains over the course of an hour what was summarized in the last three minutes of Insurgent: genetic testing was used to establish the ridiculously unsustainable society based on one-word personality types that they left behind in Chicago. Tris's ascendance as the Divergent of Divergents proves the Bureau's experiments worked, and David wants her and her friends to help him restore the world, or something. The details make very little sense, but that's only because David is an untrustworthy psychopathic totalitarian monster, since the only thing that crops up more often in The Divergent Series than adult authority figures who put absolutely no effort into hiding their transparently evil intentions is Tris's instant readiness to believe every lie that comes out of their mouths.

I frankly couldn't tell you what, exactly, the Bureau's plan is, but at least the conflict is pretty straightforward this time: the Bad People want to murder everybody in Chicago, and Tris must find a way to stop them. My understanding is that this all changed, sometimes unrecognizably, from the source material by screenwriters Noah Oppenheim and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage - I only made it one-third of the way through Divergent before I elected to stop reading the books altogether, so I could hardly say - and maybe that's why Allegiant feels a little freer and looser than the last two movies. If nothing else, spending most of the movie outside of Chicago means staying clear of the incomprehensible mush that has been the world building till now. Indeed, the film is at its clear-cut worst whenever it returns to Chicago and watches Evelyn and Johanna puke out their messy word salad, and raises the question of what kind of wrathful God would decide that Watts and Spencer deserved this punishment for their sins. In the wasteland and the sleek halls of the Bureau, though, Allegiant is a passably tolerable slurry of dystopian sci-fi clichés, which does not (nor should it) get anybody's pulse racing, but boilerplate sci-fi is still more rewarding than whatever the fuck it was that the first two were on about.

It's even - dare I say it? Dare I even think it? - not uninteresting to look at. The Bureau is a pretty damn neat location, if nothing else, full of shiny plastic surfaces that have an eerily organic quality, like we're inside the guts of a living being that evolved out of Apple products. Production designer Alec Hammond, freed from the constraint of "take Chicago, make it look like a bomb hit it", has turned out a more than credible sci-fi world, one that isn't necessarily an all-time original masterpiece, but at least looks somewhat different than the sci-fi worlds we generally get in the movies. And the wasteland is just plain terrific, all done up in corrosive oranges, browns, and rusts, with rivers running the color of dried blood and scraggly mutant plant life that feels like a fever dream after reading too many midcentury short stories about Mars. There's a stately air of high-class pulp throughout the visual conception of the world outside the wall and the technology found there which gives Allegiant a pretty fun world to peer at while you're studiously ignoring all of the droning bullshit that the characters are talking about. Plus, cinematographer Florian Ballhaus and director Robert Schwentke don't hold back in embracing the newly-colorful world; Allegiant is lushly over-saturated with a whole rainbow of corrupt greens and reds, almost glowing with merry toxicity. Frequently, the rotting earth can be seen peering through the huge glass walls of the Bureau, and the contrast with the smooth white interiors is something truly neat and fun.

That suddenly-aroused visual sensibility, combined with the fact that we finally have a Divergent movie with a discernible narrative structure, is enough to make Allegiant far less of a tired-out death march than I supposed it would be. It's still a death march, you understand: the characters suck, the actors are bad at playing them, and the basic building blocks of this whole world remain astonishingly dubious even for a parable. But it's a death march with pretty scenery.

Reviews in this series
Divergent (Burger, 2014)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent (Schwentke, 2015)
The Divergent Series: Allegiant (Schwentke, 2016)