‘Allegiant’ moves ‘Divergent’ series into heady sci-fi territory (Movie review)

The third entry of a four-part saga, “Allegiant” — now available on DVD – moves the “Divergent” series into heady (and sometimes head-scratching) science fiction territory. Young future readers of classic sci-fi such as Arthur C. Clarke’s works might dip their toe into those waters after watching this film based on the young-adult novel by Veronica Roth.

It’s well documented that “Allegiant” diverges (pun kind of intended) from Roth’s novel of the same name, but I haven’t read the book, so I’ll just be talking about the movie here. Directed by Robert Schwentke with production design by Alec Hammond – both of whom worked on the previous entry, “Insurgent” – this is again a gorgeous-looking film.

Our team of heroes – Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Peter (Miles Teller) and Christina (Zoe Kravitz) – finally wander outside the wall of Chicago (which we learned in “Insurgent” is one big experimental society), and we see orange skies and rust-colored terrain interrupted by rivers of what looks like blood. The allusion is that most of the Earth was irradiated by the nuclear bombs of World War III from 200 years earlier (the real-world present day).

The Bureau of Genetic Welfare, a small city unto itself located where O’Hare Airport used to be, looks beautiful too, in a Futuristic Sci-Fi way, sort of like “Tomorrowland.” The same goes for the outpost of Providence. Although it’s not explicitly stated, it seems that Providence is an intentionally named new settlement, and not the rebuilt capital of Rhode Island.

While the movie – filmed in Atlanta and on sets and in front of green screens — never ceases to provide eye candy and cool future tech (the soldiers of the Bureau have personal protective drones, which allows infiltrations to be more believable than in the previous movies), the question of how all this got here is a head-scratcher. Overseen by David (Jeff Daniels), the Bureau has quiet floating airpods and intuitive airships and plasma rifles and floating bubble shields, but there’s no sense that anyone living there could’ve invented or built anything this advanced.

David is a communist despot and most of his citizenry consists of people he kidnapped and brain-wiped from the Fringe, the tent communities outside the wall of Chicago. While communist leaders can always live comfortably until they are overthrown, real-world history shows that communities where everyone has cutting-edge tech tend to lean capitalist.

The Fringe is also inexplicable. We’re told that the air and rain outside the wall is somewhat poisonous, but while the Fringe residents certainly aren’t living well in their tent cities, they also somehow find enough food and water to survive. The revelation of the radioactive atmosphere then raises the question of what makes Chicago different. There are invisible domes over the Bureau and Providence, but there’s no reference to a dome over Chicago, just a wall around it. But there has to be a dome to account for the different air quality. Yet there can’t be because our heroes don’t encounter a dome; they just climb over the wall. Sigh.

Four learns the Bureau is nefarious when he’s sent on a “humanitarian mission” to the Fringe that ends up being a kidnapping raid. But Four’s new Bureau bosses never mention an enemy before the raid. So when Four says “What the hell is going on here?” amid the mission, he’s echoing what the audience was thinking before the mission even began.

Among the Bureau’s mind-boggling tech is the ability to spy on Chicagoans anywhere, anytime, so David knows all about Tris (except the fact that she’s not going to willingly submit to his schemes), and he brings her into the fold because she’s genetically Pure – the only one of her kind. He wants to study her and make more humans like her. What does it mean to be genetically “Pure”? Add it to the list of “Allegiant’s” foggy elements.

Unanswered questions aside, there’s so much sci-fi information dumping in “Allegiant” that Tris – like the audience — is a passive agent. She just kind of absorbs it all until the final act when she reveals her new knowledge to the people of Chicago. At that point, she earns her leadership chops, I suppose, but if there’s an active agent in “Allegiant,” it’s actually Four, who regularly breaks out his Dauntless-bred combat skills.

Meanwhile, Christina is a mostly forgotten sidekick, Caleb is in even more of a daze than his sister Tris, and Peter provides some comic relief by commenting on the Bureau’s swank tech. After they all get their requisite Bureau showers in order to transition from the dirty past into the clean future, Peter notes “Well, that was the weirdest shower I’ve ever had.” And then he makes some active – albeit shifty — decisions later in the movie.

With the bevy of futuristic world-building details and the characters who just kind of take it all in, “Allegiant” is a bit of a poor man’s Golden Age of SF opus. If you bring your own subtext to “Allegiant,” there’s some fairly meaty stuff to be found. The concept of a memory-wiping gas makes our heroes starkly realize the value of individual skill sets and personalities, like when Four tells his mom, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), that he won’t know who she is if she gasses the city of Chicago. (Oh, by the way, Chicago is home to a war between Evelyn’s rebels and the titular Allegiant, Johanna’s supporters of the old faction system.)

And it’s not hard to find a parallel to the wall around Chicago when we have a major-party presidential candidate calling for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. (It’s rather horrifying that the “Divergent” series ended up being prescient on this count, rather than merely providing a warning about the worst impulses of government leaders.)

On one hand, these themes would work better if “Allegiant’s” leap to the future wasn’t so logistically illogical. On the other hand, I was engaged by the information dumping (having the “Divergent” Wiki close at hand helped) and I sympathized with the heroes, maybe because they were in the same boat as me, taking in this visually impressive new world beyond the wall. The “Divergent” series is more thematically and technically ambitious than its friendly rivals — the “Hunger Games,” “Maze Runner” and “5th Wave” series — so I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt even though the foundation of the world-building could use more solid pillars.

I’ll likely be back for next year’s fourth and final entry, “Ascendant.” It’s not based on an existing book, so anything will be possible; perhaps even the big picture of the “Divergent” world will start to make more sense.