Two stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and shadowed nudity
By Derrick Bang
With apologies for the unavoidable pun — given that Miles Teller is one of this film’s stars — you could get whiplash trying to keep up with the shifting character loyalties here.
This person is a good guy. Oh, dear; he’s really a bad guy. No, he’s only pretending to be a bad guy; he’s actually a good guy. Damn; he really is a bad guy.
That person is dedicated to the cause of peace and freedom. Hmmm, she seems to have hidden megalomaniacal tendencies. Uh, hang on; is that a glimmer of conscience? No, false alarm; she’s genuinely deranged. But ... then ... how can she lead a kumbaya hug in the final scene?
Our heroine is smart, brave and resourceful. Actually, she’s rather naïve and foolish. Well, hey, cut her some slack; she really is a dedicated and stalwart heroine. No, she’s genuinely stupid and unbelievably gullible, and doesn’t deserve to be leading her companions into constant peril, let alone suckering us viewers into tolerating yet another two hours of nonsense driven almost entirely by her personality flaws.
If all this sounds strained, random and utterly bewildering ... there’s a reason for that.
Like at least one other current big-screen franchise derived from young adult fantasy lit — and, God knows, we’ve been drowning in them lately — the Divergent series feels like everything is made up from one moment to the next. We can’t really blame novelist Veronica Roth, on whose books these films are based; as the film series has progressed, the scripts have, ah, diverged significantly from their respective sources.
Mostly, though, it remains a case of diminishing returns. Whether we’re discussing the Twilight series, or Divergent, or (definitely the worst) Maze Runner, or even The Hunger Games, each new film in its respective franchise has been notably weaker. In part, it’s because the various scripters and directors have deviated too much, abandoning elements that made these young heroines and heroes interesting in the first place, in favor of mindless running, fighting, jumping, fighting, arguing and more fighting.
But the bigger problem does lie with the original book authors, who failed to construct these alternate realms with adequate creativity, plot logic and continuity. Time and again, I’m reminded how vastly superior J.K. Rowling is, not only as a writer and world-builder, but as a novelist capable of fabricating fully dimensioned characters not only with her core protagonists, but with supporting players and casual bystanders.
From books one through seven — and films one through eight — Harry Potter’s adventures flow smoothly and logically, with impressive continuity elements that signify very, very careful planning. People don’t think or act stupidly in Rowling’s fantastical realm.
I sure wish the same could be said here.
Thanks to Tris (Shailene Woodley) and her friends and allies, post-apocalyptic Chicago has been saved from the villainous and manipulative Jeanine (Kate Winslet), dispatched in last year’s Divergent: Insurgent. The city’s five social and personality-related “factions” have been disbanded and embraced as one, with a de facto leadership established under rebel leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the mother of Tris’ honey-bunny, Four (Theo James).
This new film hits the ground running, as Evelyn orchestrates a kangaroo court to execute all “traitors” formerly loyal to Jeanine: a rather vicious display of fascism that seems wholly out of character for the Evelyn we met in the previous film. The results aren’t pretty, with most of Chicago’s citizens depicted as a deranged and bloodthirsty mob screaming for vengeance. (Seriously? I think not.)
The peace-minded Johanna (Octavia Spencer), appalled by such behavior, departs with her followers. Tris and Four, equally dismayed, make a break for the outer wall — which “protects” Chicago from We Know Not What — in the company of Peter (Miles Teller), Tori (Maggie Q), Christina (Zoë Kravitz) and, something of a surprise, Tris’ traitorous brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort).
Once on the far side, after narrowly escaping pursuit through toxic wasteland — the “Fringe” — by Evelyn’s lieutenant Edgar (Jonny Weston) and his gun-toting thugs, our heroes are rescued by military emissaries from an ultra-high-tech compound known as the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. This small “city” is run by David (Jeff Daniels), the scientist whose clandestine message summoned Tris in the previous film.
David immediately tags Tris as being genetically “pure” — once again “excluding” her from others — and explains that she’s the only one who can help him “save” Chicago, along with (surprise!) other cities like it dotted through what remains of the United States.
(Once again, we’ve no idea what happened to the rest of the world.)
Despite everything that has happened to her up to this point, and despite glaringly obvious evidence that David is being far less than honest, Tris blandly consents to his every request, even to the degree that it distances her from Four and her other friends.
At which point, I checked out. Nobody, but nobody, would be that dumb. And certainly not Tris.
Aside from that, let’s catalog a few of the many other ludicrous mistakes, inconsistencies and clumsy elements in this truly awful script by Bill Collage, Adam Cooper and Noah Oppenheim (the latter also having worked on the even dumber Maze Runner, which explains a lot):
• Despite the need to keep their actual activities quite secret, David and his many loyal soldiers turn a blind eye toward Four’s not-the-slightest-bit-stealthy investigative efforts to find out what’s going on behind the scenes. Seriously?
• Although Tris and her companions must undergo massive decontamination after having spent only a day or two in the Fringe, entire communities of rag-tag adults and children apparently survive there just fine, with no obvious ill effects.
• The Bureau’s compound isn’t domed or sheltered from the Fringe to any degree, and our introductory overhead shot shows healthy green vegetation directly abutting this “toxic wasteland.” I don’t think micro-climates work that way...
• We also cannot overlook the usual nonsense of high-tech weapons that never seem to hit anything unless the good guys are using them, and folks who improbably survive massive explosions (I’m looking at you, Edgar).
• Once David is forced to reveal his true hand, he demonstrates the ability, at long distance, to control radio communications within his personal shuttle, which Tris and her companions have stolen. And yet David apparently cannot override the shuttle controls, which seems an unlikely and illogical oversight.
• And the biggest howler (spoiler alert): A climactic release of orange “memory gas” spreads for several minutes (five? 10?) throughout every room, street and building in Chicago — we watch this stuff flowing everywhere — and yet does no harm because “it all gets sucked back in.”
I truly thought, back in 1987, that watching Nuclear Man haul an unprotected Mariel Hemingway into outer space, in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — without her immediately dying of oxygen deprivation, ebullism and flash-frozen organs — was the dumbest disregard of basic science that I’d ever endure from a modern film (which is to say, a film made at a point when people obviously know better).
This one might be worse.
All that gas gets sucked back in? R-i-g-h-t.
But this movie’s deficiencies aren’t merely technical. Teller, a young actor of considerable talent, delivers the worst performance of his career. Granted, Peter is known to be an opportunistic wiseacre, but his tin-eared one-liners are badly delivered and wholly out of place as apparent comic relief. Watts, also capable of much better, can’t begin to get a handle on her role, and no wonder: Evelyn is nothing but contrived contradictions.
This points to poor direction, and Robert Schwentke deserves the blame. I don’t understand what happened to him; his career began solidly, with Flightplan and The Time Traveler’s Wife. But then he unleashed the truly awful R.I.P.D. and also helmed this series’ previous entry. With this third strike in a row, it feels like he isn’t even trying.
Poor Kravitz is just wasted space, and returning regulars Mekhi Phifer and Daniel Dae Kim pop up just long enough to collect a paycheck.
In fairness, Woodley and Elgort deserve credit for their sensitive handling of the Tris/Caleb estrangement, and the believably awkward manner in which these siblings try to work their way back toward mutual love and trust.
Too bad the rest of these various character dynamics weren’t handled with similar intelligence.
As of this third entry, the Divergent series has become a joke: no more than an outlandish, sfx-heavy cartoon.
And, just in case you missed the memo, this film represents only the first half of Roth’s third novel; we have Divergent: Ascendant to anticipate in the summer of 2017.