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'The Divergent Series: Allegiant' Builds a Wall Around Chicago

YA films are not especially prescient, as they retell stories that have been told for decades, with their warnings about class-dividing and fear-mongering and wall-building.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Director: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-03-10 (General release)

This is what it looks like when you build a wall. A big wall. Around Chicago.

This is what you see at the start of Allegiant: a throng of unhappy survivors, whipping themselves into frenzies. Once organized into "factions", now they're headed into chaos, angry at the old system, unable to come up with a new one, imagining that force and numbers will turn into power and some semblance of order. Of course, it's an accident that this movie scene resembles what you saw on TV when Trump canceled his rally last Friday or indeed, that both scenes are set in Chicago. It's less accidental that Allegiant and the current US political season are so focused on anger and division.

The movie, being a painfully mechanical exercise, makes its focus obvious in a few broad strokes. These include an over-explanatory voiceover and a series of cuts between wide shots of the furious crowd and close shots of faces you should know, if you're up on your Divergent series. (This is the third film in that series, if you're not quite caught up, based on the first half of the last book, as is the increasingly tedious habit of YA franchises.) While anonymous, multi-hued opponents push and yell around her, Tris (Shalene Woodley) looks concerned. So does her boyfriend, Four (Theo James). Needless to say, as much as these faces might glower, they remain utterly beautiful -- as do their perfect-body-revealing outfits. Even at the end of civilization, these kids have stylists.

Such is the business of YA movies, to forge fantasies that are dire but not too dire. The Chicago situation grows worse: Evelyn (Naomi Watts) and Joanna (Octavia Spencer) vie for "brutal control" of this desperate and confined population, whose only source of information is what each side tells them (the head ladies in charge don't tweet, but might as well, given the movie-magical speed with which every mass communication is disseminated). When Tris witnesses the execution of a villain from installments past (a black villain, it's worth noting in our comparison of future and present Chicagos), she determines that it's time to leave town.

This initiates the current movie's action (see Mad Max: Fury Road for a recent version of this familiar plot). She and her team -- some welcome, like Four, some less welcome (Miles Teller's junior-executive-in-the-making), some (Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q) "diverse" in the way Ava DuVernay laments -- climb the wall, the very big wall and then make their way across a toxic desert. "This hole looks radioactive," observes Caleb (Ansel Elgort), "or at least it was in the last 200 years." Along with their stylists, the kids pack incredibly resilient immune systems.

Mercifully, their journey is somewhat shorter than the Hobbits' (though it does feel almost as long), which means we're soon landed in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. CGIed to be the absolute opposite of the place the kids just left, it's shiny and white and Tomorrowland-y, run by David (Jeff Daniels), who couldn't be more obvious a bad guy if he wore a sign to that effect “Welcome to the future; we’ve been waiting for you," he smarms on their arrival. No matter that they're bar-coded and split into factions, again. Tris, like all the YA girls must, falls for the ruse so as to create yet another division, between her and Four. And so on.

You know what's coming. And that's surely enough, on top of Allegiant's feeble characterizations, puny effects, and awkward construction, to warrant dismissing it as a franchise installment, not to mention as a movie. Still, the convergence of moments can grant even the most disposable art a bit of weight. In this case, as Allegiant reflects what you're seeing elsewhere, you might also reflect on what's roiling, so loudly, in your world.

It's not that YA novels or films are especially prescient, as they retell stories that have been told for decades, warnings about class-dividing and fear-mongering and wall-building, as well as calls for a vague sort of unity. It is to point out precisely that repetition. Tris, for all her experience and wisdom, falls for the promise that cannot be true. Let's not be Tris.


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