Come back, Katniss. The teen dystopia needs you, a heroine who earned our respect. Alas, four months after The Hunger Games peaced out, we're stuck palling around with the The Divergent Series franchise's Beatrice, aka Tris, a grim drip we'd happily sacrifice in the Arena.
The Hunger Games and Divergent share a premise: Their low-born riot grrrls grow up to smash a caste system. For Katniss, that was the Districts — 12 geographically different cities where your environment shaped your personality, much like it would if you were raised in Baton Rouge rather than Beverly Hills. Katniss was an ordinary girl with inspiring courage. Her choices won us over: hide or fight, manipulate or self-sacrifice, Peeta or Gale. She wasn't perfect — boy, did she have a sour, lonely streak — but she was human, which is a feat itself in a post-apocalyptic world where individual lives are trash.
But Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a photocopy that misses the point. In her world, a futuristic Chicago that still refers to O'Hare Airport as if anyone has ever seen a stewardess, people have tolerated 200 years of being divided into five personality-based clans: Erudite (smart bullies), Amity (nice farmers), Dauntless (brave soldiers), Candor (truthful lawyers?) and Abnegation (other nice people who wear gray for some reason). (There's no Handyman clan, which must be why two centuries after the bombing, the city is still who-gives-a-damn rubble.) As a Divergent, Tris tested positive for all, mystifying the audience as she doesn't have even one personality trait, let alone five. Her only talents are getting lame tattoos, staring blankly at her boyfriend Four (Theo James), and falling for stupid traps. Plus, can you imagine her growing a tomato? (PS: For anyone who needs to take their SATs, the correct word for combining traits should have been Convergent.)
Unlike Katniss, Tris is biologically Special, a counterproductive plot choice in a movie that thinks it's arguing people should be equal. And boneheaded Allegiant, the third installment with one more still to go, scrambles its message more. Now, after Tris has dispatched evil Erudite Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the five factions have blended into one angry mob headed by Four's mom (Naomi Watts), who is determined to execute their former leaders. In keeping with original novelist Veronica Roth's habit of naming clans after the most awkward mouthful in the thesaurus, let's call them Castigation. As one does when their land is taken over by a tyrant, Tris, Four, and their buddies Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) flee to
Canada the outlands, a nuclear-blasted wasteland where the blood-red rivers sizzle like bacon.
Here, we learn that Tris is even better than Divergent. She's genetically pure — the only genetically pure human in Chicago — a compliment made even creepier when delivered by an Aryan ruler played by Jeff Daniels, who's been made up so pale he looks like he's bleached his blonde hair and watered down his blue eyes. Thanks to Tris's privileged DNA, she's separated from her "damaged" (and, alas for us, more interesting) friends, left crammed elbow-to-elbow in dark bunk beds, and swooped up into David's all-white penthouse. C'mon, Tris. If you learned anything in the two films it took to defeat Jeanine, it's never trust anyone who likes modern furniture.
With every Divergent sequel, the series gets dumber and dumber. At first, I thought the plot was misguided, like author Roth pawed through a dictionary and picked big words at random. Let's be real: The Amity and Abnegation clans are basically the same thing. And if only Candor gets to be truthful, does that mean everyone else is lying?
In Allegiant, David reveals that outsiders forced the people of Chicago into these nonsense groups. OK, maybe that's why the clans sounded ridiculous — people can't actually be divided into personalty castes. But then how were people — including Tris — successfully sorted by scientific tests, like the one that deemed her Divergent? What's the caste for Writers Who Make Sense? Can we hire one to redo this script?
Even Shailene Woodley seems to have given up on her money-making franchise. She was miscast to start with — Woodley doesn't have a rebellious bone in her body, and her bashful charisma has to creep on you the way it did in The Spectacular Now, not be welded onto the script. Her costar Kravitz has the pint-sized dynamism that could have pulled it off, but even she'd be stuck trying to force chemistry with James, who at 31 is old enough to know he's in a horrible series, and young enough to worry his friends might see it. Only Teller manages to salvage his scenes with what I can best describe as a smart-ass shield: He's nearly three times younger than Christopher Walken, but already knows how survive a disaster with an old actor's flair for camp.
The first two films made about $600 million, none of which was invested in Allegiant's special effects. It's obsessed with pixelated goo: baths of orange slime that barely dampen Tris's hair, puffs of orange gas that are supposed to poison our heroes yet somehow never rise above their ankles, and — my favorite — floating Jell-O pods that transport Tris and friends, each unnaturally crouched as though riding an invisible carousel horse.
As for the action, director Robert Schwentke telegraphs what's about to happen 10 seconds before it does. We're like a time traveler living a blink ahead into the future and able to predict everything: not just who's about to get shot, but what insult someone's going to quip. In one scene, no sooner had I scribbled in my notes that Tris was lashing out like a kid, than David yelled the exact same thing. Great, now I'm the oppressor.
The Hunger Games expanded its civil rights sci-fi hook into a cynical study of leadership and corruption. Divergent feels like a hasty idea scribbled on construction paper, crumpled into a ball, and ditched in a mud puddle. Even it can't tell what it wanted to say. Instead, it's a soggy spit-wad toward the good teen movies that shames the whole genre. Burn it all down, Girl on Fire. Burn it all down.