The dystopian action gets off to an intriguing start in “Allegiant,” the third installment adapted from novelist Veronica Roth’s hit young-adult series, “Divergent.” Whereas genre standard-setter “The Hunger Games” put off its meet-the-new-boss reveal until the franchise’s climactic moments, this one gets to the downbeat power restructuring first thing. Conformity-defying heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) and boyfriend Four (Theo James) discover that post-apocalyptic Chicago is harsher than ever, even with despotic Jeanine (departed Kate Winslet) dead and Four’s mom, lipstick revolutionary Evelyn (Naomi Watts), now in charge.
This setup creates real anticipation about where the story might be headed, at least for those who haven’t read Roth’s books. Frustratingly, though, the movie devolves into a derivative muddle by the second act. The line that audiences probably should be humming is “won’t get fooled again.” (Something to remember when “Ascendant” – a.k.a. “Allegiant Part 2” – drops in 2017?)
Returning director Robert Schwentke does manage to nail a few early sequences. Acting on Tris’s “Insurgent” discovery that an advanced, benevolent society has been monitoring her people from beyond the city’s massive containment wall, she, Four, and friends (terrifically snarky Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, etc.) break Evelyn’s cordon. Their getaway is intensely shot, all disorienting rappelling shots and pyrotechnics. The scene on the other side of the wall is vividly rendered, too — a quasi-Venusian expanse of toxic yellow-red bleccch that strikingly complements the trashed-urban production design of the first two movies.
And then the group arrives at its destination, a sanctuary known as the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, and that looks like — sigh — yet another utopia as imagined by someone making a commercial for antidepressants. The place is run by the Director (go-to bureaucrat of the moment Jeff Daniels), a politico scientist who’s gaga over Tris’s uncommon genetics, gifts that enabled her to shake up her rigidly structured world. This inordinate interest in classifying and defining Tris is meant to tie together “Allegiant” with the non-conformity themes of “Divergent,” but the connection is strained.
With its elaborate factions conceit, the first movie offered some compelling thoughts on individuality and identity, playing like an introspective rejection of all the Sorting Hat cuteness from “Harry Potter.” Here, the message is murkier than the clouds of crimson memory-wipe gas ominously flooding the climactic sequence. This doesn’t even feel much like Tris’s story anymore, just generically overdigitized combat. The main thing she’s diverging from at this point is the tone that hooked us in the first place.
THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT
Directed by Robert Schwentke. Written by Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage, based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Naomi Watts, Miles Teller. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 121 minutes. PG-13 (intense violence and action, thematic elements, partial nudity).