Much has been made over the term “Mary Sue”. Referring to a character that tends to populate the worst amateur fiction, the characters is flawless, too beautiful for mere mortals, beloved by all except those who’s admiration turns to resentment, and should they have a flaw, it comes across as token and self serving. The Mary Sue reeks of author surrogate and empowerment fantasy, hence the stereotype that it appears in the works of young, disenfranchised high school students scrawled in the back of their marble notebooks. Defenders of the term point to countless examples, and ask for a better common name to unite them, while detractors see the term as a sexist label, primarily slung at young female writers, ignoring equally empowered characters in dime-a-dozen Heroes Journey clones.
Tris (Shailene Woodley) isn’t quite a Mary Sue, but lord help me if the film doesn’t feel like fanfiction from a deeply insecure high school student. Tris (an absurd shortening of the name Beatrice) is at the very least in the same ballpark. We spend an eternity describing how she is literally everyone in the films genetic superior, all who meet her love and sacrifice for her without a moments hesitation (and no legitimate buildup to the now front-and-center romance,) and her decisions, even the most obviously wrong ones, always turn out to be for the best.
The film ends right where the previous film left off, with the gates of the dystopian post-apocalyptic Chicago thrown open after Tris destroys the faction system and overthrows Jeanine (her bête noire from the previous two films,) a mysterious signal revealing they were all part of some sort of grand genetic experiment, inviting them to meet the experiments designers in the outside world. But met from resistance from Robespierre wannabee Evelyn (Naomi Watts) hell bent on keeping the gates closed and retaining power, and possibly less-than-noble motives from the experiments director David (Jeff Daniels), she’s left adrift in a set of completely new circumstances.
It isn’t so much that the plot is unpredictable as that it makes no sense. Sure, I was left guessing, but that’s because character motivations were seemingly random and unexplored. The villains numerous schemes make little to no sense, often times conflicting with each other. Yes, we’re kidnapping and brainwashing babies, but we’re also desperately scheming for funding at the expense of human lives, funding that will inevitably be eaten up by the brainwashed children the villain does nothing with. Promises to explain it in the sequel (yet another YA Dystopia splitting it’s final installment in two) come across as empty.
The one motive that was most likely unintended, yet is present in full force, is Tris’ strange Freudian jealousy for Evelyn. She never seems as perturbed that Evelyn is a tyrant in the style of the French Revolution, marked by ratcheting paranoia and calls for public executions, as the fact that she’s Four’s (Theo James as Tris’s oddly named love interest) mother, and thereby has a role as another woman in his life. This dynamic isn’t helped with Evelyn’s pleadings to Four (“Please, baby, I can change!”) coming across more as those of a jilted abusive ex than a mother.
The acting is a mixed bag. Jeff Daniels gives a creepy performance as David, and clearly enjoys milking his slimy politicians smile. Tris and Four, on the other hand, could have been just as well acted by wooden dummies, albeit Four’s being a very hunky mannequin. While Four has always been an empty shell, Shailene Woodley has shown acting chops not just in other series, but in this franchise’s earlier films. The script just makes her wander from place to place acting condescending, until eventually switching to patronizing platitudes. The only other characters who get enough screen time to judge are Miles Teller as the fabulously oily traitor Peter, and Naomi Watts, who seems to have put on her best “acting face” for the film. No matter the scene, no matter the emotion, Watts plays it with a sort of on the verge of tears intensity, pouting and mugging like a gender swapped Dylan McDermott.
Unfortunately, even the franchises good intentions have mutated into something strange in this iteration. The first two movies use the segregated city of Chicago as a clumsy metaphor for the search for adolescent identity and independence, and cliquey pigeonholing in high school. In Allegiant, however, the introduction of hilariously transparent Nazi stereotypes (“Frau Tris, ve must test you for ze purity of your blood. We shall separate you from ze genetic inferiors.”) makes the message surreal and unintelligible. The implication seems to be that division is an artificial product that serves the powers that be, but when heroic characters are longing for old divisions in the light of new ones, the audience is left adrift for meaning.
Misguided, strange, and sadly dull, Allegiant is less an original product as the byproduct of the YA dystopia bubble. Each element is plucked wholesale from another property, and stuck together into a lumpy, uneven jigsaw of a movie.