The Divergent Series: Allegiant
Opening Friday, March 18

I have a suspicion that our future overlords (probably robotic) will look back at the first years of the twenty-first century and wonder: What was up with all the teenage wasteland movies?

The Divergent Series: Allegiant is the latest installment in an increasingly weary genre, one in which Attractive Young People dodge strange perils in dystopian near-futures. Think The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and so forth. (For a superior specimen, look up the 2013 British entry How I Live Now, with Saoirse Ronan.)

In the Divergent saga, Shailene Woodley headlines as Tris, a rebellious heroine who fights back against a deterministic society where people are forced into personality factions: Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the intelligent), Abnegation (the selfless), and Candor (the honest).

Tris doesn’t fit into any of these categories, or maybe she fits into all of them—she’s divergent, you see. Her quest for individuation powered the first two installments of the film franchise, adapted from the YA novels of Veronica Roth. Those films had intriguing social science-fiction angles, eschewing hard sci-fi’s tech fetish to speculate more on sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

Alas, the series takes a hard left turn in Allegiant, introducing a big twist that doesn’t really work. Stop reading now if you want to go into the movie fresh.

After scaling the massive defensive wall surrounding the ruined city of Chicago, Tris and her pals venture into the wasteland and discover the city is actually an awesomely complex and frankly confusing eugenics experiment. It’s headed by immoral scientist David (Jeff Daniels), the leader of an advanced society in the ruins of O’Hare airport. David is trying to breed damaged DNA out of the human race after past genetic engineering mistakes led to a third world war.

Or something. It’s never quite clear what’s going on, but we know David’s the bad guy because he kidnaps poor kids and lives in a sterile high-tech tower. The second half of the film degenerates into standard B-movie sci-fi, with drones and force fields, laser rifles and spaceships, and characters outrunning clouds of toxic smoke.

Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts return as faction leaders squaring off over the future of Chicago, but both characters are jerked around by the demands of the convoluted plot. Ironically, the most visually interesting passages celebrate the hard technology that the series has heretofore avoided. Little companion drones hover around to take videos and solve story obstacles. This is fun to ponder, considering such technology is actually already here.

A fourth and final film in the series, Ascendant, is planned for next summer. But the franchise’s diminishing returns, both creative and commercial, don’t bode well. Somewhere along the way, Divergent and Hollywood’s other teenage wasteland series have generated a sixth faction among the movie-going audience: Disinterested.