Depending on who you talk to (or read), Director Xavier Gens’ latest feature The Divide is either a powerful and notable post-apocalyptic thriller – or it’s a too-long, convoluted mess. The truth is that it’s a little of both, and all the more maddening for it.
The Divide stars a bunch of fairly big names – Michael Biehn (Aliens, Terminator, The Abyss), Lauren German (Hostel 2), Milo Ventimiglia (TV’s Heroes), Rosanna Arquette, and several other faces that you’ll recognize as character actors from TV and movies (like Michael Eklund and Courtney B. Vance). They are all survivors of some sort of Nuclear Holocaust (in an extraordinary opening sequence – linked below) - who managed to make their way down to their building’s basement. Here, Biehn’s character Mickey has been stockpiling supplies from paranoid concerns since 9/11 – and once the small group pushes their way in, he seals the door and closes everyone in.
That’s the opener – the next 2+ hours is simply filled with societal decline. And buddy, I DO mean decline – this is a nasty, dirty, dark, violent picture. Alliances are drawn up quickly and constantly tested – with twists and turns along the way. There are some excellent moments in the film – not the least of which is that opening scene. But what the film is missing is any sort of base in reality – and that hurts any chances of really caring for these characters. In The Divide – no one behaves like real people. Only one of the survivors fleetingly mentions family outside – no one ever mentions missing family or being sad for not being able to say goodbye. No one tries to use technical equipment to reach the outside world. At one point, a group DOES break out (after the Hazmat-suited goons leave) – in a trippy sequence that seems to suggest that humanity did survive and maybe left these fools behind on purpose. But then they break right back in again, and seal themselves up once more…. with bugs, rotting corpses, little food and water left, radiation-sick monsters in charge, and a bunch of other things that would make most normal people choose running away, even if they didn’t know what they were running away to!
With so many examples to choose from, I will single out Arquette’s character Marilyn as the epitome of the film’s confusion – because she is the embodiment of all that is right AND wrong with the picture. Marilyn is a devoted mother at the start of the film – caring for and protecting her 10-year-old daughter Wendi, dutifully. You feel for her – as anyone would trying to protect a young child in the midst of the ultimate nightmare. After some amount of time passes, the basement dwelling survivors are “visited” by persons unknown in Hazmat-like suits – who break in, ignore or beat them, and then unceremoniously rip Wendi out of her mother’s arms and take her away. Marilyn is understandably distraught… for a blink of an eye. Then? Well… then she decides to be two of the crazier survivors’ rape doll because “the men will want sex,” until the inevitable happens. Once Wendi is gone, Marilyn devolves into an almost inhuman creature – something neither alive nor dead, and disturbingly OK with replacing any semblance of humanity with degradation (of herself or anyone else).
Yes, nuclear war is horrendous. Films like Testament have done an unforgettable job showing us this societal breakdown and with much more impact because they were written as real people to begin with. I still get tears in my eyes when I see grown-up Lucas Haas because he will forever be in my soul as poor, sick Scottie Wetherly. But this?
Really? No one’s going to question anything or anyone? No one’s trying to reach the outside world? No one’s going to stand up to monsters who’ve taken control? I kid you not… 30 minutes after the blasts go off in the film, the survivors are all just happily eating baked beans out of cans and acting like it’s a depressing camping excursion. Gens and company are trying to make a movie that showcases the horror of what man does to one another, but without attempting to make it feel real – they’re only trying to shock us into accepting that that’s what man would do.
The best thing that can be said about The Divide is that it does contain some powerful performances – and some rather incredible make-up work. I found Milo Ventimiglia as Josh to be almost a revelation – his character is deeply deranged as a result of radiation sickness, but he’s fascinating to watch. If you only remember him as the primary Hero on NBC’s Heroes – Peter Petrelli – you’d hardly recognize him here. His partner in crime Eklund as Bobby is also fantastic here – giving one hell of a virtuoso performance. Lauren German and Michael Biehn are pretty good, too – although Biehn could have toned down his patented yelling-as-acting a few times.
The moral of the muddled story is supposed to be that Humanity is Doomed, that the lucky ones died in the blasts. Yet… it’s hard to accept that from the film, when we know that others did survive and seemed to be just fine in their fancy super-suits. We just don’t know what they’re up to. Maybe that would have been a better side-story than “How to survive a holocaust as a partially-willing rape-toy!” If you dig bleak films, bummer endings, and impressive make-up skills – you might want to give The Divide a chance just to say you saw it and appreciate the handful of joys in its misery. Otherwise you save yourself the headache and just watch that fantastic opening sequence…
Or just go rent Testament – you’ll thank me (after you’ve stopped crying, that is).