It seemed, to us at least, that there was a strangely apocalyptic cloud that was cast over many of the SXSW film festival selections in 2011 – things like "Bellflower" all the way up to "Attack the Block" had a definite "end of days" feel. "The Divide" might have been the one movie to attack the material with the most heads-on gusto, however, with the opening scene bringing New York City to waste with a hail of comet-like missiles. It's a striking image, for sure, but there's not much that equals it in the movie's labored, two-hour running time, either in terms of visual sophistication or crafting a sense of apocalyptic gloom. Instead, you'll be wondering why everything's so over-lit after the world's ended and why anyone would behave the way the characters do.
After we see the rockets destroy Manhattan, we move quickly to an underground bunker that our ostensive protagonist Michael Biehn has maintained (we learn at some point that he's the super of this particular apartment building). Survivors run through the rubble and into the shelter, including Milo Ventimiglia (from the television series "Heroes"), Rosanna Arquette, Lauren German, Courtney B. Vance and Ashton Holmes (who played Viggo's son in "A History of Violence").
For the first twenty minutes or so of the movie they just sit and stew, arguing loudly while bombs continue to shake the building's foundation. Biehn is the obvious hard-ass, wanting things done his way, but the other characters seem less than ancillary; they're barely there. Few of the characters reveal enough about themselves, or interact with their fellow survivors, to actually receive names, and the movie's sickly photography style, which casts every actor in a kind of lurid, fluorescent haze, will just distract and make you wonder if enough electricity could be coursing through the building to make everything look this ugly.
As the movie progresses, a fine litany of end-of-the-world clichés is trotted out as stop-gap placeholders for actual narrative drive. Then those recede and we're left with very little. The biggest moment happens when a bunch of mysterious scientist-army types invade the shelter. These guys look like what would happen if Jean Paul Gaultier designed costumes for the next "Halo" game, with all sorts of overlapping textures and big, white guns. While these interlopers are dispatched quickly, they spirit away with Rosanna Arquette's child and leave the group bewildered and wanting revenge.
This is all well and good, in terms of plot mechanics, but the thrust of this subplot dies out almost as soon as it's brought up. One of the survivors goes out to look for the kid (Ventimiglia) but instead ends up killing more of these guys and returns to the shelter quickly, only to have the door sealed from the outside. There's no real mystery to his expedition, just some hoary Holocaust imagery (which mercifully is left unexplored) and the whole thing ends abruptly and without much thought, which is actually a good way to describe the remainder of the movie.
You see, in "The Divide," characters react to situations in ways that no real-life human being ever would. The filmmakers, including director Xavier Gens who directed the 70s-horror-movie-sampler-platter "Frontier(s)" and the schlocky Hollywood action movie "Hitman," are clearly going for the vibe of a Stephen King tale, something along the lines of "The Stand" or "Under the Dome," with the extremity of the human condition brought to the forefront. It's just that every single one of these character beats or plot developments feels 100% phony and in the end, the movie reveals less a mysterious tale of sci-fi survival than a lumpy, misogynistic piece of torture porn trash.
Ventimiglia, previously seen as someone who would risk potential contamination to rescue a stolen child, turns into a monster, literally raping Rosanna Arquette until she dies (it should also be noted that Lauren German, the "strong" female character, does nothing to object or intervene). Michael Biehn, who might have been too hammy (he literally chomps on a cigar for most of the movie), is still a strong screen presence, but he's tied down and tortured for a good 40 minutes of the movie. People shoot each other and scream, and the movie's tired bomb shelter sets get more repetitive and less appealing as the movie wears on.
And as a 90-minute movie, there certainly could have been some kicky fun to be had in "The Divide." As it stands, it's pretentious need to investigate the depths of human depravity following a nuclear conflict leave it as worn out and rusty as the pipes that line the film's fallout shelter set. "The Divide" is an ugly film, both visually and thematically. But it only really rubs you the wrong way if you take it seriously, which we can't imagine anyone would. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.