Apocalyptic cinema has the potential to be trite or poignant, but rarely both at once. For every "Dr. Strangelove," "Planet of the Apes" or "Night of the Living Dead," there are countless retreads of the same barren landscape littered with grisly showdowns and mutant assaults.
In "The Divide," an extreme post-apocalypse B-movie in which a couple of New York survivors go mad while trapped in a dank apartment, director Xavier Gens ("Frontier(s)," "Hitman") draws on a basic formula and seems to bleed it dry within minutes. But even when "The Divide" faceplants with its performances and dialogue, it maintains a stark outlook that elevates the material from its shortcomings. Gens' dystopian narrative begins with absolute mayhem and never slows down; the end of the world marks the beginning of a far scarier one.
"The Divide" wastes no time before launching into an exasperating tale of anarchic dread. The descent into hell begins with a horde of frantic residents dashing to the cellar in the wake of a nuclear attack and grows increasingly morbid from there: Rape, disfigurement and cannibalism figure into the ensuing drama, but it's the accumulation of these incidents, rather than their specific shock value, that gives "The Divide" a lasting effect.
When the doors close and the dust settles, the resulting group enters into a power play that starts with confused attempts to ration supplies and mobilize the remaining resources. Their stability only lasts as long as it takes for masked gunmen to burst through the doors and unload a few rounds before sealing the remaining survivors into their self-made tomb. (Why? "The Divide" cleverly wastes no time with distracting context.) The terrified ensemble includes a cigar-toting Michael Bienh as the grizzly superintendent, Milo Ventimiglia in constant panic mode and a reserved Lauren German, the one character with the lingering capacity to keep a clear head. More "Lifeboat" than "Mad Max," the movie emphasizes the how of their conundrum over the far less compelling what.
In doing so, it settles into the same claustrophobic high concept that initially made the ABC series "Lost" such a compelling experience until it exhausted the gimmick. Divorced from specifics, "The Divide" transforms into a disturbing portrait of tribal disarray, using precise film language to communicate its themes. Rather than mechanical violence driving the plot forward, Gens uses extreme close-ups, flashing halogenic lights and a highly saturated color palette to make "The Divide" a lot more powerful than the genre's boundaries imply.
Unfortunately, none of this distracts from a dependence on shrill, unimaginative shouting matches and other lame devices that can't stand up to the visceral component. But when they take over in the final hour, "The Divide" turns into a gripping parable about nothing less than the animalistic instinct to stay alive under pressure. "Groups break down into self-interest in times of scarcity," Ventimiglia says when withholding supplies from his scared peers. It's not an excuse so much as an admission of guilt.
Only one survivor -- German, whose evolution from clueless rich girl to lethal heroine was the best thing about "Hostel II" -- manages to rise above the madness through sheer determination. Her continuing sanity leads to a climax that hails from the same Darwinian turf as the warring apes' prologue in "2001: A Space Odyssey" (to which Gens openly pays homage in his memorable closing shot).
While he hardly deserves consideration alongside Stanley Kubrick, "The Divide" manages to transcend its numerous flaws while indulging them: No matter where it falters, the underlying purpose stays put. Imaginative images of demise bookend the movie -- from iconographic mushroom clouds to an abandoned cityscape tinted blue and caked in nuclear snow -- and swiftly encapsulate a tension between chaos and order borne out by the basement events. In visual terms alone, they illuminate the capacity for intellect to combat destruction without fully escaping it. For the sheer magnitude of that message, "The Divide" cuts deep even when it turns shallow.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? After facing a mixed critical reaction at SXSW last year, "The Divide" was eventually picked up by Anchor Bay, which releases the film on a few screens around the country on Friday. Too intense for mass commercial potential and facing a large amount of critical disdain, it's unlikely to hold much sway at the box office, but may find a more welcoming audience among curious genre buffs when it hits DVD.