|Photo: Anchor Bay Films|
"The real monsters were the people we met along the way." - Ancient Proverb (?)
Xavier Gens' 2011 film The Divide trades on established tropes and plot points from countless other movies that you might have seen or heard about. It is a post-apocalyptic tale of desperate characters stuck in unfathomable situations, trying to survive the forces trying to kill them, both external and internal. In addition to being the base summary of just about every zombie film, other movies like Daylight or 10 Cloverfield Lane offer similar stories without some of the missteps that drag this film down.
The film starts as nuclear warheads are raining down on New York City as seen by a handful of people in a downtown high-rise. As escape outside becomes impossible, a group of tenants make their way into the basement and force their way into the dingy, but well-stocked, living quarters of the building's super, Mickey (Michael Biehn). Before long, some of the refugees including Delvin (Courtney B. Vance) and Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) become suspicious of Mickey's generally creepy-ass demeanor and his lack of transparency. Mickey seems to have the survival instincts to know they cannot leave and risk radiation exposure but he is needlessly vague, if only to create tension.
Sometime later (I'm being vague, but I'll get into this later), the group hears a ruckus outside the steel door to the basement which then bursts open and they are rushed by a group of silent soldiers with automatic weapons and bio-hazard suits. It's only after the group discovers Wendi, the young daughter of Rosanna Arquette's Marilyn, a take her out the door. After being attacked for this, the soldiers open fire and try to kill the remaining group to no avail. After the onslaught, the basement dwellers are left with one of the soldier's suits, his weapons, and no further answers of what is going on outside their door, which has now been welded shut by the forces.
There are a few other inconsequential plot points that I've glossed over but in the end, the group splinters, becomes increasingly desperate and paranoid, and some emerge as true villains without the social structure that might otherwise keep them in check. Surprisingly, this does not include Michael Biehn who basically perfected that character arc in The Abyss as he starts pretty close to The Overlook's Jack Torrence but is sidelined for a good chunk of the movie. Most all of the characters (including those I haven't mentioned for the sake of time) lose some sense of normalcy and humanity except for Eva (Lauren German) who desperately tries to keep the peace. It should not be a spoiler to say that she is not successful.
While the film doesn't add much to the conversation about post-nuclear fallout or the breakdown of societal norms, it does have a pretty strong cast and a great visual style. Shot by Laurent Bares of the knockout French films Frontier(s) and Inside, makes great use of the claustrophobic set and multitude of characters to bring the desperate and breakdown into visuals. And even with a varying amount to do, the cast is uniformly strong with Ventimiglia and his friend Bobby (Michael Eklund) showcasing a lot of confidence as their characters break down into the personifications of the human id.
All that said, I had a couple of big problems with the film:
**SPOILERS BE HERE**
The whole subplot about the government soldiers who take Marilyn's child and are doing experiments outside seems to be either filler or a subplot that was created to explain certain character motivations. Ventimiglia's Josh goes up top to try to find a way out and finds these shadowy forces have created a lab, presumably in the ruins of the building, for ... reasons. These reasons are never explained. Who the soldiers are is never explained. After the door is welded shut to prevent the basement group from leaving, this is never even addressed again. I don't mind films leaving certain plots dangling when necessary but I really see no reason for this to exist. It doesn't inform the characters or their motivations for the rest of the film short of taking the child which could have been easily done in another, less clunky or superfluous, way.
The other big issue I have is that the film seemingly goes out of its way to bend the perception of time. I'm sure this is intentional but as it is, we have no basis of telling how long any of the events of the film are from the inciting incident. One character is shot when the soldiers come in but toward the end of the film, that wound has more or less healed with just a nasty scar. If that's the case, they were down there for a series of months? And if that's the case, they could have all broken out the way Eva does at the end into the world without much fear of further radiation poisoning. Or, on the flip side, if the events all take place within a ridiculously short amount of time after the bombs (like a couple of weeks), that would have been helpful to establish that Josh and Bobby, and even Marilyn to an extent, were barely holding on to normalcy by a thread to begin with.
In the end, while I enjoyed my time watching The Divide, I can't really recommend it as it has a number of baffling story choices, characters that aren't to pleasant to be around, and ultimately is just a repackage of other genre tropes in a slightly elevated production.