If The Divide were a big-budget, high-concept Jerry Bruckheimer movie, the pitch to Hollywood executives might be something along the lines of “It’s The Lord Of The Flies in a New York basement”. Like William Golding’s novel, The Divide is about the murkier, primal area of human nature, and it’s probably the bleakest genre film you’ll see all year.
Director Xavier Gens wastes no time in laying his premise out. Nuclear bombs land on Manhattan, and seconds before they’re obliterated by the firestorm, a handful of tenement building residents scramble into a basement for protection. Fortunately for them – or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – the building’s twitchy superintendent Mickey (Michael Biehn) has made provision for such a disaster, and the basement’s reasonably well stocked with tins of beans and bottles of water.
Among the survivors are weepy mother Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) and her young daughter Wendi (Abbey Thickson), comely recovering drug addict Eva (Lauren German), her meek, bookish other half Sam (Iván González), and sundry other panicking guys played by, among others, Milo Ventimiglia (ex-Heroes), Ashton Holmes (A History Of Violence) and Courtney B Vance (recently seen in Final Destination 5).
As the small group of survivors begin to come to terms with the catastrophe unfolding upstairs, a further complication arises: a detachment of heavily-armed soldiers arrive at the basement door, clad in radiation-proof suits and seemingly hostile. Trapped in their refuge by this new threat, the survivors begin to violently turn on one another as they gradually give into their more animal urges.
That’s the opening few minutes dealt with, at least. They’re brisk, well shot, and quite disturbing – which you might expect if you’ve seen Gens’ debut, the extremely harsh Frontier(s). The Divide is no cheerier, and make no mistake, the movie is firmly in the horror camp rather than the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre the opening might imply – there are scenes in here which will give all but the most hardened of gore hounds pause.
At its best, it’s a good-looking, hypnotic film, with Gens wringing some great lighting and visuals from a claustrophobic space and a relatively limited budget. There’s a catchy, murmuring theme that vaguely recalls Clint Mansell’s exemplary score for Moon, and on the acting front, Michael Biehn puts in a characteristically fine performance as a stoic, somewhat eccentric all-American chap who you’re never quite sure you can trust. In fact, every actor delivers some fine work, including Roseanna Arquette, who’s trapped in a thankless role that gives her almost no dialogue and little to do.
If there’s a major fault with The Divide, it lies in its script. The rush to get into the basement and get to the meat of the action is understandable – and allows Gens to put together a striking opening panoramic shot – but it gives us no time to get to know the characters before disaster is thrust upon them. Once they’re in the basement, they’re all so busy panicking, rocking back and forth, moaning about eating beans and climbing the walls that it’s difficult to truly embrace them as individual, sympathetic characters.
If the first act were the prelude to a fast-paced action movie, this wouldn’t matter, but The Divide’s tempo, after its storming opening salvo, isn’t aggressive, but reflective. Had these reluctant underground dwellers been portrayed as normal, well-balanced and likeable people in the earlier stages, their subsequent fall from grace would have seemed heartbreaking, rather than merely depressing. The one character we’re meant to root for – Eva – is the least well drawn; all we really know about her is that she used to be a drug addict, and that she has a habit of staring down the lens without blinking.
These faults are made all the more niggling when The Divide hits you with an isolated moment of brilliance. Flawed though it the movie is, there are scenes tucked away in here that are quite difficult to forget.
What a shame, then, that its characters couldn’t lodge themselves in the mind as tenaciously as some of Gens’ imagery, and what a pity that a film that aims to offer up a powerful illustration of humanity at its darkest doesn’t provide the requisite emotional depth or insight to act as a counterbalance to all the horror and depressing nihilism.