You know when you hear about the theme of a movie and you get all excited for it? Then the director is announced for the project and it makes it that much better, then the actors begin to attach to it and it becomes one of your “must see” movies of the coming season?
That was “The Divide” for me.
I heard about this story of a band of incompatible people that are holed up together in the days following a nuclear attack on NYC. So far, so good. I was raised a child of the 80s under the threat of nuclear war during the Reagan years. The horrifying film “Threads” traumatized me – and everyone else in the era — as well as the lesser film, “The Day After.”
Then I heard that “The Divide” was directed by Xavier Genz, who directed the vicious “Frontier(s)”, as well as the hopefully forgettable, “Hitman”. If anyone can make this grimy and gritty, Genz can, I thought. But hearing the cast list is what made me follow this film from the minute I heard about it. Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Courtney B. Vance, Rosanna Arquette, and Lauren German.
So imagine my conflict once the credits began to roll, and I realized I had to review this highly anticipated movie that I just had to restart twice because I was so bored, confused, and disinterested in that I fell asleep. I have worked really hard over the years to NOT let my expectations get in the way while watching a film. But no matter how much I wanted to like this movie, I just couldn’t.
The film starts promising enough with bombs dropping, windows shattering inwards with walls of flame, people running and screaming, and chaos ruling the building. Eva (German) and her wimp of a boyfriend, Sam (Ivan Gonzalez) fight their way through the sea of panicked people to the basement’s bomb shelter, built and manned by the building super, Mickey (Biehn), who slams and locks to door behind them. Making it inside along with Eva and Sam are bad boys Josh (Ventimiglia) and Bobby (Michael Eklund), Josh’s quiet brother Adrien (Ashton Holmes), mother and daughter Marilyn (Arquette) and Wendi (Abbey Thickson), and the level-headed Delvin (Vance).
Once inside, the power struggles begin almost immediately between Mickey and just about everyone. Mickey has been “building” this shelter for a while and is not taking too kindly to playing host to this whining, unappreciative group.
After an undetermined amount of time, the shelter is breached by hazmat-suited, heavily-armed soldiers (?) who kidnap Marilyns’ daughter, Wendi. This is the only point in the movie that the group seems to be on the same page, as all of them spring into “protect our house” mode in one form or another. (Whether it’s taking on the soldiers face to face or cowering into the woodwork to get out of the way of the others.) It is this scene that establishes everyone’s true colors, as well as the hierarchy of the group for the remainder of the film.
The “Wendi Rescue Mission” goes awry as Josh dons one of the killed soldier’s hazmat suits and exits the shelter to find himself in a maze of interconnecting anti-radiation tunnels set up by the soldiers. He discovers a makeshift lab set up with children in monitoring pods, before being discovered and chased back to the shelter. The soldiers weld the shelter door shut, sealing the survivors in permanently. The rest of the film follows the survivor’s struggle with each other over food, water, power, and the constant threat of radiation sickness.
My biggest gripe for “The Divide” was the total lack of clarity.
Before I explain, let me preface this with the following points: I love movies that keep you guessing. I love movies with downer endings. I don’t like to be spoon-fed every single fact, or be hit with the sledgehammer of plot.
“The Divide” is everything that I listed above and USUALLY love in films. But it does it the wrong way.
We are never given a timeline in the movie. From the moment the steel door gets locked to the time when the soldiers (?) break in, is never established. Has it been a day, a week? I have no clue. And one of the people I watched it with was trying to say they did it because they wanted the audience to feel like the survivors in the shelter, and just lose track of time.
I call bullshit!
This is EXACTLY the kind of movie that NEEDS a timeline to show why certain characters are more gone than others are. When 20 minutes of the movie passed and they’re already looking very low on food and water and the fights start, I got the impression that they were only there a few days. But why would a shelter that big only have food and water for 2-3 days? If it was a month in, I could get behind it, but I never knew.
The lack of time line made it hard to buy the character changes as well. Rosanna Arquette goes through a major transformation in the film, and I understand the reason behind it (losing a child), but it went downhill so quickly, that it was almost laughable.
I don’t know anything about radiation sickness or how long it takes for it to set in, and physically affect your appearance. But it only felt like a few days in that they all looked like I would think a month of radiation poisoning would appear.
And the reason I keep putting the (?) in back of soldiers is because we have no idea who the hell these people are. Obviously military by the access to such resources (hazmat suits and weapons), but are they ours or are they the enemy? And speaking of the enemy. Who the hell dropped the nukes? We get a few racist comments from the almighty Biehn, but otherwise, nothing.
Now onto Michael Biehn. I love him as an actor. He has had so many iconic roles: Kyle Reese, Cpl. Hicks, and Johnny Ringo to name a few. But his performance in “The Divide” is above and beyond over the top. I liked his performance in “Planet Terror” when I KNEW his delivery was supposed to be over the top, but here in the middle of a dead serious film, he couldn’t chew the scenery any harder if it was made of beef jerky. There were times I laughed from him delivering his lines, when I clearly knew I was not supposed to, and I hated myself for it.
Lauren German must have attended the Kristin Stewart School of Acting as she had all 3 emotions down. Confused, confused with anger, and confused with disbelief. She was much better in the other survival grimy film, “Hostel 2.”
Rosanna Arquette’s character, Marilyn, goes through hell in this film. I give kudos to her for not only taking a very humiliating role, but also to be able to pull off the broken woman underneath the crazy exterior amazingly well.
Milo Ventimiglia did a very believable job as asshole Josh. You really hate his character. But again, with a lack of timeline, the mental and physical breakdown of Josh comes on WAY too quickly in the film, thus talking all emotion out of the tortured character. But the emaciated look of Ventimiglia was the most extreme. I read that Genz had the actors on very little food during the filming in order to accomplish the “starved look,” and it appeared the Ventimiglia nailed it.
The one character that made me perk up whenever he was on screen was that of Michael Eklund’s “Bobby.” He starts out as the jester to Josh’s King. But his descent into madness is such a drastic one it is hard not to watch and admire Eklund’s refusal to hold back. Whether it’s sexually humiliating Arquette, dry humping Gonzalez, or verbally assaulting German to chop up a body, Eklund RULED this role, and made me a fan. I hope to see him in more films in the coming years.
If there was one thing I could say I loved about this movie, it was the look of it. The set designers were spot on in their dark, dank, sweaty setting. It was definitely an “I need a shower after watching this” kind of movie. The cinematography of Laurent Barès was also dizzying in its design. You would think that there are only so many ways to shoot 9 people trapped in a bomb shelter, but Barès creates so many different ways, without being distracting to the actors’ performances.
I was very let down by “The Divide.” There are have so many successful claustrophobic films in the last few years (“The Descent” and “REC” to name a few), that I was really pulling for “The Divide” to join those ranks for me. But the lack of any real clarity in time made most of the performances suffers. Either it was too over the top, or too close to the bottom. I never connected to any of these selfish, disconnected, unlikable characters.
“The Divide” leaves too much to ponder and not enough definitive answers for a viewer like me. I found that at the end of every scene, I wanted more from it.
2 out of 5 Stars.
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