If you’ve ever wanted to see the origin story of “Faceless Raider #152” from the Fallout video game series, have I got a movie for you: The Divide, a post-apocalyptic thriller from Xavier Gens, the director of Hitman. Ostensibly a claustrophobic low-budget genre movie, the film takes on a bigger context as the survivors of a nuclear holocaust turn on each other for food, sex, and superiority in the absence of traditional social dynamics, and turn into stock bad guys from the post-apocalyptic future of your choice. Or maybe it’s actually a smaller context. Analyzing the means by which normal people specifically turn into Lord Humongous is arguably a little less significant than watching a microcosm of mankind gradually devolve into an animalistic state, but at least it’s something we haven’t seen before, unless you count Bellflower. And no, I will never count Bellflower.
Yes, The Divide, opening this weekend, goes where many a post-apocalyptic movie and Twilight Zone episode has gone before, but it does it very well. The film starts as soon as the bombs strike New York City, where the tenants of an apartment complex bum rush their super’s underground bomb shelter. He’s forced to let a handful of relative strangers inside and share his carefully rationed spoils with these moochers. But he’s also a jerk, played with understandable but frightening paranoia by The Terminator’s Michael Biehn. Amongst his unwelcome guests are former Heroes star Milo Ventigmilia, Rosanna Arquette, Courtney B. Vance and Lauren German, in the thankless role of the one person who keeps their head on straight. The actors all do excellent job with their archetypal roles – goony tough guys, single mothers and cuckolded husbands alike – but are asked to do little else.
The Divide is a familiar, albeit excellent film, playing the modest hand it’s been dealt with a stony poker face that rarely belies the film’s limitations. Xavier Gens, whose name I can’t seem to pronounce, does a beautiful job pacing the prerequisite scenes of mistrust, torture, violence and gross sexual misconduct that have been a stalwart of the post-apocalyptic genre since George A. Romero got his hands on it. The success of The Divide stems not from its originality, since there’s little of that, but the exceptional way it unfolds anyway. Milo Ventigmilia, Michael Eklund and Rosanna Arquette (it’s nice to see her again) carry the bulk of the film as the folks who go completely batsh*t insane in a gradual, plausible way. By the time they’re playing the role of a psychotic Mad Max biker gang, sans the bikes, we’ve barely noticed the transition. The level of perversity, casual violence and psychological corruption they reach is deftly orchestrated on all fronts. It’s a genuinely disturbing descent into madness. You just happen to have seen it all before.
But is it anything more than that? Xavier Gens, working from a script by Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean, clumsily drops American flag shots and 9/11 references into The Divide, which is adequate social context but never actually illuminates the events that unfold. The Divide has little to say about modern times. The film would have been basically the same had it been made in 1980, with a few contemporary racist comments changed to “those damned Commies” and a crappier television. The story could have felt universal, but instead feels like it’s trying too hard to hold up a mirror to our specific times, a goal that it basically fails to achieve. That doesn’t detract from The Divide’s fun (and uncomfortable) thrills, it just keeps the movie from achieving a kind of genre perfection. Xavier Gens’ film hits all the notes ascribed to its plotline by countless earlier movies, anthology television series and sci-fi short stories, but it hits them just right, and makes you feel kind of bad about killing that mohawked guy in the hockey mask charging you with a nail board outside of New Vegas. He only had a couple of caps on him anyway, and he probably loved his brother a whole lot.