One of the things that critics of torture porn rarely single out for scorn is the sheer boredom of watching people rape and beat each other for two hours. I can only hope that post-apocalyptic flick The Divide will finally convince the world that indifference is worse than disgust - at least when it comes to movies. Should you watch this tale about a handful of neighbors who survive nuclear holocaust in the basement of their New York apartment building? If you always wondered why Lord of the Flies wasn't about horny grownups, then yes.
Starring a bunch of actors who should know better, including Rosanna Arquette, Michael Biehn, and Milo Ventimiglia, The Divide tries to offer a dark portrait of human nature in the wake of nuclear armageddon. Biehn is Mickey, a creepy survivalist who has created a hardened, well-stocked bunker in the basement of the apartment building where he's the super. The movie opens with nukes hitting New York (though amazingly not burning out the eyes of our weeping characters who are watching from their building like 10 blocks away). There's a Darwinian moment where people crush and claw their way down the apartment building stairs, and finally a handful of them make it into Mickey's shelter before he locks the hatch.
That's when the fun begins, for some definition of fun. I guess the thought experiment here is basically what would happen if nukes hit and everybody kept acting like douchey New Yorkers. Within minutes of the blast, loudmouthed Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and his buddy Bobby complain about everything, including Mickey's bottomless supply of canned beans. Nice girl Eva has endless fights with her annoying lawyer husband Sam which consist entirely of her asking meaningfully, "Are you OKAY?" and Sam responding, "Yes, I'm just DEALING with a LOT."
Mickey chomps a cigar and rants about "ragheads" while hiding the stash of things he's been stealing from everybody's apartments. And Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) can't wait to turn into the savage sex slave of anyone manly enough to find a pointed stick and take over the island. You think I'm kidding, but Marilyn actually gives a speech about how it's important to be "nice to the boys" right before she puts on duct tape lingerie and has a threesome with Josh and Bobby in their gas masks. (In this movie, all useful supplies are repurposed as kinky sex toys.) Also, the food supply may be running low, but everybody has tons of cigarettes and booze. Which is why, I suppose, the crew focuses on fighting and fucking instead of getting out.
The only useful character is cop Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), who rapidly meets the bloody fate you'd expect for a black guy stuffed into a cellar with a bunch of psychotic white people. As if that isn't bad enough, the increasingly unhinged Josh and Bobby force Eva to chop up Delvin's dead body with a blunt axe and stuff it in the septic tank. You know, so that the place won't start to smell bad.
There are a few things that are actually awesome about this movie, other than the dubious awesomeness of watching Bobby shave his head, put on lingerie (why is there lingerie in the shelter?), and take a crap on Mickey's feet. (Yes that happens.) First of all, there's the smell issue. Filmmaker Xavier Gens wants to remind us that these people are stuck in a dusty, airless place with a septic tank and an increasing number of dead bodies. We see characters reacting to the stench, and actually trying to solve the problem of the smell with their scheme to put corpses in the septic tank with lime. It's precisely the kind of grotesque realism you'd hope for in a movie about fallout shelter life.
There are also a number of genuinely tense scenes involving sound. Nobody knows what's going on in the outside world, and they're afraid to open the door and let radioactive particles inside, so all they can do is listen. They hear explosions, grinding noises, and things that could be tanks or giant robots or something even weirder. What the hell is going on out there? This aspect of the film hints at a more fantastical, interesting movie lurking at the edges all the head shaving and rape. Early on, guys in cyber-hazmat suits bust into the shelter and grab Marilyn's kid before disappearing into a strange plastic tube they've attached to the shelter door. When Josh goes to investigate, he discovers the mysterious cyber-hazmat guys have set up a lab full of kids in plastic bags, their faces transformed into nightmares of surgical tape and tubes.
Is this the medical wing of an enemy army? The U.S. government's rescue force? Or something even more bizarre, like an alien invasion, complete with probes? We never know, because Josh comes racing back and our mystery guys weld the shelter door shut behind him. And of course, since this is The Divide, the group returns to the important work of figuring out how to degrade each other sexually rather than how to escape. Speaking of sexual degradation, I have to admit there were some scenes so deliberately silly and over-the-top that the flick tipped over into nasty fun. But two hours of shocking tableaux and grunting do not make a compelling story.
Ultimately the main problem with The Divide was the characters. If you're going to set your entire movie in a single room, you need interesting relationships to make the story pop. But our characters - despite being played by mostly good actors - are just egregiously unmotivated. We get no context for their conflicts other than the blanket assumption that all people are craven assholes deep down. Maybe that's true, but we still need to understand why each character chooses his or her particular brand of assholery. Unfortunately, The Divide would rather just stare deeply at the product of this particular orifice rather than tell us an interesting tale about it.
For a more positive review of this movie, you can check out our First Impressions post after we saw it in 2011.