Normally, I stay away from films involving an apocalypse via nuclear weapons because I’m so paranoid about it actually happening. I watched Threads (1984) once and have never watched it again. I can’t imagine what I would do if a nuclear war was imminent and I somehow managed to survive and luckily end up in a space that was stocked with enough provisions to survive the necessary amount of time for the radiation to subside. Well a little film from 2011 would give me a slight glimpse into that ‘what if’ scenario. That is The Divide. This film came highly recommended by someone who I take in high regard so I gave it a go.
Because I am a huge fan of Michael Biehn, I am very familiar with his IMDB page and I knew that he was in this film so it was not entirely unwelcome. But when I clicked on the IMDB page for this film, I noticed a very low score of 28 out of 100 on metacritic. Intrigued, I read some of the reviews and one thing I noticed was that there were very few ‘mixed’ reviews. This film was either dubbed as ‘ULTRA FANTASTIC OMG BEST THING EVER’ or ‘THIS FILM IS SHIT!!!!!!’. This sparked some interest. Never before have I seen such contrasting opinions about a 2 hour consumption of someone’s time. Now that I’ve seen the film, I feel that nothing better encapsulates my opinion of it. At best, I don’t know if I like the film or not so hopefully, this review will sort that out for me. With all that in mind, lets begin as always with a brief rundown of the plot. I’ll try to keep it as spoiler free as I can.
The Divide starts out with the most horrifying start to anyone’s day as a young woman watches a nuclear bomb detonate just streets away from her apartment building. As the blast wave gets closer, she is dragged away and down the stairs as dozens of people try to break out. When that means of escape becomes impossible, they delve further into the building and 8 survivors shove their way into a fallout shelter that is owned by the buildings landlord, Mickey (Michael Biehn). They all soon realise that they are stuck together for an indefinite amount of time and the thought soon becomes unbearable. Things only get bleaker from there. As time goes on and supplies run low, tensions between the neighbours flare skywards to the point where shit gets more fucked beyond the work ethic of any nuclear bomb.
I’m going to start with the things that I don’t like before I move on to the good aspects of the film.
One thing that is extremely evident right from the start is that this is a character driven film so what is so perplexing is that there is very little character on display. The only character that is given even the slightest glimpse of a backstory is Mickey. When the others invade his room, they discover newspaper clippings of the September 11th terrorist attacks and a picture of him as a firefighter so it is hinted at that he might have been there that day but it is not confirmed. There are also picture of his wife and a little child so there is also a suggestion that they may have died in the attack. I also get the impression (again, not confirmed) that he may have served time in the military. He’s got a huge American flag in his room, he is casually racist towards middle eastern types and
blames them for the nuclear attack. He just has a grizzled, haunted look about him which makes me feel that he’s seen horrors that no one else can comprehend to the extent where a nuclear bomb landing on his doorstep doesn’t faze him in the slightest. He also had the foresight to build a big, fuck off shelter in the basement of his own apartment building which shows he knows how wars can escalate.
In terms of the other characters, Mickey says a line about how he planned to ‘build a shelter and relax’ whilst his ‘pain in the ass tenants barbecued above’. When he said that I thought ‘that’s a bit harsh’ but by the end, I couldn’t have agreed with him more. Aside from Mickey, the line up goes thus; obvious protagonist, Eva (Lauren German), her boyfriend, Sam (Iván González), asshole waiting to happen, Josh (Milo Ventimiglia), his nice-boy brother, Adrien (Ashton Holmes), radio enthusiast, Devlin (Courtney B. Vance), hard rocker, Bobby (Michael Eklund), single mother, Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette)
and last but certainly not least, her little daughter, Wendi (Abbey Thickson). These characters have survived annihilation but the real test is if they can survive each other.
It’s very clear from the get-go that these characters have no concept of boundaries and have zero tolerance for rules. Right from when Mickey closes the door, he gives the survivors two very simple rules. Number 1, don’t open the door and number 2, stay out of his room. Apart from that, the vast space is theirs to do with as they see fit. Not even 12 minutes in, the first rule is already broken. The main focus on Mickey’s mind is to keep the door shut as the radioactive dust from the explosion is something that is best left on the outside unless everyone wants to die a slow and painful death. So I have
no idea why a significant amount of the survivors want to open the door and breathe in a good lung full of fallout. No matter how he comes across, Mickey’s actions are in everyone’s best interest. Come to think of it, Mickey is portrayed as a complete asshole who is just trying to fuck everyone over by holding out on food but I didn’t see any kind of behaviour that suggests that he is a complete prick. It seems to me that all the other characters are pulling the dick moves. Everyone needs to bear in mind that Mickey didn’t invite them into his shelter, they forced their way in. He did his best to keep them out and now I know why. So when the characters eat all of his food and drink all of his water, then shout at him for not having any more food and water, then that sends my rage into overdrive. There is a great moment when someone is complaining about the state of the shelter and the food, then Mickey has a massive go at him and that cheered me up because he’s finally standing up for himself. Also, when Devlin holds Mickey at gunpoint (albeit with a taser gun), he does not have the right to be surprised when Mickey turns around and shoots him in the head. As far as I’m concerned, it was self defence. The survivors are completely unaware that they are guests in Mickey’s home and it is really impolite to tie their host to a chair and torture him for the combination to his food supply. All of the character’s actions throughout this film either make me very
uncomfortable or infuriated. Lets move on.
The film has a habit of dangling plot lines in front of the audience and never following through. Mickey’s backstory is one but another is the speculation of who orchestrated the nuclear attack. Just as the survivors are settling in, the shelter is broken into by guys who look like the storm troopers from Star Wars. They pick up little Wendi, take some of her blood, bag her, and take her away, much to the distress of everyone in the shelter. Mickey kills one of them and takes his gun, then kills another by blowing him up. Devlin kills a storm trooper by bashing his brains in with a pipe. When they unmask him, the man is of oriental descent, adding to the speculation. Later, when Devlin is listening to the radio, the voice on the other end has an American accent. When Josh leaves in the man’s biohazard suit to go and get Wendi, he finds her in some kind of stasis tube with a shaved head and plasters over her eyes. He is discovered before he can get to her. There is a fine line between ‘show, don’t tell’ and planting a load of nonsense into the plot. Even after all that, that plot line is sort of dropped and never mentioned again. I get the feeling that the storm troopers were put in so they could scavenge a biohazard suit which is necessary for the plot later on.
There are quite a few plot holes and questions that don’t get answered. At the start when Eva is watching the explosions from her window, with the limited knowledge that I have about nuclear weapons, I’m pretty sure that looking directly at a nuclear explosion would melt your eyes clean out of your head. The windows don’t even break. When the survivors are in the shelter, they get their mobile phones out and they are working, albeit with no signal. I do know that when a nuke goes off, before hand an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) is deployed which completely fries anything electrical. So surely that includes mobile phones also. Another question is, how did Mickey afford to build a shelter in the basement? A project like that must cost millions of dollars? None of the characters bring it up and it’s never mentioned. I’m also pretty sure that a nuclear bunker or fallout shelter must have it’s own air supply. It must be cut off from the outside but needs to have it’s own air supply otherwise everyone would suffocate especially considering the amount of heavy breathing everyone does.
Time to focus on some positive aspects.
Even though the backstories to the characters are limited, one thing that is not limited is the character development and progression. Each character shows significant changes to their situation even if none of these changes make them better people. I would say that Marilyn has the most jarring shift of personality in the whole group. She starts out as a vulnerable, single mother but when her daughter is taken and presumed dead, she turns into a mega nymphomaniac. She starts having sex with Bobby and even goes so far as to try to coerce Eva into a threesome with the pair. Eventually, this escalates into a weird, sex trio with herself, Bobby and Josh which has devastating consequences. Bobby and Josh also turn into a pretty dark double act by the end. In the aftermath of the invasion by the storm troopers, the bodies of the pair begin to stink up the place. After a strange conversation about cannibalism, Bobby volunteers to chop up the bodies with an axe so they can be thrown down the septic tank. Afterwards, he is noticeably disturbed by his own actions and he just goes into a downward spiral. There is an interesting, emotional moment when he notices his body changing and degrading due to the rampant radiation sickness. The emotion is most felt when he has his hair shaved off and he stares into the
camera with tears in his eyes. There’s pretty much no reason for Josh to turn into a thug and attempted rapist. I think he’s just being a dick for the sake of being a dick. Either that or the radiation sickness has a side effect of excessive ‘cuntiness’, which would explain a lot. Towards the end, I get the impression that Josh and Bobby have turned into high school bullies. They taunt and scream at the others to do horrible things. The best example is when they are playing ‘truth or dare’ and they dare a weak willed Sam to chop up Devlin’s body. Sam agrees, if only to prove himself. In the end, he can’t do it.
The axe is handed to Eva and she is basically harassed and pressured into hacking up the body, leaving her emotionally and mentally scarred. This event leads to the climactic ending which I won’t spoil because something tells me that I’m going to recommend this film.
In all of the bad reviews that I have read, the main criticism is that the character development is unrealistic and over the top. I would rebut this by saying, you don’t know how you would react after the apocalypse. Being trapped in a tight space, staring at the same four wall with complete strangers, having the knowledge that everyone you know and or love is probably dead and dealing with limited resources is enough to drive anyone crazy. It’s totally not surprising that the group all turn on each other. All it takes is one bad apple in the orchard to infect everyone else and that’s it, you’re fucked.
For all of it’s faults in the plot department, the performances cannot be faulted with special consideration going to Michael Biehn and Michael Eklund for their superior portrayal and understanding of their characters. Special props to Michael Eklund for wearing a dress for the whole third act and not having it impede on his darkness. If anything, it added to his creepiness.
With a low budget of $3 Million, the film took in a meagre $131,000, less than 10% of it’s budget. This could have been for a number of reasons, possibly because the film was showered with crappy reviews by critics who don’t understand that sometimes, the bad stuff needs to be glossed over in order to see the moments of true brilliance. I think that overall, to make the film better, they could have cut out some of the boring characters like, Devlin, Sam and Wendi and given the remaining characters a bit of a backstory. Maybe it would have made them a little bit more likeable. And got rid of that stupid storm trooper sequence. If the characters are alone, frightened and in the dark in more ways than one and they are forced to interact with each other, then it would have given the story more depth. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is fine but you can’t lean on that for the whole film, you need to give something back.
Overall, do I think that the film deserves such negativity? No. There are definitely moments of serious emotion and sympathy for the characters, limited as they are and there is some true talent behind this. The only thing that I think let it down was the glaring issues with the plot and script. With some minor alterations, this could have been avoided. It’s all very well calling for a ‘realistic’ depiction of the apocalypse but the fact is that ‘depiction’ can only come down to ‘interpretation’. I hopefully will never know and don’t want to know what a ‘realistic’ apocalypse looks like… unless it involves getting into a threesome with Michael Eklund.