The Divide - Courtney B Vance, Michael Biehn, Iván González, Lauren German, Ashton Holmes, Milo Ventimiglia and Michael Eklund
Locked underground in a bombed city are Delvin (Courtney B Vance), Mickey (Michael Biehn), Sam (Iván González), Eva (Lauren German), Adrien (Ashton Holmes), Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Bobby (Michael Eklund) © 2011 R&D Film 1 LLC

The frantic first 90 seconds of this after-the-bomb psychodrama make for one of the most gripping and instantly immersive openings you’re likely to see all year, which is one of the few reasons the movie doesn’t get a zero-star rating. After that, it turns into a sadistic and depressing shelter-survivors dirge that will make you wish the bombs had been a lot bigger.

The Divide begins with a tear running down the blankly stunned face of Eva (Lauren German), a New York high-rise dweller watching a mushroom cloud bloom over a burning city skyline. Hustled with a mob of panic-stricken residents down a crowded stairwell, she becomes one of the few admitted to a basement storage area. Its metal door is bolted securely behind them by the permanently angry Mickey (Michael Biehn), the world’s most aggressively antisocial building superintendent.

That’s when it becomes obvious that what could have been a post-apocalyptic action thriller instead will be nothing more than a close-proximity character study. Strangers will get on each other’s nerves, gradually abandon civilized behavior and eventually go completely Lord of the Flies.

Divide - Michael Eklund
Bobby (Michael Eklund) might enjoy chopping up the dead a little too much © 2011 R&D Film 1 LLC

It takes pretty good writing and direction to make that kind of claustrophobic exercise interesting instead of irritating. The most recent example of a one-setting story that worked was Roman Polanski’s Carnage, in which two couples spend 80 minutes pushing each other’s buttons in a single apartment. Of course, that comedy of manners wasn’t burdened by rather unsophisticated scenes featuring murder, rape and dismemberment by ax.

Director Xavier Gens may have been better off making this hopeless and pointless slog a short instead of a full-length feature. By the time the increasingly unstable Bobby (Michael Eklund) begins cross-dressing and playing extreme Truth or Dare, the movie seems to have morphed from soul-deadeningly tragic to desperately absurd.

Giving macho and miserable Mickey a 9/11-related backstory feels like cheap exploitation even for a movie this crass. Michael Biehn, who has the distinction of appearing in both the Terminator and Alien franchises, is such a cigar-and-scenery chewing ham in the thankless role that he verges on self parody.

The most ill-served cast member is Rosanna Arquette as Marilyn, a protective mother who turns into a self-destructive slut after her daughter is snatched by futuristic-weapon-wielding strangers in hazmat suits. (Don’t get too excited — that teasingly intriguing SF plot element goes absolutely nowhere.) Reduced to the status of a battered love doll with duct-taped breasts, masochistic Marilyn is the sort of dehumanizingly degrading role that it’s hard to imagine anyone regarding as a good career move. What’s next for Arquette, a supporting part in a toilet cam video?

If nearly two hours of outrageous overacting and sadistic mental and physical abuse in a dimly lit basement is your idea of a fun night out, hire a babysitter fast. With any luck, the half-life of this radioactively toxic trash won’t be long enough to keep it in theaters more than a week.

[Rating: 0.5 star]

The Divide opened in theaters on Friday January 13, 2012


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.