It was only a few years ago that French filmmaker Xavier Gens hit the festival circuit with a colorfully bizarre horror flick called Fronteire(s), which in turn led to an ill-fated Hollywood gig (the video game adaptation known as Hitman), which in turn led the filmmaker back to ... smaller projects. His third feature is a patently bizarre sci-fi thriller called The Divide, and while it earns a few early points for creativity and odd audacity, the sad truth is that the flick hits its stride somewhere in Act II, and once that moment has passed, you're stuck with one irritating slog toward a rather disappointing climax.
But it's not all bad. The Divide is the story of a group of apartment-dwellers who (barely) make it into an underground shelter, just as nuclear bombs explode over their heads. We've got the grumpy handyman (Michael Biehn), the hot-headed troublemaker (Milo Ventimiglia), a miserable mama (Rosanna Arquette), a pretty young woman (Lauren German), and a random collection of untrustworthy, terrified people. If it sounds like The Divide is populated almost exclusively by truly unpleasant people, that's because it is. This is not a film about how humans lose their basic humanity, but how quickly the process kicks in.
So our survivors sit in the fallout shelter, eating from a dwindling supply of canned food as they throw out the same questions the audience has: what happened up on street level? Will it ever be safe to venture outside? What will happen when the food runs out? Who's the alpha male in the group ... and who is his mate? More of a grungy sociological thriller than any sort of apocalyptic horror tale, The Divide offers a few stark and effective moments of debased humanity -- but in the service of very little else.
The idea that civilized man will quickly devolve into egocentric animals once all options are extinguished is nothing new, but Gens offers his revelations in a flat, redundant, and frequently silly fashion. A few of the divergences -- such as one involving Arquette's little girl -- are odd and intriguing, but they often go nowhere. Not every question put forth by the screenwriter needs to be answered in a simplistic fashion, but The Divide often leads one down a hallway that has no exit. And that gets frustrating real fast.
For all its effectively feral performances and bleakly compelling ideas, The Divide quickly starts to feel like a very angry and self-important rendition of Gilligan's Island: the characters are duly disparate and confrontational, but nothing they do seems to matter all that much. Gens gets a touch of creepy mileage out of some third act sexual politics that are both disturbing and bizarre, and by that point we welcome the arcane dashes of animalistic fury, but aside from a small handful of dark ideas and enjoyably overwrought performances, The Divide comes off more like an unfairly extended, if admittedly creepy, short film than anything resembling a cohesive three-act feature.