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By Brock Wilbur · January 23, 2012
Jean-Paul Satre said "Hell is other people," but in the post-apocalyptic world, his statement becomes a question.
End-of-the-world fiction is often built on the assumption that humanity is responsible for its own demise: we made our bed and now we must sleep in it, while it incinerates around us. But in the aftermath, where does one seek comfort? There is safety in numbers, and the re-birth of civilization is not a private endeavor. If our end product turned out to be self-annihilation, why rebuild that machine with the same parts?
Director Xavier Gens makes a case for abandoning humanity with The Divide (2012), a film that re-invents the genre as a terrifying time-lapse history of our existence.
The film opens on Eva (Lauren German) glancing out the window of her New York City apartment as mushroom clouds obliterate the metropolis. With waves of devastation slowly rolling her way, boyfriend Sam (Iván González) pulls her into the stairwell, and into the sea of humanity pointlessly scrambling for safety. A few of the building's residents find the fallout shelter door being closed in their faces by superintendent Mickey (Michael Biehn), but Eva and Sam manage to force their way in. Mickey locks out the rest, just as their fiery end envelopes them.
From the darkness, Mickey fires up the generator and declares, "Let there be light!" Looking around, it's not exactly a Garden of Eden: three small rooms connected by a series of hallways, a latrine, and enough food and water to keep them all alive, if Mickey decides to share. As a vengeful God and creator of this world, paranoid Mickey is infuriated by the responsibility of keeping this group alive.
As he should be. Amongst the nine survivors, there isn't a single likable character: a couple of aggressive hipsters (Milo Ventimiglia and Michael Eklund), Eva and her pathetic tag-along, an opinionated security guard with a chip on his shoulder, a doting mother and her demanding child… roughly the same experience as finding yourself trapped with the audience in your theater, but for much, much longer. From the very start, Gens make this claustrophobic tale twist that much deeper, by trapping us with representations of those whose smallest personality choices ruin our social gatherings and workplaces. Each knuckle crack, ball bounce, or cigarette puff develops this microcosm of anger and madness, magnified exponentially by knowing it is all that remains.
Without forewarning, the protective door keeping radioactive fallout from poisoning the survivors is broken down by a team of intruders in HAZMAT suits. Methodically, they open fire on the survivors and kidnap the little girl. Within the hallways and storage rooms of the shelter, the survivors manage to kill two of the HAZMATs and seal the door. Not only does this result in the invaders welding the door shut from the outside, but it leaves all theories about the attackers in question. Mickey asserts from the beginning that it must have been the work of "towelheads," but the dead HAZMAT's identities only serve to confound. Down one child, and with no plan remaining or option to leave the bunker, even for the wasteland outside, the film becomes something new: a game of wills which smartly never sacrifices a pawn unless absolutely required.
The ability to measure time is completely abandoned after the initial scene. Each jump, accompanied by Jean-Pierre Taieb's ever-detuning score, could signify a matter of minutes or weeks — a device seemingly employed to avoid various plot-related issues, but Gens uses it brilliantly to achieve the most groundbreaking change-ups to the genre. The Divide could have succeeded as a small indie film, observing the bleak desperation of crumbling human spirits. With its strong writing and performances alone, it still would have been well worth your time. Instead, it opts to use every minute of its two-hour runtime to explore the transition from Event to Wasteland with a focus I've never seen.
The disappearance of the child, and the second layer of removal from humanity that comes with the door welding, serve as a starter's pistol. Society is dead, and the gradual slide back to animal instincts becomes the focus. With perfect pacing and clever situations, the people we once knew (and disliked) become monsters (we dislike even more). The speed at which this sub-civilization collapses is as frightening as your mind makes it. Did all of this happen in a matter of days or months? And does it even matter?
Whereas a film like The Road Warrior or a video game like Fallout needed generations of evolution and radiation to create believable mutant monsters, Milo Ventimiglia's psychological and physical de-evolution occurs over a period of days (perhaps), and I never blinked an eye. The unnoticeable transition from character study to monster movie is a testament to unexpectedly excellent filmmaking, and the worst vote of confidence I could ever give our species.
The title of the film switches meanings throughout: the divide between the survivors and the damned, between the damned and themselves, between who you were before and what you will become, or even physically within the sub-allegiances. But the biggest divide from start to finish is that between human and animal. With the cyclical nature of all existence, it is uncomfortable to consider we were animals once and animals we will be again. We'd just like to pretend that this slide has a bell-curve, where twelve thousand years of civilized living would take equally long to undo.
If Hell is other people, Satre couldn't imagine how much worse former-people could be.