It’s often said that art is a reflection of the society in which it was produced, and that even the most personal of creations have something to say about the larger culture in which they were birthed. With this in mind, it is perhaps a particularly damning sign of our times that post-apocalyptic art has become so popular. As if to reflect a growing unease with the status quo, greyscale videogames and bleak, foreboding films like The Book of Eli and The Last of Us are now a cornerstone of popular entertainment, all of which seem to appeal to an undercurrent of survival fetishism; a yearning to tear society down and start again, doubly so if the human cost has already been paid.
In the wake of the Occupy movement in particular, the post-apocalypse has become increasingly fashionable, and yet gradually adopted new guises, evolving from the hope-filled spirituality of films like Children of Men and The Road to the alluring fascism of Dredd and the gleeful pessimism of The World’s End. Little by little, the post-apocalypse has become a fantasy as much as a nightmare: a window of opportunity, in which the staid structures of old are wholly uprooted and reformed anew. There’s a sense that—at least as far as popular culture is concerned—the apocalypse is no longer a vision of a horrific, Cold War-esque future, but a welcomed chance to claim personal liberation or equality.
The end of the world has, in a sense, become a preferable alternative to modern life.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the movie-going public have devolved into psychopathy. For all of our apocalyptic yearnings—for every drunken ‘how would you survive the zombie apocalypse’ conversation taking place at 2am—I think there underlies the obvious acknowledgement that the apocalypse—any apocalypse—wouldn’t be as fun as popular media might suggest. This is a point which would no doubt be echoed by director Xavier Gens. His third film, 2012’s The Divide, stands out because it moves away from liberation and back towards despair, depicting a post-apocalypse devoid of hope or glee: a ‘realistic’, bleak future uncommon to modern apocalyptic fare.
Charting the experiences of a group of high-rise tenants trapped in their basement following a nuclear blast, The Divide can’t be accused of glamorising its end of the world. Doom and gloom are the order of the day here, as our small cast of characters take turns beating, murdering, and raping each other senseless for roughly ninety minutes. Supplies are low and spirits are lower, leading us into gory setpiece after setpiece, ultimately breaking every character to the point at which they remain little but a husk of their former self, both mentally and physically.
An undeniably bleak psychodrama, The Divide spares no time when getting to humanity’s comeuppance. We’re given only a few brief glimpses at our characters prior lives before they are utterly corrupted, and yet unfortunately, it is within these brief moments that the film shows the most promise. The interplay between family, friends, and strangers within the limited confines of the building’s fallout shelter offers its viewer a terrifying ‘what if’ scenario, yet one that soon devolves into mindless splatter.
Taken as a whole, there’s nothing to relate to here, and the film’s only overriding message is complete nihilism. It’s keen to reference real-life tragedies like the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and then enact their horrors on its own terms, sparing no expense to show its characters slowly dying of radiation sickness and flesh-wounds; and yet all the while holding itself in the broadest philosophical terms, as if it’s exposing some greater truth about human nature. There’s a particularly egregious dissonance between The Divide’s ambition and its execution, however, most notably found in an exploitation-cinema approach to shock and gore. The film’s gratuitous approach to violence often undercuts the subtleties implied by the film’s low-key soundtrack and cinematography, killing the convincing drama on which it stakes its foundations, and engendering nothing but a sense of confusion in its viewer. As a whole, it’s situated within an uncomfortable grey area, devoid of the assured intellectual treatment of a film like The Road, and yet equally removed from the camp, violent satire of a Hostel or a Saw.
If anything, The Divide proves that an apocalyptic film needs some clear substance to support its horrors, lest the audience lose interest altogether. Presented with the bleak grotesqueries of post-apocalyptic life, it’s hard not to wonder what the point of the whole exercise is in the first place. By the end of the film, few amongst The Divide’s cast are likeable; chiefly because any traditional dramatic characterisation has been replaced with hamstrung, overwrought scenes of violence and violation. The film’s only takeaway message seems to be a very naïve ‘humanity is bad’: a point already proven concisely by the bombs dropping in the film’s opening minutes.
It’s a shame, because the first act demonstrates a deft handling of character and place: promising a tense, claustrophobic ensemble drama; while a brief glimpse into the outside world in the film’s opening half provides some interesting flavour, which does a great deal to differentiate The Divide’s apocalypse from the dearth of other nuclear winters committed to film over the years. In this vein, Michael Biehn’s performance as the group’s self-appointed leader makes the best of a bad situation, adding some emotive depth to the tired trope of the militant survivalist, a turn against type that’s reflected in most of the film’s casting (although the ‘hysterical mother’ figure is played to a tee: a fact that I’m sure will irk some). Tonal grievances aside, the nuts and bolts of the film’s construction do a great deal to distance it from most post-apocalyptic fare.
Unfortunately, all of the goodwill the film earns is bled dry by the time the knives come out, collapsing under the weight of Gens’ unrelenting pessimism. You can’t polish a turd, so they say, and if The Divide proves one thing, it’s that there’s no point in trying when there’s this much blood in it.