A mushroom cloud blooms over Manhattan at the opening of The Divide. We see it reflected in the tearful eyes of Eva (Lauren German), who’ll spend much of the subsequent movie watching and waiting. She and eight other building residents, including her French fiancé, Sam (Iván González), manage to get to the basement before the building collapses on top of them. What follows is a lock-in that becomes increasingly squalid and feral as despair of rescue and cabin fever set in.
The survivors of director Xavier Gens’s unexplained nuclear disaster are mostly young and apparently well-off, but the initial bunker power struggle is between the two middle-age, blue-collar building personnel: security guard Devlin (Courtney B. Vance) and super Mickey (Michael Biehn), an ex-FDNY survivalist who has turned his boiler-room digs into a 9/11 shrine and who promptly blames the attack on “Haji bastards.”
The bullying control freak Mickey has a home-field advantage and, with his hidden caches, unfair rationing, and furtive secrecy, seems the film’s obvious villain. But when he’s ousted after a number of teeth-bared, snarling coup attempts, and the task of governing falls to the young Turks, the real nightmare begins. While Eva lies low, the new administration of Josh and Bobby (Milo Ventimiglia and Michael Eklund) becomes increasingly despotic and venal, as their eyes sink into raccoon-like hollows, and their hair drops out in clumps, turning Mickey’s shelter into something resembling a flophouse for dope-sick punks. (Whether Josh and Bobby are stricken with radiation sickness because they’re wicked or wicked because they’re stricken is unclear.) Finally, the shopworn Lord of the Flies scenario plays out, as the breakdown of order leads to anarchic war of all against all.
The allegorical signposts are everywhere in Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean’s script: Mickey, with his patriarchal go-it-alone, tell-don’t-explain style of leadership, is the classic American Alpha in the tradition of John Wayne and George W. Bush; fiancé Sam’s indecision and weakness are a parody of Gallic conciliation in the face of conflict; Josh and Bobby represent devolution under wartime duress. Finally, Eva, with her patient observance of the situation and decisive self-preservation, is the ultra-durable Woman Ascendant, a staple of 21st-century genre movies.
Everyone represents an ideal, but no one shows anything like carefully observed human behavior. The Divide is so busy mixing metaphors to explain our dog-eat-dog contemporary world that it never bothers filling out relationships beyond a thumbnail-sketch level. Missing the interrelationship foundations necessary to support suspense, Gens’s roving camerawork can do little to disguise slipshod craftsmanship. Neither intellectually nor viscerally engaging, what The Divide finally offers audiences is the not-terribly-edifying, stagnant experience of being locked in a basement with a pack of assholes.