Don Coscarelli, creator of the cult-favorite Phantasm series, has advice for people who want to get into independent film. In his book, True Indie, Don says that “An indie filmmakers reach needs to exceed his grasp,” and if you’re familiar with the practical effects Don uses to make his surreal films, you can see this philosophy in action. I was reminded of his philosophy as I was watching S. A. Halewood’s Division 19 this week. The dystopian thriller, reminiscent of Running Man and Black Mirror, is an independent film in both how it was financed and in its originality. And though I didn’t feel like the finished product came together quite as well as other independent films, there’s no denying that this is a film that reached.
Division 19 is set in a bleak but all too familiar dystopian future where corporations govern people’s day-to-day lives and everyone is monitored through a screen. The main character of the film is Hardin Jones, an imprisoned rebel whose talent for action has made him a worldwide celebrity in wildly popular streamed prison fights. His brother, Nash, is a member of the titular Division 19, a group of anti-tech revolutionaries who want to bring down the megacorporations that control the world. Nash learns of a prison transfer involving his brother and, with the help of his friends, plans to release him. However, the escape goes south and leaves Hardin on his own, shocked at his own newfound celebrity. The question Hardin must answer is: Can a fugitive survive in a world where everyone knows his face?
The ideas that drive this film are definitely interesting ones. Hardin is a great metaphor for all of us living in a technological age; a man whose privacy is sacrificed for the sake of corporate greed. In fact, his lack of privacy isn’t even a decision he makes, which is increasingly becoming the case even more in our real world. Division 19 itself will remind you of real life muckrakers like the Anonymous collective. Plus, the film makes an interesting choice to set their future in a world that looks very much like our own, cutting between real footage of London, New York, and Detroit. The choice to use real footage of modern-day cities connects the audience to the story. On paper, this movie could be a V for Vendetta type story, a warning about our modern age encased in a watchable action-thriller.
But like I said, for all its big ideas, Division 19 doesn’t succeed in bringing them to life. The film attempts to create a future close to the present by lacing CGI onto modern cityscape shots, however, the CGI is overdone and distracting. It ended up confusing me as to just how advanced the world was. The concept of the viral celebrity turned viral fugitive is interesting, but it gets confused by a secondary plot of a new kind of city created and monitored by the corporation that tracks Hardin (I didn’t go into it earlier for this same reason). Even Division 19 itself is a confusing and hard-to-understand team, I was never quite sure of their motivations or why they had their internal conflicts.
Unfortunately, I think the focus on bringing out all of its sci-fi concepts also distracted the filmmakers from some basic things that could have made the film more watchable. For example, the actors in this film were generally solid, but they spent so much time explaining the plot to each other that I couldn’t connect with any of their characters. There was also an opportunity for some entertaining heist action, but the camera tries to achieve this with a frazzling amount of cuts between moving characters and scenery. And in an attempt to prove the seriousness of this film’s plot, there were a lot of unnecessarily dramatic moments and confusing stakes.
Division 19 is a low-budget, high-concept independent film that I wouldn’t recommend if you’re looking just to be entertained. Perhaps if you really enjoy dystopian fiction you should give it a shot. Just keep in mind that it doesn’t necessarily add anything new to that category. I don’t mind watching stories with very similar messages, especially if their plots and worlds are varied from the others. If you’re not a fan of dystopian future fiction, however, definitely avoid this film. Not only does it look and sound like other bigger budget stories from that genre, it loses itself in it. There were definitely times in this movie that I felt like I should have done some research beforehand. But maybe that’s just me missing some concepts that others more familiar with the genre would automatically catch.
For everything I didn’t like about it, I feel like there’s a lesson creators can learn from this film. That is, a film is not an idea on its own, no matter how cool. It needs to translate to the crew working on it as much as it does the audience watching it. However, I’m not going to fault this film for trying. What this movie could have been was worth pursuing, even if the final product didn’t actually capture it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to keep watching the stuff S. A. Halewood puts out, hoping that she finds a balance between great idea and great execution. Division 19 aimed for a difficult target and missed. But there’s nothing wrong with taking the shot, especially if it improves the next one.
Interesting in more horror reviews? Why not check out Jessica Rose’s review of the newest addition to Hulu’s Into the Dark series? Or Jordan Mulder’s take on Netflix’s Love, Death, & Robots? Oh, I guess we also have a piece on this obscure little flick called Us. You’ve probably never heard of it.
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