To Err Is Human, To Film It Is DivinityMovies Reviews Sundance 2023
Last year, Mad God imagined a hell-world spun out from the uncompromising obsession of a single stop-motion animator, drenched in futility and refuse. Divinity imagines a hell-world spun out from a conversation some L.A. douche had at a cocktail party once: What if everyone had perfect, youthful bodies but lived in a vapid and dying world? What if eternal life had consequences? What if things were in black and white? The resulting film from Eddie Alcazar is shallow and silly pseudo-experimental sci-fi, made by those assured that they were making something edgy and interesting. To err is human, to film it is Divinity.
Divinity plays almost like a Neil Breen movie with more technical skill. Late scientist Sterling Pierce (Scott Bakula) experimented with a miracle drug to extend life and perfect your body (yet render it sterile), and his son Jaxxon (Stephen Dorff) has amassed a fortune turning it into a global sensation. Then the aliens show up. Yes, some otherworldly (read: skinny, non-white) brothers played by Moises Arias and Jason Genao crash land in the desert outside Jaxxon’s place, and they’ve got beef with the distributor of Divinity.
They’ve landed in a world that’s like an impotent porn parody of our own, visually influenced by Twin Peaks: The Return and ‘50s mad science pulp. An overreliance on badly subtitled voiceover makes you think they made a healthy percentage of the narrative connective tissue up after the fact. It’s a little like a self-important Barbarella, full of half-hearted titillation and taking place in that indistinguishable gray area between a moonbase and a Hollywood sex dungeon. Naturally, Bella Thorne shows up, playing a kind of fertility-focused foil to the brothers (“We are the beings that need to survive in order to keep this planet alive,” she intones), and the film meanders to an inevitable showdown tainted by a clear-as-day twist.
While Dorff and Bakula lean into the retro performance angle, very much in grandiose serial star mode, the other performers barely register. An extended sex scene with porn star Emily Willis is exhaustingly dull, especially for a film with such clear and blunt ideas about all the things rattling around our lizard brains. Divinity’s main thrust is that with this immortality drug, we’ve reverted to our basest selves, since the substance develops the body (not the mind) to a caricatured Western beauty standard. It’s a world where the men are played by bodybuilders and the women by models—if you imagine flying into L.A. from a medium-sized U.S. city, you realize this is barely a fantasy.
Most of its observations are this level of derivative, others—mostly contained to a series of throwback, absurdly sexualized commercials seen on Jaxxon’s TV—are so gonzo that you can almost understand why they spoke to producer Steven Soderbergh’s most Schizopolis instincts. This superficial world of superficiality can still lead to some amusing images, like the regular-sized Arias looking like a 97-pound weakling having a bad time at a Charles Atlas sex party. Also worth noting is the technique of the finale: A brawl featuring a squirmy Elephant Man of muscle, staged like a stick figure fight animation you’d find on Newgrounds in the early ‘00s. It’s shot in what Alcazar calls “meta-scope,” and what looks like the Claymation video game ClayFighter with more photoreal textures overlaid onto the models. It’s a neat effect, which sustains its few minutes of use well.
It’s in these sections where the aesthetic of the movie actually gets closer to its intention, finding the uncanniness in subverting our expectations for nostalgia with modernity. But for most of the film, whether it’s hammering its obvious insights (yes we are afraid of death and aging, yes we are marketed to using sex) or running through its petard-hoisting plot, Divinity is utterly empty. Its black-and-white cinematography can help add to these: Its use of darkness creates shadow people lurking behind some of its sunbeams of bodily perfection, yet the bold lighting emphasizes the dull sets and inescapable pretension. There’s nothing strange or inventive enough to distract from the standard-issue ideas, and we’re left wondering what all the visual fuss is about.
Divinity, like good sci-fi often does, imagines a world not unlike our own. But noticing that people want to stay young and screw like rabbits—and noticing that this might not be the healthiest thing for our capitalist world to encourage—isn’t quite groundbreaking enough to warrant a surreality-seeking trifle that feels stretched thin at 88 minutes.
Director: Eddie Alcazar
Writer: Eddie Alcazar
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Moises Arias, Jason Genao, Karrueche Tran, Bella Thorne, Scott Bakula
Release Date: January 21, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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