“Division 19” is science fiction more to be appreciated than enjoyed.
It’s a reasonably smart, somewhat timely riff on Current Conditions rendered in a dry, slow action satire, a picture lacking a charismatic lead or much in the line of entertainment value.
In 2039, the online faces of the Resistance are mocking us for eating and staring at our cell phones, “stuffing your faces while the world burns.” The hectoring hoodie-wearing spokesman declares that “We’re gonna bring down your house and watch it burn.”
Twenty years in the future, “Anonymity is a crime,” and being “off the grid” and “unregistered” means you could officially disappear — and not just in the digital sense.
Hovering drone gunships keep watch over the cities, CCTV cameras are pretty much every where and small drones can track and trace anybody Central Control chooses to watch.
The Nanny State has taken on Nazi State totalitarianism. A drone barks through its speaker, “Smoking is not permitted in the street…you have ten seconds” to put out your smoke and move along.
But the power here isn’t so much in elected or anointed authority. It’s in corporations, especially Panopticon Interactive. They have created the most addictive streaming reality TV of the day, tracking a prison inmate 24/7, like an incarcerated “Truman Show.”
And their public face, Nielsen (Alison Doody of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) is dreaming bigger. In a nation where the incarceration rate long exceeded the crime rate, corporations have control of the prisons and have found fresh ways to monetize them.
That’s why Nielsen has turned Hardin Jones (Jamie Draven) into a star. He’s the unwilling, unwitting, brawling spokesmodel for product placement in prison togs. He has no idea he’s being watched.
“He’s had more drugs pumped into him than Central America,” Nielsen crows. “Crime’s down. Consumerism’s up. What’s not to like?”
Her bigger idea? “New Town,” a planned community where convicts interact with one another and the general public, watched (on your streaming device) as they “earn their way back into society.” Or don’t. By committing crimes, acts of violence on their neighbors? Maybe.
“People died building the pyramids,” she sniffs. “The price of progress!”
The Resistance, calling itself “Division 19,” has figured out how to live “off grid.” They remove the chips that allow Central Control to track you down. They change their appearance, and holing up in Greater Detroit (still mostly ruins in 2039), they can hide until their next hack, on the Federal Reserve, on Panopticon’s live-streaming Hardin’s life.
That’s when they can blurt out their manifesto and make demands. Hardin’s brother Nash (Will Rothhaar) is in their ranks, Barca (Toby Hemingway) is their spokesman.
When Barca makes demands, it’s enough to make you nod your head and then head over to Wikipedia. He hides his face in a stocking cap, points his finger and says Division 19 wants a far-reaching anti-corruption trial, reaching back several administrations to pinpoint where America went wrong. And they want a re-introduction of the Glass Steagall Act that protected the economy and the public from the greed, carelessness and depradations of bankers and Wall Street investment firms, up until it was eroded and removed prior to the Great Recession of 2008.
That’s on the money political commentary, writer-director S.A. Halewood. And you parked it right in in the middle of an exceptionally low-budget indie film.
Division 19 helps Hardin escape. The COO of Centrol Control, the would-be “president” of us all, is Premier Lyndon (Linus Roache, terrific). He’s as cynical as the latest polls allow, determined that Hardin be caught and order be restored. But Panopticon sees better ratings, more product-tie-ins and more viewer involvement (“Seen this man? Turn him in for CREDITS.”) in chasing him on his dash through the underground to the Underground.
The pursuits are reasonably well-handled, montages of aerial footage, black and white drone interior clips, fights and chases. There’s blood, and that action picture stand-by, self-surgery.
Lyndon has been sentenced to be served by a class of hipster tech nerds and trend “influencer” trackers, who appreciate the “sophisticated hive mind” pitch of Division 19’s subversives — they include tax reforms in addition to their push against Big Banking and Wall Street.
When the youngsters start to lecture him on the predictable path this liberty and taxation insurrection is taking, he notes that what they’re talking about “The Laffer Curve.”
“How’d you KNOW that?” the childish hipsters want to know.
“Because when I was your age, YOU were being BORN.”
There are a lot of dystopian ideas crammed into this tiny movie — human organ sales, the ways privatized prisons are incentivized to both get everybody incarcerated and misuse the inmates.
“Convicts are for fighting!”
Poor neighborhoods reflect the globalization of poverty imposed by a winner-take-all economy. Detroit’s roughest corner? Favela Town.
Hardin learns the hard way that getting off the grid while you’re on the run in a cashless economy is a great way to starve. He applied for Food Stamps/
“Can you fight?” the social worker wants to know. Food Stamps are “not for you. That’s for real people. Ex-cons are for entertainment.”
The idea here is that zonked-out Hardin takes up the cause as the drugs wear off as he’s on the run. Might he become “The brain dead Messiah” he needs to be?
Casting and coherence are two serious shortcomings of “Division 19.” Other names were attached to this project at one time, and the importance of charismatic leads is sharply underlined here. Only Roache, a veteran character actor with “Priest,” “The Wings of the Dove” and “Hart’s War” as resume highlights, brings anything like the spark this picture needs to come off. Another character player, Clarke Peters (of “The Wire” and “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri”) so dazzles in a single scene or two that you wish they’d built the entire movie around these two.
But no. The leads, whatever their ability to handle fight choreography, are bland in the extreme, uninteresting to the point where the picture wilts at their mere appearance.
The Panopticon boast about their “adopt a convict” streaming show, “Drama’s never been so real,” was never going to be the tagline for “Division 19.” The plot is top heavy with ideas, and the only three witty lines in the thing I’ve quoted above.
But as great scripts attract great talent, you can see the conundrum the financial backers and the writer-director found themselves in — a script, cast and movie trapped in the second division.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex
Cast:Will Rothhaar, Jamie Draven, Alison Doody, Linus Roache, Lotte Verbeek, Clarke Peters
Credits: Written and directed by S.A. Halewood. An Uncork’d release.
Running time: 1:33