These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different. As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival. So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen. The second difference is that these are going to be short. I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid. I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
This bleak science-fiction drama opens with a massive attack (possibly nuclear) on New York City, as residents of a high-rise apartment flee to the basement for safety. Only a few are able to make it inside before the bomb shelter door shuts the group off from the world: married couple Eva and Sam; Delvin; single mom Marilyn and her daughter Wendi; brothers Josh, Adrien and their friend Bobby; and the building’s superintendent Mickey. What follows is the harrowing tale of the survivors as their tiny society breaks down and the worst parts of humanity come gushing to the surface.
Post-Apocalyptic Lord of the Flies
I have very mixed feelings about The Divide. It features excellent character driven drama, but suffers from very sloppy storytelling. The problems don’t ruin the strengths, but neither do the strengths redeem the problems.
Director Xavier Gens takes the viewer on a journey to uncover the heart of darkness that beats within us all and, if that was all he set out to accomplish, he succeeds. The lighting is perfect, tepidly holding back the darkness of the bomb shelter. The sets are cramped, with walls of stained, rotting concrete full of the cast off furniture Mickey has collected from former tenants – just the kind of decoration to stage the collapse of humanity. It is in this environment that Gens throws the characters of the film into crisis and against one another, in full on No Exit style, until all traces of civilization are wiped away as devastatingly as the atomic attack outside.
There are some scenes that are truly horrifying, and I found hard to watch, but that’s kind of the point (I think I would have been worried if the audience hadn’t squirmed in their seats). Gens confronts us with our most barbarous instincts as a challenge – can we face that part of ourselves and deal with it, or do we hide from it and let it destroy us? Thankfully, the director has a good instinct for timing, and sprinkles the film with a little bit of dark humor to keep the viewer from complete despair.
The Divide also has the best performances I have ever seen out of both Michael Beihn and Milo Ventimiglia (I’ve also got to mention relative unknown Michael Eklund whose descent into madness was so convincing he got an ovation during the Q&A). Gens shot the whole movie in chronological order, and forced the actors to subsist on the same diet as their characters. While I’m sure this made for a difficult production, the hardships were well worth it for the performances they elicited. Combine this with Gen’s bold decision to essentially throw out the script and let the actors evolve their own characters made for a transformation that was all the more disturbing for its organic nature.
Unfortunately, abandoning the script is also (I’m guessing), the main source of the film’s problems. Within the first fifteen minutes The Divide sets up a mystery as the focus of the plot, a mystery that is completely abandoned by the film’s midpoint and never answered or dealt with again. I kept waiting for the thread to be picked up again (even hoping for something, anything, after the credits, or in the cool comic book they gave out as swag); but it seemed like everyone in the movie had forgotten it had ever existed. Since being burned by both Lost and Battlestar Galactica, this kind of sloppy storytelling has become a pet peeve of mine and I have no patience for it. Either Gens is just messing with the audience and had no intention of pursuing the mystery (which I think is in bad faith), or he had no idea what the answers were. Either way, why put the mystery in there? I can think of a dozen ways it could have been excised and the rest of the plot kept intact. If Gens just wanted to make a character study, then that’s what he should have stuck to. Keep in mind this isn’t a sub-plot I’m getting ticked over, this is pretty much the driving force of the first third of the film.
The Divide is recommended as a disturbing post-apocalyptic version of Lord of the Flies with the caveat that you should only watch it if you can overlook the evaporating plot. If that’s not something that bothers you, The Divide has a lot to offer. Otherwise, look elsewhere to scratch that itch.
One of the cornerstones of the D&D adventuring party is teamwork. This assumption is ingrained in the mechanics of the game itself. Each class is designed to complement the others and contribute to the group (this is true of all editions of the game), with each class’ strength compensating for another class’ weakness. The fighter won’t last long without a healer, who won’t last long without someone disarming traps, who needs a magician to wipe out large groups of foes, etc. But D&D is more than a set of mechanical tools, it’s also a role-playing game and, in playing out different roles, conflict between the characters is sure to come up. At some point every DM (and some players) wants to subvert this, and The Divide lays out a strong blueprint for doing so: limited resources, restricted movement, and mistrust.
I set up a Planescape campaign when 3e was released with this exact goal in mind. The game started with the PCs in the mazes (a sort of prison demiplane), completely amnesiac. Each found they were carrying a note, written in their own handwriting, which gave them a clue about the plot and implicated one of the other characters in the party. I learned very quickly that with the added stressors of limited resources and restricted movement, it doesn’t take very much mistrust to have the characters at each other’s throats. Perhaps if I had seen The Divide back then I would have known better. Thankfully, no characters died, and no out-of-game feelings were hurt. Once the characters found resources and their way out of the mazes open animosity cooled – but the most important thing I learned was that the trust between the PCs never completely healed from the wounds it had suffered at the beginning of the campaign (out of character things were fine – we were all friends after all). This had such a big impact on everyone at the table that once the campaign concluded several years later, we all unanimously agreed that the theme of the next game would be ‘working together’ (later amended by the players with ‘to get gold’).
I think one of the reasons for this is the very teamwork-centric game mechanics I mentioned. Since each class has to rely on another in order to make it through an adventure alive, there is an inherent tension there. You have to trust that someone else will do their job properly or your character probably isn’t going to survive. When suspicion breaks that trust, it’s very hard to mend.
That doesn’t mean the themes brought up in The Divide aren’t worth exploring in the game. The fracture and disintegration of a social group is an event that has countless opportunities for roleplaying, political maneuvering, and high stakes combat – just the sorts of things that make for a memorable D&D adventure. Fortunately, DMs have an option that never really worked out for the characters of The Divide: the PCs can be a cohesive unit within a larger group that falls apart. When the infighting begins, you still have all the juicy bits that make this scenario interesting, while at the same time preserving the fragile trust between the PCs.
As I mentioned before, The Divide provides the blueprint for such an adventure: restrict the movement of the group, limit resources and sow mistrust. I can’t think of many published adventures that follow this pattern (the only one that comes to mind is the Dark Sun adventure, Last Stand At Outpost 3 from Dungeon 110), but the template can be applied to many scenarios: a becalmed ship threatened with mutiny and dwindling water, an outpost keep filled with mercenaries cut off from supplies by an impassable snowstorm (The Thing would work as great inspiration here too), or a Noble’s villa in the middle of a lavish party that must close itself tight to protect from a plague that has struck the city.
I’m saving a concrete example, in the form of an adventure outline for The Corridor, a similarly themed film.