The year is 2039. Social media companies’ takeover of government is now so complete that anonymity has become a crime and dissidents are sent to prisons where they are made the unwitting, drugged-up participants of a 24/7 reality show on which they fight, promote brands and display every intimate aspect of their lives to the millions of subscribers who watch them.
Such is the premise of writer/director S. A. Halewood’s film Division 19, whose title refers to a group of Anonymous-inspired hacktivists who rebel against the system by going off the radar and using their hacking powers to disrupt government communication and the banking system. The plot, however, only features them in the periphery of one man’s story – that of Hardin Jones (Jamie Draven), older brother of Division 19 member Nash (Will Rothhaar), whose refusal to turn his sibling in results in a prison sentence and a career as the country’s most popular prisoner. When Nash talks his comrades into breaking him free, the botched rescue sends Hardin on the run from the government as he tries to regain his freedom and figure out his purpose in a world where neither exist.
In an age where government surveillance and media corporations’ unchecked influence on our daily lives are accepted with little question, extreme scenarios involving them are easy to imagine – in countries such as China, they’re already a reality. What isn’t so easy is to nourish the ideas and questions implied by these scenarios and tie their development to that of the characters affected by them, ideally to bring about substantive answers and alternatives. How successfully these goals are achieved is, more often than not, what separates good dystopian fictions from bad ones.
In its attempt to examine modern digital alienation, Division 19 casts a fairly wide net over a multitude of ideas about privacy, individual freedom, identity, mass culture, human commodification and the prison-industrial complex but lacks the focus to collect more than morsels. At its core, this is a familiar story about one man’s fight for freedom against a system and the fundamental narrative obligations it implies put the film at odds with the wider themes of collective struggle it clearly wants to tackle. The screenplay tries to frame Hardin as a one-man encapsulation of its future society’s excesses but it also wants its audience to get invested in the titular group’s efforts to wake citizens up to them, as shown in its introduction sequence in which leader Barca (Toby Hemingway) directly addresses the camera to berate the viewer on their complacency and urge them to “stand up and be counted”, and it never manages to combine the two approaches effectively.
Instead, Division 19 end up being used more as conflict instigators than as characters in their own right as Hardin takes center-stage in his escape to a utopian “unplugged” commune and subsequent return to rescue his brother. Driving the B-plot is the crisis of conscience undergone by Central Authority leader Charles Lyndon (Linus Roache) as his increasing loss of control over the situation leads him to question the worth of his actions. S. A. Halewood stretches her ideas across three fields of action in which they fail to occupy any space to grow beyond clichés about inequality, order vs. anarchy and how dehumanizing our consumerist society is.
This gap between ambition and execution is also found in Halewood’s direction, which tries to apply a gritty Dark Knight-esque sense of scale to a story whose tone feels close to V For Vendetta but lacks both Nolan’s impeccable feel for rhythm and the Wachowski sisters’ immoderate passion. This is especially clear in the action scenes, which play more like an assembly of shots only vaguely related by movement or geography than any impression of progressive or continuous motion. The film also suffers from occasional ill-advised artistic flourishes, such as the decision to showcase Lyndon’s doubts by superimposing a long shot of his pensive face over audio of a conversation in which he considers acquiescing to Division 19’s political demands, that take the viewer out of the film rather than immerse them further in its characters’ inner journey.
Division 19 could have been more successful had S. A. Halewood taken the more broadly satirical road mapped out by some of the elements of her script (naming Alison Doody’s voyeuristic TV exec Nielsen is one of its finer touches) and fleshed her characters out more. Unfortunately, despite creditable production efforts and solid performances, it plays its stale tropes too seriously to distinguish itself from the myriad of similar dystopian thrillers populating screens and media stores across the planet.
Dir: S. A. Halewood
Scr: S. A. Halewood
Cast: Jamie Draven, Linus Roache, Alison Doody, Clarke Peters, Lotte Verbeek, Will Rothhaar, L. Scott Caldwell, Toby Hemingway, Ashton Moio, Anthony Okungbowa, Tim Jo, Jennifer Soo
Prd: S. A. Halewood, Andrew Chapman, George Constas, Adam Draper, Virginie Drouot, Christopher Figg, Curtis Hall, Michael Ilitch Jr., Diane Kasperowitz, Julie B. May, Donall McCasker, Glenn Murray, David Mutch, Christos Philippou, Kathryn Sheard, Melissa Simmonds, Andy Strachan, Christina Varotsis, Jan Wieringa
DOP: Ben Moulden
Music: Sebastian Fayle, David O’Dowda
Country: UK, USA
Run time: 93 mins
Division 19 is in UK cinemas from Friday 21st June.