Sundance 2023: ‘Divinity’ Review
The following is part of Full Circle Cinema’s coverage of Sundance 2023.
The NEXT section in Sundance has long been home to movies on the fringe. Films that are more avant-garde, experimental. A lot of these films languish in obscurity following their premieres. Even so, all it takes is a few select audience members, whose connection with these singular, obtuse visions burns bright, to make these films last forever. Divinity certainly feels primed for such a fate. The brainchild of writer-director-producer Eddie Alcazar, Divinity is an unleashing of unbridled expressionist creativity; a mosaic of moods that finds an irresistible balance between the arthouse and the grindhouse.
Although the whacked-out images take center stage, Divinity attempts something resembling a traditional narrative. In a near future (?) Earth (?), a form of immortality has been achieved under the drug “Divinity”. The life’s work of the late Dr. Sterling Pierce (Scott Bakula), bastardized by his son Jaxxon (Stephen Dorff), offers long life to its users. As fertility rates reach an all-time low, two mysterious brothers (Moises Arias and Jason Genao) land on the planet to abduct Jaxxon for unknown purposes. Their paths cross with sex worker Nikita (Karrueche Tran), who helps unearth the deep, dark secrets behind Divinity’s creation.
First things first, the world of Divinity is cool. Despite the barren landscape and lack of budget, Eddie Alcazar is a born world-builder. Under the 16mm black-and-white glow of Danny Hiele’s cinematography, our planet – if it even is our planet – becomes a psychedelic wasteland where hedonism thrives. Glorious analog technology evokes Alien. The sheer presence of Moises Arias and Jason Genao, clad in tank tops, pants, and what appear to be black gloves grafted into their hands, is mysterious, slightly fear-inducing, and unimaginably badass. Alcazar crafts a lore that we the audience barely get to understand. The film’s biggest star, Bella Thorne, plays the sparsely-seen Ziva, the leader of an all-women group. As she mutters cryptic platitudes, the instinct is to ask questions.
That’s the mark of an intriguing universe. Where Divinity falters is in its attempts to tell a more traditional narrative. The film focuses so much on letting the viewer soak up its own unique world that the storytelling becomes inconsistent. A lot of Dr. Pierce’s narration has the feel of world-building texture that doesn’t quite register as vital plot information. Furthermore, a couple of huge twists and turns don’t click towards the end because Alcazar doesn’t adjust the tempo to properly allow the audience to soak them in. The reason this doesn’t sour the experience as a whole is that there’s a functionality built-in of “if you don’t get it the first time, rewatch it”.
Not always does this work, but I couldn’t stop thinking back to Mandy, another movie seemingly subservient to the ever-present vibe. That film’s intricate thematic tissue didn’t unveil itself until multiple watches, going from a moody horror piece to something quite poignant and even devastating. On that basis, I’m a lot kinder to the esoteric nature of Divinity because there’s clearly something behind all the madness. Immediately what springs to mind is the rich thematic tissue running through it. Women taking their power back, obsession with perfection, hedonism, humanity going far from what it’s intended to be. These are not given just cursory mentions, these are themes naturally baked into the text.
What can’t be overstated, though, is the visceral thrill of just how bonkers Divinity gets. Stephen Dorff puts on the performance of a lifetime. Dr. Jaxxon Pierce morphs into a grotesque beast due to an overdose of the titular drug. His ultimate transformation represents the grossest in body horror this side of the Cronenberg family. His transformation leads to a fight straight out of Dragon Ball Z, done with seamless claymation models. Moreover, simple images like a party forming in Jaxxon’s house amid the endless expanse of the desert resonate. Above all, Divinity is an ode to the power of craftsmen. With what one can only assume is the fraction of the budget, Divinity‘s spectacle destroys anything of recent blockbuster cinema.
Divinity can have a fairly high barrier to entry for the average viewer. It’s violent, its story refuses to hold your hand. The black and white alone is enough to turn folks away. But for the people who get what Eddie Alcazar was going for, it may feel like an awakening. Following the film’s premiere, you couldn’t turn anywhere without genre enthusiasts singing its praises. “You have to see Divinity!” “Divinity is crazy”. That buzz alone indicates all the makings of a bonafide cult classic. With the backing of executive producer Steven Soderbergh, that feeling may very well be valid. – James Preston Poole
Divinity has no current release date.