[Review] Division 19

The tagline for this is probably the scariest I’ve seen: The Geeks will inherit the world! As a fellow geek, I thought that this would be a good thing. Once upon a time, it would have been a rallying cry. But then the internet happened. Gamergate happened. The Last Jedi happened. Captain Marvel happened. And yeah…that tagline is scary.

As Division 19 begins, a scrawl appears across the screen, setting the scene: “2039. Anonymity is a crime. All who remain unregistered risk ‘disappearance.’ A group known as Division 19 has found a way to life off-grid. And they are about to share it.” Floating in the air above the city are large ships that look ripped from any alien invasion film. Except these ships belong to the government and monitor the city for crime. Crime pays (more) in the future.

It’s a world where prison has turned into a reality TV-like spectacle, where subscribers get to choose what prisoners eat, wear, watch and who they fight. Jail conditions are abysmal and the entire thing is live-streamed to the world like some fucked up version of the reality show Big Brother. Stats of the prisoners appear on giant screens throughout the city. “Drama has never been so real,” ads proclaim, allowing citizens to “adopt” a criminal and get 24/7 feeds for them.

Into this world, we meet Hardin Jones (Jamie Draven), a criminal who, unbeknownst to himself, is pretty popular in the outside world. Ads play for him all over the city, telling citizens they can “read the books Hardin reads” and “download the playlists Hardin listens to.” He’s a popular attraction in prison. He makes those in charge tons of money.

He’s so lucrative that Panopticon Interactive, the company live-streaming all of the prisoners to the world, wants to roll out a new thing called New Town, where select prisoners will be re-introduced into society but that subscribers will vote to allow them to “pass” and maybe permanently rejoin society. But if they “fail”? Well, I don’t think it’s a good option. Meanwhile, his brother Nash (Will Rothhaar) belongs to Division 19, a group of parkouring hackers who look like a mix of Antifa and rejects from the game Mirror’s Edge. Nash wants to bust Hardin out while he’s being escorted to this new reality show town.

This is all conveyed in the first fifteen minutes.

Hardin gets busted out but he’s so full of drugs, he doesn’t realize he’s being saved and ends up lost and alone in the city, with a bounty on his head. From there…well, stuff happens. It’s very slow. And frustratingly never wants to commit to the kind of story its telling. Written and directed by S.A. Halewood, it does an absolutely fantastic job of establishing and developing this brave new world. I loved the world building as it all made complete sense and smartly satirizes our current world. It feels frighteningly real.

Unfortunately, the story never lives up to the world Halewood created. Originally, I thought it’d be an interesting story about life in this New Town and having to navigate the wants of the public at large with trying to survive. But once Hardin has been busted out of the prison system, that falls to the wayside. And the story loses focus. With a bounty on his head and an altercation with some of the poor citizens of the city, I thought, “oh so we’re going with a Running Man sort of story.” But that’s quickly dropped. I thought maybe it’d be about a freed man trying to survive in society, but it’s not. Nor does it focus too much on the reality TV aspect. No, instead, it goes back to this generic hacker group and the government trying to shut them down because the government is run-for-profit and these hackers are costing them billions.

There’s so many plot threads going through the first half of the movie that I was unsure what the narrative thrust truly was. Who am I following? And, why? It’s as if they were going for a political thriller, but then filled it with so many different subplots and threads that ultimately go nowhere. It feels like it should have been a television series, where we could easily focus on these divergent characters and the plot could be given more room to breathe. I could see these disparate threads creating an intriguing blend of sci-fi dystopia, reality TV and political satire.

But when crammed into an hour and a half, it just ends up feeling messy.

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