Sundance 2023: Divinity Review
Those familiar with Eddie Alcazar’s short film, The Vandal, have already seen the writer-director’s inclination towards pushing the envelope of what is possible on film. With this knowledge, his latest feature-length film, Divinity, is less surprising in its ambition and more impressive that it is pulled off to this scale so effectively. It’s easy to see why Alcazar was mentored by Steven Soderbergh (who executive produces the film), as both filmmakers are toying with the format in interesting ways. With Divinity, Alcazar introduces a new obsession for genre and midnight audiences in a delirious science fiction trip that never settles down while still delivering a cunning commentary on the lengths humanity will go to defy death – even if it means losing your humanity along the way.
Composed entirely in black-and-white and employing various filmmaking techniques, including the mix of stop-motion and live-action (otherwise known as “Meta-scope,” Alcazar’s pet project), Divinity is a sight to behold. It depends on its visuals more than it does its narrative, but it builds a retro-future aesthetic that lends itself well to a story about two people trying to make a selfish scientist see the error of his ways. It’s clean and sterile but also pushed against by the grotesque realities hidden in the origins of the titular Divinity – a drug that can provide immortality to its user.
Jaxxon Pierce (Stephen Dorff) is a renowned scientist whose father (played by Scott Bakula) spent his life working on a drug that would prevent death. Unfortunately, he died before he could finish the project and met many roadblocks along the way, but his son managed to take his father’s work and solve the formula, creating what is now known as Divinity. When his home is infiltrated by two mysterious brothers (Moisés Arias and Jason Genao) that appear out of the desert surrounding it, he’s quickly taken hostage and hooked up to a large dosage of his own drug. Their intent is unknown but appears to be of the utmost importance – and most suspicious is that Pierce wants nothing to do with his drug.
Divinity is constantly firing on all cylinders, leaning into the world it has created, which is almost wholly run by primal instincts. Divinity isn’t just a drug that causes immortality; it also prevents fertility. That is where Alcazar explores how humanity will debase itself and cut itself off from the future in the longevity of one’s own life. It’s a strangely affecting plotline today because of our current reality of being unable to focus on putting out fires for future generations and instead continuing to jeopardize what little there is to pass down. The introduction of a handful of women (whose leader is played by Bella Thorne) still capable of conceiving adds another layer to the narrative as one of the two brothers becomes tempted by the sensations of Earth.
Alcazar’s vision of the future is grounded in consumerism that dictates how life is lived. If Panos Cosmatos were to direct a more serious version of Mike Judge’s frighteningly realistic Idiocracy, it might look like this. Not afraid to plunge into the madness, Divinity is always cooking up a new hallucinogenic experience for the viewer that is rooted in a basic human urge that can be packaged and sold. Alcazar has crafted a world where nothing is off-limits as long as it directly benefits the end user and they can pay for it. It’s a story of self-destruction that is willingly accepted and paid for by humanity.
Divinity also retains a kitchen-sink approach to its madness. If there’s a way that something can be taken to an excessive degree, Alcazar will find it. After all, the world created is one of excess to a grotesque extreme. Scenes will linger on sensual pleasure or depraved violence until it becomes a sensory overload as the two brothers take in the world around them and try to complete their objective without succumbing to the Earth’s temptations. It’s the kind of visual tour-de-force where every filmmaking trick Alcazar can muster is employed, leaving an impression that nothing was left on the table. Yet, it all remains cohesive in its bleak vision of consumerism and self-preservation going hand-in-hand into oblivion. The real nightmare in Divinity is not that the world is cutting itself off from the future; it probably had an expiration date in the first place.
There will undoubtedly be those turned off by Alcazar’s surreal tendencies that often devolve into exploitative and crass. That’s the world as Divinity paints it, and it’s not a fun narrative, even if the gratuitousness which Alcazar injects makes the film feel like a fever dream. It’s a focused experience with a simple plot that ends up coming off as more inaccessible than it is. There aren’t a lot of movies like it, but those who can attune themselves to its specific brand of weird will find a new genre favorite. For all its strange worldbuilding, Divinity is more blunt than its oddities suggest and delivers a one-of-a-kind experience that is unapologetic in its execution.