Twenty years after “The Matrix,” we get something like a bargain-basement version of that groundbreaking sci-fi opus. There are lots of ideas percolating in S.A Halewood’s “Division 19,” but most of them are fairly banal, and mini-budget execution proves fatal. Even if one might admire the ambition behind the movie, it’s hardly likely anybody will eke much enjoyment or enlightenment from the result.
The story is set in a dystopian 2039, when people are addicted not only to their cell phones but something called Panopticon, an omnipresent streaming service that has turned the overcrowded prisons into sources of entertainment, televising fights that have made some prisoners superstars without their even realizing that their every move and preference is followed by thousands of fans. The biggest of them all is Hardin Jones (Jamie Draven). Under a new high-end option for Panopticon, viewers can watch as the most popular inmates are released to reenter society in a place called Newtown.
But the whole Panopticon system, presided over by a Brit named Lyndon (Linus Roache) and his tech programmer Nielson (Alison Doody), has nothing to do with rehabilitation; it’s not only a money-making scam, but also a center of government surveillance, using drones (which, for example, can threaten people who smoke in public areas) as well as chips implanted in everybody to keep track of their locations. There’s also a police force that uses parkour to spring from crime scene to crime scene.
And they have quarries to track down: an underground group of hackers called Division 19, centered it would appear in the burning rubble of Detroit, that aims to use every tool—including taking over the airwaves to broadcast messages of gloom and not-so-veiled threats from a hooded figure called Barca (Toby Hemingway)—to bring the system down. One of their leaders is a hothead named Nash (Will Rothhaar), who’s Hardin’s brother and aims to break him out of jail, hoping he can serve as a kind of human beacon for liberation.
They succeed, but once Hardin is out in the world, he must seek out help from a grizzled sage named Perelman (Clarke Peters) to remove his chip so that he can gain a measure of anonymity and perhaps elude the forces out to find him. Now that she’s lost her chief ratings grabber, Nielsen turns her sights of Nash, who isn’t as off-the-grid as he thinks, and employ him as her surrogate star. Many chases result, with Panopticon making use of it all to entice subscribers with its slogan: Drama has never been so real!
“Division 19” wants to say something about lots of topics—prison abuse, addictive “reality” programming, government overreach, loss of personal privacy, the domination of elites over the masses, and so on—but despite the presence of some good actors (Roache and Peters in particular; Draven and Rothhaar, on the other hand, are boring) it’s pretty much a mess, and not only in terms of narrative. It looks grubby—and not just because of the setting; the combination of Ben Moulden’s drab widescreen cinematography and frantic editing by Jessica Brunetto and Laura Morrod makes for an unpleasantly frustrating, tiresome visual experience, especially since the effects are far from special.
Science fiction has long been used to offer trenchant observations about society, but the only real message a muddle like “Division 19” delivers is: stay away.