There’s a certain type of dystopian sci-fi that turns up in Sundance every few years, a kind of ‘EPCOT on acid’ that causes a big ripple then rapidly fades away (see Escape From Tomorrow, a paranoid conspiracy thriller shot, guerrilla-style, in Disneyworld). Divinity, screening in the Next section, fits the bill exactly, a quirky mad scientist movie that, for all its attempts to be arty, darkly satirical and out-there, ends up as a kind of lo-fi companion piece to Don’t Worry Darling in its not-so-subtle skewering of American consumerism. Shot in grainy black and white, its chief draw is Stephen Dorff as you’ve never seen him before, and will likely never want to see him again.
Taking place in what could easily pass for a Playboy Mansion on the moon, the film begins with footage of a scientist named Sterling Pierce (Quantum Leap icon Scott Bakula) talking to camera about his life’s work: a serum called Divinity that will extend life for all eternity. This is in the past; in the present, his son Jaxxon (Dorff) is having sex with a beautiful woman, unaware that two pods have landed outside.
The pods contain two brothers (or are they just one entity?), who tie Jaxxon to a chair while his panic-stricken partner runs screaming into the wilderness outside. Unaware that Jaxxon has booked another escort for the night, the striking Nikita (Karrueche Tran), and, perhaps more urgently, has organized a birthday party for himself with dozens of guests, the brothers set about pumping him with huge, life-threatening doses of his father’s serum. Quite why the brothers are doing this is left vague until the end; in the meantime, Dorff rants and raves under increasingly thick and bizarre layers of makeup as the serum causes his flesh to mutate, his mind to melt, and his skull to balloon.
Despite its futuristic trappings, Divinity echoes much about the past, and the world it is set in is bombarded with insane TV commercials, fetishizing strong, healthy bodies, advertising hazardous-looking masturbation aids, and promising free samples of Jaxxon’s serum with breakfast cereal. This unnatural world of instant gratification (“Bigger! Stronger! Faster!”) is counteracted by scenes of an ethereal soulful sisterhood whose purpose remains unclear until Nikita reveals that she is one of the “pure people” able to give birth: Divinity has caused a population problem, since most of this world’s inhabitants are now sterile (“It’s either live forever or give life. And most people choose forever”).
It’s a long slog to get to this point, and most audiences won’t make it through the door in the first place. Cult connoisseurs, however, will be attracted by its intriguing aesthetic, which doesn’t so much resemble the early work of David Lynch as Vileness Fats, the never-finished expressionist musical created by U.S. art-rock outfit The Residents in the ’70s. Film festivals will give it a warm berth, where its freaky finale —think Children of Men but with a twist — will leave hipper audiences with plenty to talk about.