Eccentric Silicon Valley billionaires who pour their fortunes into sci-fi-tinged humanitarian causes are often preoccupied by one of two problems: curing death, or solving the planet’s looming underpopulation crisis. For every corporate titan who claims to have shaved years off his body’s natural aging process by adapting an all-fungi diet, there’s another one cooking up a scheme to quintuple humanity’s population by spreading us across multiple planets.
In the two-dimensional comic book logic that these dreamers often live by, the two goals seem perfectly complementary. Artificially-induced immortality and rapid population growth are both hedges against the demise of humanity. They’re both ambitious declarations that the miracle of human consciousness will continue to live on no matter what indifference the universe decides to throw at us.
Eddie Alcazar‘s “Divinity” offers an alternative point of view. Pulling liberally from 1950s B-movies, film noir, porn, stop motion, and advertising, the black-and-white mindfuck of a film imagines a world where our insistence on running from the inevitabilities of nature has robbed us of the one reason we actually have for existing. Produced and “presented” by Steven Soderbergh — whose omnipresence in the film’s marketing materials is a perfectly valid price to pay for such a bold piece of art getting made in the first place — it’s one of the most exciting midnight movies of 2023.
“Divinity” begins with flashbacks of Sterling Pierce (Scott Bakula), a brilliant scientist who developed an anti-aging drug that has the potential to make us all immortal. Branded as Divinity, the serum completely reverses the body’s aging process — but it’s powerless against mental deterioration. Sterling is convinced that if he lives long enough to perfect the product, it could revolutionize humanity forever.
As it turns out, he was half right. When the film jumps forward in time, Sterling is dead and the operation has been taken over by his narcissistic son Jaxxon (Stephen Dorff). In a corporate restructuring reminiscent of Elon Musk’s ouster from OpenAI, Divinity has gone from an altruistic nonprofit to a lucrative commercial endeavor. As such, markets have been flooded with an over-the-counter version of Divinity that promises an eternity of physical perfection. The world has been filled with pumped-up male bodybuilders and impossibly sexy women, all of whom have been guaranteed immortality as a reward for their vanity. The only trade-off is that nobody can reproduce anymore, so humanity has been deprived of the fresh ideas that inevitably come from raising new offspring.
Jaxxon has benefitted immensely from his willingness to capitalize on humanity’s shallowness, but he soon finds himself attacked on multiple fronts. Two alien burglars soon break into his compound to kidnap him and his pseudo-girlfriend Lynx (Emily Willis), and a cult of women who refuse to take Divinity over fertility concerns — led by Bella Thorne’s Ziva — are plotting their own attempt to repopulate the world without the miracle drug. (Between Synnøve Macody Lund’s Dr. Cecilia Pederson in “Saw X” and Jaxxon Pierce in “Divinity,” it’s been a very bad month for cinematic grifters who inherited groundbreaking medical treatments from their idealistic parents.)
If we’re being honest, you could forget any large portion of that summary and still enjoy this movie immensely, because “Divinity” is best understood as a vibe. Its “Frankenstein”-esque plot is an excuse for an innovative filmmaker to riff on a variety of abstract ideas while bombarding us with retro-cool genre film imagery. Shot with a groundbreaking combination of live action and stop motion footage, “Divinity” is the kind of visual experience that more than earns its right to get weird. Alcazar pulls on whatever narrative thread suits his fancy in a given minute, but once you realize that piecing his shots together into something truly coherent is a fool’s errand, it’s a delight to accompany him for the ride.
Alcazar’s visual tangents are anchored in an understanding of the fact that our attempts to skirt the Grim Reaper by searching for a pharmaceutical Fountain of Youth is a childish endeavor. That doesn’t mean it won’t work (or even that we shouldn’t try it), but you don’t set out to reverse the course of nature without a childlike willingness to ignore every inconvenient fact that comes your way. So it’s fitting that the Divinity commercials bombard citizens with images of cartoonishly muscular men that represent an eight-year-old boy’s idea of the perfect human physique. Or that samples of the anti-aging drug are distributed as prizes at the bottom of sugary breakfast cereal boxes. It’s a reminder that Jaxxon’s medical advances are ultimately serving the vision of a boy who wishes he could grow up and become a superhero.
The film’s overarching vision manages to split the difference between the simplistic rules of an old monster movie and the endlessly complicated bioethics debates you can find in Silicon Valley on a daily basis. It often feels as if we’re looking into a world that began as a carefully manufactured setting for a 1950s Hollywood movie, but has evolved at the same rate as the real world and now exists as a parallel version of our future. But none of Alcazar’s myriad flourishes overshadow the film’s most troubling theme: no matter how much the world changes, we’ll never stop being terrified to leave it.
“Divinity” is now playing in select theaters.