We begin in a nasty world of silence. An isolated man makes his way through a bleak desert, staring at a small piece of wet mud like it was heaven on Earth. He makes it back to his campsite, a tent he shares with his wife. In the background lies the smoldering ruins of civilization. He applies some medicine to his wife’s neck. They go to sleep.
Throughout all of this, no words are spoken. Once, when the man’s wife is having trouble going to sleep, he tries to comfort her with words under his breath. But for the most part, the two of them go about their day in silence, letting the gray of the sky and the gray of the Earth fill their lives.
And then the man is offered a way out.
Diverge was the first movie directed by James Morrison, who has told interviewers that the film initially came to him in a dream. The movie is technically about a global pandemic, which makes it very prescient, but that aspect of the plot was developed late in the creation process.
At first, the movie came from Morrison watching his friends have children, a life-changing moment which can bring as many fears as it does hopes. He started wondering about the ability to go back in time and correct mistakes — even if those corrections came at a tremendous cost.
Not a lot is revealed about the pandemic of Diverge, except that it has destroyed civilization and can be tested with mobile devices. “I remember being in film school and as a kid growing up, people would say, ‘Oh, movies are about the images and watching people do things. They’re not just about dialogue,” Morrison said in another interview, citing the opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood as an influence on Diverge’s mesmerizing opening.
The sense of dread in Diverge is far more important than the particulars of the pandemic.
Despite the mostly silent opening, dialogue eventually finds its way into the film, in the form of a stranger who shows up to the couple’s modest campsite with cans of food. But he’s not just a good samaritan. He wants the man, named Chris, to come with him. He tests the two of them and reveals what they already know: the wife, Anna, is sick, and Chris is not. Chris refuses to leave his wife. The can man leaves, but the next morning, Chris falls for a vicious trap that leaves him disabled and at this man’s mercy.
The can man has a plan for Chris, one that will send him back in time. Because Chris, as it turns out, played a crucial role in destroying the world. And now, against his will, he is going back in time to stop himself.
Diverge was made on a shoestring budget, one that followed a pattern of shooting, running out of money, and then waiting to get more money. While that comes with problems of its own, Morrison and his crew used the time off to their advantage.
“We shot it over the course of a year and a half, and over that year and a half, people would have ideas,” he told the Austin Chronicle. “So instead of going, ‘Well, we can’t fix that now,’ we would have time in between shoots to revise the script, and add scenes to the latter half of the movie that would connect it more. We had a safe space to experiment.”
The movie works best when Chris, played by Ivan Sandomire, is isolated. As the audience moves back to Chris’ old, pre-pandemic life, it is revealed that he used to be a scientist working at a university on a compound found within flowers. Here, the movie takes a quick and sudden shift into the struggles of academia: Chris has to decide if he will stick with his university, where a superior is stifling his work, or risk striking gold with a shady company called Tyrell (a clear reference to Blade Runner).
During these scenes, which take place at secretive levels of power, the film’s small budget starts to show a bit. Scenes taking place in what is supposed to be a high-tech medical facility feel very sparse. But the movie’s low-budget charms far outweigh its negatives. Spinning a plot in the vein of 12 Monkeys, Diverge shows that one need not have a big budget to tell a fascinating sci-fi story.
Diverge is streaming now on Amazon Prime.