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Survivor
(1987)
 

Director:Michael Shackleton                               
Cast:
Chip Mayer, Richard Moll, Sue Kiel


I first came across Survivor about ten years ago on The CBS Late Movie, where they would show bizarre movies I'd never heard of before, and sometimes never saw anywhere else again. At that time, it made a great impression on me; I thought it was one of the best post-apocalypse movies I'd ever seen. Recently, I saw a copy of it at a video store in my area, and I decided to rent it to see if it held up just as well today as when I first saw it. Well, it didn't - I no longer think it's one of the best. But despite this, I still think it's one of the better attempts of the genre. True, seeing it today, I now see much clearer how incredibly low budget this movie is, which does hurt the movie badly at times. At the same time, I still see a lot of imagination and resourcefulness on the filmmakers part, and they succeeded in doing a few things that higher budgeted movies of this genre haven't or have failed to do.

The first few minutes of the movie start off intriguingly (though a little confusing to follow), with eerie flashbacks and flash forwards mixed with footage of the hero (in the present) literally tied up in a predicament. We slowly learn his story. The Survivor (his real name is never revealed) was a former astronaut who was up in space when the earth was engulfed by a nuclear holocaust. Returning to earth (spouting an oddly short and 80s-looking haircut) he found the earth an utter wasteland, and virtually all of humanity dead. (In the next 10 years, he only meets 30 people.) Hearing a rumor of a secret underground city far into the west, the Survivor travels deep into the uncharted wasteland. He gets into several adventures along the way, including meeting a mysterious woman (Kiel) who seems to know something about this city, but she is kidnapped before he finds out where the city is. He pursues the kidnapper, and soon discovers just what this "city" is - leading to his biggest challenge yet.

All along this way, and beyond, it's unfortunate that we are reminded on a regular basis just how little money the filmmakers had to work with. First, there's the use of stock footage. There isn't that much of it, but when you see something like a space shuttle taking off, you know that wasn't shot for the movie, especially since the quality of the footage is different from the rest of the movie. Also used several times in the movie are flash forwards of a key scene near the end of the movie, with more of the scene revealed as the movie progresses. I do not understand why this key scene is spoiled for us in this manner, except maybe to pad out the running time. The worst sin the movie commits is that there's TOO MUCH NARRATION. I estimate that at least 50% of the dialogue of this movie is consisted of narration from the Survivor, the woman, and a few other characters. At first it seemed like maybe they did this to patch up any plot holes the first cut had, but as the movie progresses, it soon becomes clear (thanks to some scene when the characters actually speak out loud) that the movie was designed this way, probably because it's cheaper to shoot a movie silently and dub in dialogue or narration later. And sometimes when a character actually does speak, they are obviously dubbed. This narration is taken to bizarre extremes at times; the first part of the movie, where we are explained about the situation, the hero's past et al is all done with narration - so we don't see the Survivor in space, we don't see him talking to the man who tells him about the city, or anything else until the Survivor starts on his journey.

Though the movie was saddled with extensive narration, the filmmakers actually made some of it turn to their advantage. Though that first fifteen minutes of so has no actual dialogue (just narration), much of this section of the movie has nobody talking in any manner - it just shows the hero wandering around with no one else around, and it's haunting. Most of the narration is actually the thoughts of the character onscreen, and quite a bit of it is interesting to hear ("The world ended when we stopped talking to each other. Now we don't even try," the hero lamentably thinks after a disastrous encounter with someone.) It's also very effective for the mood of the movie; we get to know what the characters are feeling, so the movie's atmosphere becomes stronger. It's surprisingly bleak - we feel the characters' loneliness, pain, thirst, and a general numbness from the years of hell they have gone through. When they say the world they are living in is dying, we believe it. There seems to be no hope for them.

The movie's atmosphere is enhanced also by well chosen locations, extremely well photographed. I couldn't determine where this movie was shot (the credits don't even mention the country that made this movie, though there are clues this was a European co-production, including the dubbing), and I really want to know, because I've never seen such visuals in a movie before. There's half of a completely rusted ship stranded a few feet offshore, with nothing else man-made in sight. The desert nearby looks as dead and lifeless as a desert could possibly be, yet it looks beautiful. It's made absolutely stunning during the scene where the Survivor, curled up on a small solar powered railway cart, speeds through this wasteland. It's clear that the "underground city" was a factory of some kind darkened by the filmmakers, but it's impressive to look at all the same. Not only are all of these locations pleasing to the eye, but they all clearly illustrate the hurt and dying world this is.

I think that some people will still object to Survivor because of one or both of the following reasons: the relative non-action tone, and the general pace of the movie. There isn't much action in Survivor, yes. Aside from a few minor scuffles or sorts, there is really only one big action sequence. It is a pretty good sequence, though - the hero and several villains are swinging on chains high above the ground, trying to kill each other while trying to hang onto their chains. Aside from that scene, that's about it for action. The first part of the movie is basically the trip through the desert and the encounter with the woman, and the second half of the movie is more or less the Survivor trying to save the woman, but mainly sneaking around trying not to be seen. When Richard Moll - the main villain - finally appears in the last twenty to thirty minutes, things do pick up a bit. Though he acts a bit over the top, he is appropriately menacing, and he has a long and quite interesting monologue where he blurts out almost randomly about several issues.

As for the pace of the movie....yes, this is a quite slow movie. This actually didn't bother me that much, because (for some weird reason) I have a fascination for post-apocalypse movies, so I perhaps have a higher patience level for this genre of movie. Even when the movie is obviously padded, there was always something happening that made up for this - the visuals, the interesting narration, and the feel of this movie. Never have I seen a post-apocalypse movie have such a bleak, pessimistic tone before. It's quite unique, and that's maybe a large part of why I liked Survivor - it's quite different from other post-apocalypse movies. If you're wanting a movie of this genre that's full of action, forget it. But if you are in the mood for something different, and you're feeling more patient when the opportunity to watch it arrives, give it a try.


UPDATE: I received this email from Carsten Rasch:

"While doing research on the memoir I’m writing I came upon your review of Survivor.

"I was the Set Decorator/Props Master on that movie. A Brit called Grey Lipley was the Art Director. His claim to fame - and the reason he got the job no doubt - was his involvement with the Duran Duran
Wild Boys pop vid.

"Survivor was shot in an around Cape Town at end of ‘85/86. The underground city location was an old power station at the bottom end of Long Street in the CBD. The shipwreck was in Llundudno (Cape Town); the desert location was Atlantis, nowhere near it, about 30 kms up on the West Coast, this weird little desert area in a mediterranean landscape; and the railroad scenes were shot in a village called Touwsrivier, in the Karoo, about 150kms inland."

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See also: A Savage Hunger, No Blade Of Grass, Omega Doom

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