Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In short: Survival Quest (1988)

A group of all age groups and genders (Dermot Mulroney, Catherine Keener, Tracy Lind, Ben Hammer, Dominic Hoffman and Paul Provenza) that'd surely qualify for a disaster movie, flies out into the wilderness to learn some valuable lessons about themselves via survival training under the tutelage of laid back and sensitive wilderness expert Hank (Lance Henriksen). There's many a teachable moment about the joys of collectivism and treating one's peers with respect.

Unfortunately, the rather more paramilitary survivalist training course exclusively for older teenage boys of mercenary Jake (Mark Rolston) has come to the same area. Jake's full of bizarre talk of being a predator (I'd like to see Jake tell that to an actual predator) and every man having to stand for himself. Do you think there's a political allegory hidden somewhere in the movie?

Curiously, if you teach kids the value of being psychopaths, they may just start acting the part, and things turn violent. Eventually, Hank and Jake are believed dead by their respective groups, and the psycho kids begin hunting our peaceful collective.

Don Coscarelli's Survival Quest will probably always be the Coscarelli movie I like least (unless you count the attempt to steal money from his fans known as Phantasm IV as a movie, which I don't). This doesn't mean, however, that Survival Quest is a bad movie, it's just that its flaws are of exactly the kind I'm able to overlook least.

I'm never a fan of allegories at the best of time, and Coscarelli makes his film's political allegory even harder to bear though the total lack of subtlety of its presentation. Ideologically speaking, I'm on the director's side, and approve of any attempt to make a survival film which posits people don't and won't have to turn into monsters in any dangerous situation, it's just that I really wish he'd not try and hit me over the head with it as much as he does (and, you know, doesn't let the film still end with the good guys blowing up the bad guys).

This aspect of Survival Quest is further weakened by the weak characterization. I'd really rather believe that Hank's wilderness teachings and the communal work with others are a catalyst for the characters finding inner strengths they didn't know about and changing for the better, but in practice, everyone starts out as an underwritten cliché and ends as a slightly different underwritten cliché, their moments of change lacking in dramatic impact.

It is a bit of a shame, because Survival Quest's functioning parts are something to cheer for. I like how comparatively quotidian the actual wilderness survival problems our heroes have to cope with before the chase movie part begins are, providing what comes later with a basic believability the characters never have on their own.

Daryn Okada's wilderness photography is rather beautiful, again without attempting to be stunningly, dramatically beautiful, but just showing what's there without a grand gesture.

Last but not least, there's a very fine performance by the great Lance Henriksen who provides his - again pretty underwritten - Hank with charisma and a force of personality that nearly make the quick effect of his training course in social responsibility believable (and most certainly makes Rolston's one-note Jake look like even more of a jerk), and manages to make a character who might come over as quite patronizing in the way he is written sympathetically paternal.

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