Effective world building is one of the hardest things to do in movies, especially in science fiction. So many layers have to come together to encourage the audience to suspend their disbelief and enter the fictional world of the filmmaker's imagination. The new short film by director Christopher Carson Emmons, The Survivor: A Tale from the Nearscape, never really builds a world that feels wholly real, but it's not for lack of trying.
The film is set in what seems like a distant future, though we never learn just how distant. A young boy, Billy, is sent out by his abusive step-father for a supply run to get water and medicine for his mother, who is very sick. He makes the trip, and dodges everything from religious zealots to corrupt cops in an attempt to get back home before curfew.
The running time of The Survivor is only 12 minutes, so it's crucial to work economically to get ideas and plot points across to the audience. Unfortunately, it goes much too broad to achieve clarity as it strives to include a vast array of themes. That's why we get the idea of sexual abuse by way of the step-father zipping up his fly as he and Billy enter their living room.
The movie is also confusing at times. Billy wears an oxygen mask, and the dramatic stakes mostly revolve around him getting back home before his oxygen runs out. Why, then, does he run into a clan of religious fanatics who aren't wearing any oxygen masks at all? The leader, a man wearing a priest's collar, makes reference to the boy being untainted, but these people don't seem sick in any way.
The best part about The Survivor is a toy robot that Billy carries with him on his supply run. We find out this little robot is more than what it seems. It has an A.I. chip inside, and is able to do everything from calculating Billy's safest route to telling him how much oxygen he has left. The two have a bond so strong that we feel pity for the boy when he is forced to make the decision between the toy and medicine for his mother.
Something else Billy acquires while at the trading post turns out to be the point of the whole story. The entire movie leads up to a sort of twist ending which I won't spoil here, but feels about as fresh as a Twilight Zone episode.
The Survivor doesn't fail due to a lack of imagination. Instead, it's poor execution. The film introduces a lot of elements that it can't fully develop. There is a mysterious symbol that appears on pirate television broadcasts, and at one point another character tells Billy that things might get better if he can figure out what the symbol means. It feels like the worst aspect of feature film franchises: all set up for future installments.
The Survivor is a movie with a lot on its mind: global warming, child abuse, and economic inequality, to name a few. It just doesn't explore them in particularly interesting ways.
Why it got 2 stars:
- The Survivor never made be believe in the world it showed me on screen.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Even though I didn't connect with the movie, it was selected as the best sci-fi film in the Festigious International Film Festival.
- The Survivor was released for online streaming on Aug. 16th, 2017. You can find it at www.survivorthefilm.com