(1989) Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli; Starring: Lance Henriksen, Mark Rolston and Steve Antin; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: ** ½
Writer/Director Don Coscarelli is primarily known for his horror and fantasy films, but he’s proved to be adept at working in other genres, as in Kenny and Company. Survival Quest was filmed between Phantasm II and Phantasm III, and also represents a departure from Coscarelli’s typical fare. Is that a good thing? Well… There wasn’t an abundance of information about this movie, which isn’t usually a good sign, but I’m always on the lookout for lost treasures, even when I’m forced to pick through a pile of manure to find those hidden gems. Armed with diminished expectations, I was ready to bravely forge ahead and give this forgotten flick the benefit of the doubt.
Survival Quest is set amidst the picturesque backdrop of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The title refers to an outdoorsy survival experience run by Hank, played by the always-reliable Lance Henriksen. He leads a group of misfit men and women into the wilderness, and it will be up to their wits, cooperation and fortitude to stay alive over the next four weeks. To make matters worse, they have to contend with a rival group of cocky paramilitary survivalists who decided to take the same transport plane to the drop-off point. Needless to say, the two groups don’t exactly hit it off. They’re on a collision course with wackiness! Okay, more like an opportunity for clichés.
If there’s one reason to see this film, it’s Henriksen, who provides an understated, believable performance as the rugged outdoorsman Hank. His soft-spoken demeanor and sinewy frame are perfect for the role, lending a level of conviction that’s better than the movie deserves. You’d want to follow him everywhere. In fact, if the movie had just been about Hank, with no other characters bogging the story down, the film would have been more compelling. Fellow film geeks might notice that Survival Quest reunites Henriksen and Mark Rolston, who previously starred together in Aliens (as Bishop and Private Drake, respectively. Would this make them Aliens alums? – Try saying that quickly.).
Most of the other characters follow a predictable arc, with each of them having something to prove, especially Gray (Dermot Mulroney) as a young convict who’s given a new start through the Survival Quest program. Will he gain acceptance by his fellow group members by the movie’s end (No prizes for guessing!). Cheryl (Catherine Keener) is a recent divorcee who wants to prove to everyone else that she has what it takes to survive in the wild. Rolston plays Jake, the leader of the paramilitary group. He’s played a little too broadly, as a caricature of the quintessential para-military survivalist nut. Jake is just waiting for the next world war, so his kind can do what they do best. As if to reinforce this stereotype, he has a speech about how the meek will not inherit the earth. One of Jake’s most gung ho disciples is Raider (Steve Antin), who views the Survival Quest group with contempt. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the group of misfits led by Hank are better prepared than the ersatz soldiers led by Jake.
Survival Quest is a fun little romp until the muddled third act, when Raider goes berserk, and things ultimately become disappointing. Coscarelli didn’t seem to trust that the inherent tensions between the characters in the Survival Quest group provided enough drama for his film. The survival themes should have been sufficient to carry the film, without the added burden of nuts with guns to amp up the action. What started out as a mildly interesting man (or woman) against nature film suddenly devolves into a standard cat-and-mouse flick. This leads to an utterly contrived ending that’s just embarrassing to watch. Survival Quest might be worth a view, if only for the first two thirds. It’s not quite entertaining enough to be considered a guilty pleasure, but at least it’s marginally watchable. Faint praise, indeed.