If cast into a world of darkness in the wake of a standard power outage, one were to begin wondering how long it would take society to collapse without electricity, it would be a most justified ponderance. And if that wondering were to extend into the hours after the power had been restored, one would have the ability to consult our electrified oracle, the internet. The internet would compile a succinct list of resources for you and the overarching answer one would be given is: two weeks...
...Two weeks is the predicted time frame for societal collapse. Radioflash director Benjamin McPherson’s prediction is, well, just around twelve hours.
Radioflash begins with heroine Reese (Brighton Sharbino) attempting to escape a Jigsaw-esque trap room filled with rotary phones and rising water. The sequence, expertly staged and shot, turns out to be a virtual reality video game sequence. In the first five minutes we learn two things about Reese: she’s resourceful and has an interest in programming video games; two things that never resurface during Radioflash’s 102-minute runtime.
Shortly thereafter we learn that she lives with her father Chris (Dominic Monaghan), a bland widower, and that she has a standard-issue shell-shocked grandfather, Frank (Mark Patton) with a doomsday bunker living in some undisclosed location in some undisclosed country, some undisclosed miles away from Reese and Co. And how fortuitous his bunker is when a strange wave of electromagnetic energy rocks the eastern (?), western (?), well, some coast somewhere and causes a total loss of power.
Aided by the sudden arrival of electrical engineering know-how, Reese attaches a battery to an old ham radio and reaches out to her grandfather who seems to have anticipated this very communiqué. “This is the big one,” says Frank—Frank doesn’t actually say this, but it’s the gist—and convinces Reese to gather her father first thing in the morning and begin their journey to the bunker.
By morning, some twelve hours after the initial blackout, the world has devolved into chaos. Moms fight over cases of Ice Mountain Spring Water, looting breaks out with a concentrated effort in the chips aisle, and motorcycle gangs rove as trolls on the bridgeways of the aforementioned undisclosed country. Madness darling, madness.
One missed exit on Reese and Chris’ poorly-mapped exodus results in a woodland car crash. Upon waking the pair say “Fuck it,” to the highways and byways and opt for a leisurely riverside stroll to the bunker. But what promises to be a touching father-daughter wilderness adventure takes a hard left into territory better covered by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Tobe Hooper’s classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
To call Radioflash silly would be a direct besmirchment of the word. Words that come to mind: ridiculous, unnecessary, tedious, bloated, befuddling, decidedly unswashbuckling. If someone would have told me this picture would involve a toothless old woodswoman riding in a hand-crank-controlled wheelchair sipping iced Lipton from a mason jar I would have laughed. And as it turns out, I did. Repeatedly.
In the latter third of the film McPherson does manage to wring some tension out of his heavy plotting using the immensity of the forest to create a twisted inversion and eliciting a sense of claustrophobia. Reese has nowhere and everywhere to run. The filmmakers use the camera to discomforting effect, altering our perception of the spaces that Reese possesses, perhaps a reflection of her own upended perspective.
The production quality is up to snuff, there’s nothing technically wrong with the film, it looks decent. Even the performances elicit a well-intentioned “That’ll do pig,” despite characters hewn from the thinnest of fabrics. It’s narrative cohesion where Radioflash more or less shits the bed. Things just...happen. People just are, for no reason. It all begins to feel like a filmic attempt at that old creative writing classroom game where one person writes a sentence and then passes it to the next person who in turn adds their own sentence to form the beginnings of a story.
The film feels like a collection of shorts, forming a rudimentary skeleton that someone tried to make into a single vision, draping characters over the bones in a thin sheet of fabric. It’s clunky and ultimately unsatisfying, though bits and pieces are enjoyable and beg that, if reigned in, McPherson might yet have something to offer the pantheon of cinema. I’d be interested to see what he might produce with another soul behind the keyboard. The takeaway? If you’ve got time to kill, you could find a much sharper knife than this.
Radio Flash hits VOD on November 15th from IFC Midnight.
By Paul Bauer