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Last Survivors, The

Dark Sky Films // Unrated // August 4, 2015
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 22, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The view just outside of Portland now:

All that will remain in a few years' time:
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We're not told the cause of this blight, nor are we offered a clear look at how the rest of the world is faring by comparison. None of that is of any consequence, though; the only thing that matters is water. Farmland once lush and green has been reduced to dust, and the state of things is nearly as dismal beneath the surface. As the last wells run dry, the greater Portland area is a ghost town. Those scattered few who hadn't fled have largely succumbed, be it to dehydration or to murderous looters desperate for every drop of water they can get their hands on. What Daniel Plainview was to oil, Carson (Jon Gries) is to what little water remains underground. Every drop of the stuff is his, and by extension, all of the land and buildings above are part of Carson's dominion as well. Someone drawing the precious few drops from a centuries-old family well are, to his mind, vermin, and Carson and his men are going farm by farm to have them exterminated as such.

The orphaned Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) is all too aware how precious a resource water is; her "brother" Dean (Booboo Stewart) is suffering a slow death from kidney failure due to a lack of it. Kendal is kindhearted enough to share what little water she and Dean can spare with the less fortunate, yet she'll also shoot to kill to protect this well outside the rotting carcass of their former orphanage. Kendal spends her days feverishly searching for a distributor cap to fit the Cessna some neighbors had left behind. Getting that plane up and running again is the only glimmer of hope Dean has for survival, and there's at least the possibility of a life for Kendal where she wouldn't have to keep to the shadows with a shotgun in her arms and a hatchet strapped to her hip. The clock is ticking, though. Dean is inching closer and closer towards death's door, their well has all but run dry, and the orphanage is the next stop for Carson and his squad of hunters/killers.

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The Last Survivors presents a view of the near-future in which every limited resource that remains is precious. Spent shotgun shells are collected and refilled...every sip of water means a few more hours of survival. Its filmmakers craft The Last Survivors with a similar sense of economy, ensuring that every last asset they have on-hand is used to full effect. Whatever its fiercely independent budget may have been, the end result looks millions of dollars larger in scale and scope. I would never have guessed that this marked director/co-writer Tom Hammock's first time in the big chair. His extensive background in production design no doubt proved to be an enormous benefit; every choice of location and every last object in front of the camera further the sense of this dessicated husk of a world. What was once Portland, as desolate and unforgiving as it is, invariably looks breathtaking just the same, and Hammock and cinematographer Seamus Tierney compose every frame masterfully. The Last Survivors is brilliantly edited as well, benefitting from the presence of Sarah Broshar, who in recent years has worked as Steven Spielberg's assistant editor, as well as genre auteur Adam Wingard. The film's sense of economy extends to essentially everything. The haunting, indescribably effective score by Craig DeLeon is used sparingly, and the instrumentation is never dense or overbearing. There's little backstory and no long, rambling prologue. Dialogue can be sparse, without so much as a single word spoken throughout its first five minutes. Perhaps little is said, but every last word matters. This world is richly drawn without some tedious and generally pointless exposition about what ravaged our ecosystem. Its characters, by and large, are convincing and real despite not having reams of dialogue to deliver. I wouldn't characterize The Last Survivors as an action movie, exactly, but when a blade is unsheathed or a gun is raised, what follows is without exception intense, unnerving, and remarkably well-executed. The stuntwork here very literally does not pull any punches. Even though the film isn't breathlessly rushing from one action setpiece to another, the pacing never lags. The Last Survivors by design can be a slow burn, but it's never slow.

As skillfully crafted as The Last Survivors is in so many ways, its greatest strength is undoubtedly Haley Lu Richardson in the lead. It's a grueling, challenging performance: aside from the physical demands, Richardson is in virtually every single shot in the film, and she's often the only person in front of the camera. Richardson ensures that Kendal never comes across as any sort of trope or stereotype; she's a very real and deeply compelling character, and one that's realized with very little dialogue. Even more astonishing is that this is her first role of this size. If Richardson is this accomplished as a teenager, I can't wait to see what she delivers in the years to come. Richardson is joined by an extremely talented cast. Booboo Stewart, seen most recently as the hulking Warpath in X-Men: Days of Future Past, is unrecognizable as the emaciated Dean, exhibiting a strength that defies his all-but-bedridden state. I'm in awe of Max Charles. As young as he is -- maybe nine or ten during production? -- Charles is enormously talented, arguably delivering his dialogue more skillfully than anyone else in the cast. When his Alby states that he can take care of himself, I wholly believe it. Jon Gries is, as ever, a phenomenal heavy, radiating the sort of menace that befits a legacy-obsessed megalomaniac like Carson. I appreciate that The Last Survivors avoids delving too deeply into his backstory -- familiarity can sometimes ruin a character like his -- although some of the dialogue he's saddled feels too much like a comic book villain. "If they're alive...they're consuming my water...and they can't consume my water...without my consent." It's also a thrill, as ever, to see Barbara Crampton, even in a small part such as this.

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The Last Survivors sank its claws into me from the very first frame and refused to let go. It didn't just immediately cement itself as one of my all-time favorite post-apocalyptic films; this is independent genre filmmaking at its best and easily ranks among the year's best. Very Highly Recommended.

Shot in 5K on a RED Epic, The Last Survivors is achingly gorgeous. The image is consistently crisp, clean, and strikingly detailed throughout, perhaps impressing the most in panoramic shots of the desolate dust bowl that was once Portland. Everything on screen is rendered with such clarity that it often feels as if I can discern each individual grain of sand. Black levels are deep and substantial, and the sun bleached palette -- by design devoid of greens, blues, and deep reds -- has been reproduced flawlessly. The Last Survivors' immaculate AVC encode doesn't suffer from the slightest sign of strain, nor do any undue filtering or processing ever threaten to intrude. I'm deeply impressed by the cinematic eyes of director Tom Hammock and D.P. Seamus Tierney, and their film translates to Blu-ray as flawlessly as I could ever have hoped to see.

The Last Survivors arrives on a single-layer Blu-ray disc at its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

The Last Survivors' 16-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack ensures that this presentation sounds every bit as phenomenal as it looks. The sound design is immediately immersive, thrusting me head-on into a stark wasteland where the only sound for miles is the howl of desert winds. The Last Survivors is light on dialogue, but what little's there is balanced perfectly in the mix. Craig DeLeon's spare, haunting score is far and away the highlight of this track, and I'm especially impressed by how the instrumentation is spread across so many channels. His compositions are also reinforced by a considerable low-end bite when appropriate. As is the case with virtually every aspect of The Last Survivors, its lossless soundtrack is outstanding.

Also included is a stereo LPCM soundtrack and an optional set of English (SDH) subtitles.

The title change from The Well must have happened fairly late in the game. Even though the deal with MPI/Dark Sky had already been inked, the disc's pair of commentary tracks still refer to the movie under its original title. Maybe you don't find that as intriguing as I do, so I'll move onto more meaningful comments about the extras instead:
  • Audio Commentaries: Co-writer/director Tom Hammock leads two commentary tracks on this disc. In the first, he's joined by actors Haley Lu Richardson, Booboo Stewart, and Michael McCartney. Max Charles also briefly joins in around the 50 minute mark. This is an infectiously fun discussion that barely pauses to catch its breath for an hour and a half straight. Among the many highlights are the creative writing exercises behind the stories that Kendal tells Dean, details into Stewart's grueling weight loss regimen for this role, how Richardson's dancing background eased some of the challenges of fight choreography, shooting in both a former meth house and in some sort of sex den, and a reveal about what that lake of crude oil Kendal emerges from really is. I think I can honestly say I've never heard this many America's Next Top Model references in any commentary I've reviewed either.

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    There's a little overlap with the second commentary -- this time pairing Hammock with producer/co-writer Jacob Forman -- but the two tracks have such distinct tones and such different points of emphasis that they're both well worth a listen. Though the filmmakers' commentary isn't quite so caffeinated and energetic, Forman and Hammock remain endlessly engaging from start to finish. The two of them delve more into the craftsmanship of a microbudget effort like this, including how the project came together both creatively and financially, casting, graphic and costume design, cinematography, color timing, editing, scoring, and, over the end credits, even sales and distribution. I filled an entire page with shorthand references to standout comments, such as production getting shut down by the authorities near the climax, that The Last Survivors was genuinely shot in dust bowls that were once farms, reshuffling the schedule to film by an abandoned Korean War-era Jeep that was inexplicably left in the desert, and even cinematographer Seamus Tierney trading his salary for one massive light. Hammock and Forman's commentary has easily made my shortlist as one of the year's best.

  • Deleted Scenes (10 min.; HD): Two deleted scenes are included here, each with optional commentary by director Tom Hammock. The first is a minute-long scene of Kendal collapsing in the desert, excised because the required visual effects of an imagined grass rebirth just weren't in the cards. Clocking in at nearly eight and a half minutes in length, the second set of footage is a rough assembly of Kendal hiding from the hunters/killers in a murdered family's well. Pacing as well as extensive visual effects work kept this sequence from being pursued further, but there's some fantastic footage here -- Kendal burying herself from view, the remains of a dock in the middle of a desert -- and its inclusion is greatly appreciated.

  • Behind the Scenes (5 min.; HD): The Last Survivors veers away from the traditional making-of featurette formula. Shrugging off the usual talking head interviews, this is instead a collection of fly-on-the-wall footage from the set, sometimes in bursts as short as a few seconds in length.

  • Haley Lu Richardson Audition/Offer (4 min.; HD): In their audio commentary, Tom Hammock and Jacob Forman rave about Haley Lu Richardson's audition, and sure enough, a lengthy look at that is offered here. Also included is camera phone footage of Richardson getting the call that the role of Kendal's is hers for the taking.

  • Slide Show (4 min.; HD): This photo gallery cycles through three and a half minutes of high resolution photos snapped throughout production.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras is a two minute theatrical trailer.

The Final Word
Honestly, this is why I write reviews: the hope of discovering something as extraordinary as The Last Survivors, and the outlet to do my part to ensure that such a remarkable effort does not go overlooked. With a staggering amount of talent on both sides of the camera and a canny ability to turn its limited resources into an asset, The Last Survivors' haunting, engaging vision of a desolate future demands to be seen. As I write this, preorders for The Last Survivors are all of $9.99 on Amazon. This disc would be Highly Recommended regardless, but at that asking price, The Last Survivors is essential, full stop.
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Highly Recommended

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