Reviewed by: Brett Willis
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|Featuring:||Kathleen Quinlan, Ted Levine, Aaron Stanford, Vinessa Shaw, Emilie de Ravin, Robert Joy, Dan Byrd, Billy Drago, Ezra Buzzington|
|Producer:||Wes Craven, Peter Locke, Marianne Maddalena|
|Distributor:||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
“The lucky ones die first.”
I’ve never seen the Wes Craven original of this film. But Craven hand-picked the team to do the remake, and reportedly the two versions are similar.
In the “grabber” opener (which in this case is literal), a radiation-suited team of researchers in the New Mexico desert are assaulted, killed and dragged away by some strange-looking people of whom we get only a few glimpses. This is followed by archive footage of above-ground atomic bomb testing, and photos of people with disfiguring mutations. Even without any advance publicity or prior knowledge of the film, we’d pretty clearly pick up the inference that the “desert people” are a community of mutants created by nuclear fallout.
Then, the main story. A family in a pickup and a camper-trailer, consisting of mom, dad, a teen son and daughter, a grown daughter, her husband and their baby girl (plus two German Shepherd-type dogs), take a grizzled gas station attendant’s advice and try a “short cut” across the desert. Problem is, the attendant is in cahoots with the mutants, and the road he’s sent them on is a dead end.
Like most slasher/gore films, this movie gives us a minimal plot, a setup with innocent people being picked off, and a payback in Act Three. Anything beyond that is usually fluff, window dressing, something added to create the illusion of high production values. The twist here, projected as social commentary, is that the mutants are the result of the callousness of the U.S. Government, so there’s some slight ambiguousness as to who are the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Emphasis on “slight.”
After the pickup’s tires are blown by a booby trap, the family must decide the best course of action. The two adult men walk out to get help, in opposite directions. One comes back. One does not. Night falls. From there on, the film quickly disintegrates into a disgusting bloodfest. People are killed by firearms, blades, explosions, falls, animal attack, and burning alive. Women are sexually assaulted and/or murdered in cold blood. The mutants are cannibals, and are shown eating human flesh. They also attack the dogs and some pet birds, biting the head off one of the birds and sucking its blood. (You know a film is over the top when teenagers, who presumably knew something about the film beforehand, walk out.)
The mutants even threaten the baby with firearms (to force her mother to do their bidding), take her captive, and intend to kill her. SPOILER: The baby comes through unharmed, at the end of the film. But, the film ends without a satisfying resolution… we don’t know whether the survivors made it out of the desert or not.
The small amount of strong sexual-related content (attempted rape and other assault, including a mutant drinking from a nursing mother’s breast) is very unsettling; but to be honest it’s handled fairly discreetly, with no visible nudity. The violence is another matter. It’s gross, harsh, unrelenting, and in-your-face. Buckets of blood. How many times can they show an axe or a spike being buried in someone’s brain, before we get tired of it? This theatrical release film is actually a re-edited version; the original version was rated NC-17. What was cut out? I don’t really want to know.
The profanity is quite strong, consisting of a lot of f-words, common curses and various other colorful language.
In the midst of all the mindless violence, there are a few touching scenes of some of the mutants, particularly the children. And there are, in fact, acts of selflessness and courage by people on both sides of the conflict. So to the degree that you take the story seriously, it really does mess with your head.
The mother of the family is projected as a former hippie who has become a person of faith. Before the men walk off in search of help, she huddles the whole family together (over the objections of some) and prays for God’s protection. Since not everyone survives, some people might take that as evidence that God doesn’t hear her prayer. Her husband, a retired Detective, says that he’ll take his bullets over her prayers any day. The son-in-law is a “Democrat” and hates guns, but before the film is over he’ll be “converted” and learn how to use them as well as how to fight hand-to-hand.
The theme of mutant monsters being created by nuclear testing goes back more than 50 years, and it never seems to go out of style. The U.S. film “Them!” (1954) dealt with giant ants, and had good special effects and several competent actors including James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, James Arness, Fess Parker and even Leonard Nimoy. On the other side of the ocean, also in 1954, there was of course “Godzilla.” Innumerable creatures, from spiders to crabs to Gila monsters, have been slated for nuclear-mutant status by the hundreds of films of this sub-genre. Rarely, the mutants are people instead of animals. And that puts a slightly different spin on things. Had this film been oriented differently, with a larger emphasis on the humanity of the mutants, it could have been true heart-wrencher. As it is, it’s constructed pretty much as a standard slasher; but the fact that there’s lost innocence on both sides of the conflict means that no matter how the story ends, it will be unsatisfying.
I don’t recommend this film to anyone.
Violence: Extreme / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Heavy
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.
See our review page on the sequel to this film: The Hills Have Eyes II