Perhaps the best part of this film is the opening.
A helicopter lands, soldiers grab the nearly comatose people inside it, carry them between two long lines of soldiers and dump them through a triangular, high-tech door into a tiny elevator. The way in which this scene is shot – with a lot of (slow and non-shaky) camera motion, deliberately out of focus, poorly framed, at odd angles, with the center of focus in the wrong places for much of the sequence – gives it an unsettling, hazy edge, as if we were just waking up, half-drugged, into some kind of nightmare.
Which is pretty much what is happening to our main characters.
Explosions rock their elevator on the way down and they find themselves in a high-tech shelter deep underground, where they are told they are “chosen survivors”, selected by the government for the unique contributions they could make to rebuilding civilization after a nuclear war.
The second best part, of course, is the marvelous cast of excellent, if not necessarily star quality, character actors, most of them with a solid television background. Richard Jaeckel, Jackie Cooper and the vastly under rated Alex Cord are perhaps the most notable, although we also get to see a pre-TNG Diana Muldaur.
There are hints of The Andromeda Strain in the underground facility they’re trapped in, and a worldwide crisis of the sort that dominates movies like Colossus: The Forbin Experiment. At first glance, Chosen Survivors seems to fall into a familiar 1970s near-term science fiction/Michael Crichton vibe, thanks not only to the sterile, controlled environment they’ve been thrust into (and the contrast with the chaos outside) but to its decidedly paranoid edge. We have government’s callous disregard for what their chosen guinea pigs want, and the almost inhuman detachment of the experiment they’re running, and the suggestion that they’ve known for some time that the bombs would be falling soon.
And, of course, there is that lingering fear that there is more to their confinement than anyone is letting them know…
But then it shifts gears towards another type of movie altogether as an unexpected element – much like that lizard in THX-1138 – suddenly disrupts the carefully planned experiment and throws the survivors into a deadly battle for survival with…
Okay, they’re on the poster, so this isn’t a spoiler…
Yep, bats. Vampire bats, that is, somehow here in the U.S., despite not being native. Lots of them, vast flocks of them, cut in among the actors with what looks like Chroma Key video effects.
Any summary of this film is guaranteed to sound worse than the reality. After all, what seems like an out of left-field twist does fit in with the rather grim mindset of the near-term SF films of the era, with their cover-ups, government conspiracies and unblinking portrayal of our government engaged in the unethical and immoral.
Which actually describes a lot of American films made post-Watergate, now that I think of it.
It also fits in with another theme of the era, one which can be found in Westworld, The Terminal Man and others not based on Crichton stories (like THX-1138): the idea that man’s stunning control of his environment, his imposition of his rational, anti-septic, controlled and (in more than one sense of the word) sterile new world, can all too easily break down in the face of reality.
Jurassic Bats, you might say.
This is quite a good movie for what it is: low budget, co-produced in Mexico, no big stars and cheap effects. Yes, the cast is a little old to be chosen survivors (well, at least the women), and yes, one does wonder why they’d pick an important business man for one of their subjects (particularly when there are hints that maybe the failsafe for the program is eliminating the “evidence”, and most of the characters are a bit underdeveloped.
But it is still tense, it remains interesting throughout, and ends on just the right note of exhaustion and uncertainty.