Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's planning his post-apocalypse playlist. "Apocalypso," anyone?
"Long after the bombs had fallen, after plagues and famine had run their course, we few that remain live in fear and without hope. But this is a new place and a new time…"
A mother and daughter are huddled in a basement, living like moles, like rats after a series of disasters. That was the setting for Like Moles, Like Rats, Ron Harris' 1987 stage play. Into that dank basement came a mysterious man who could be something supernatural. That was the framework on which the post-apocalyptic 20 Years After was constructed. Jim Torres, who directed the movie, worked with Harris over the course of years. The title of 20 Years After is apt, since the movie turned up roughly 20 years after the play.
Apocalyptic science fiction in a play, with a side order of mysticism? Sounds tough to do, but Karel Capek did it with R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) way back in 1921. There's more than a basement here, but is it enough to satisfy a moviegoer's taste for the apocalyptic?
Facts of the Case
"This is Michael on the radio."
The disc jockey is preparing to leave his studio for a trip down to Memphis, despite the toxicity of the Tennessee River. Then Pierre shows up, letting him know there's been a gunfight outside the station and proposing another trip, in search of another DJ.
"Help us. We can't live like this forever," Pierre tells him. Michael (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project) agrees to head for the caverns where Pierre and his pals are quartered to listen for Harvey, the other DJ.
Also heading for the caverns are Sarah (Azura Skye, One Missed Call), who is eight months pregnant, and her mother Margaret (Diane Louise Salinger, Carnivale); they've been hiding in the basement of an abandoned house. They're accompanied by Dr. Samuel Singleton (Reg E. Cathey, The Wire), who owned the house but has been hiding in the sub-basement since he returned to find them there.
After an attack on the caverns in which the typical post-apocalyptic thugs go after both Michael and Sarah, the two, along with Margaret, head for the city where Harvey is broadcasting.
Although there are three big battle scenes in 20 Years After and they do get bloody, I wouldn't recommend it as an action picture. The violent storyline centered on the strange Miss Mynard (Shannon Eubanks, The Patriot)—who wants Sarah's baby and will resort to treachery to get the child, believed to be the first newborn in two decades—seems out of place, since it comes as brief blips in a movie that mainly reaches for the heart and soul. Moreover, the movie's stage origins come through in the long passages of dialogue, despite director Jim Torres' able expansion of the scenario.
Instead 20 Years After comes across as sort of amiable and thoughtful, concentrating on the themes of finding each other, reaching out, and breaking away from fear. If you're thinking Northern Exposure meets Children of Men, the thought crossed my mind during some of Joshua Leonard's narration in DJ style. The folksy tones of the soundtrack add to that thought.
Leonard and Azure Skye are likable leads, talking about tracking down a DJ in the way that two young adults might talk about breaking away from a small town in some less apocalyptic movie. Standing out more are Diane Louise Salinger as Margaret, the loving mother who has developed a hard shell from years of suffering, and Reg E. Cathey as Singleton, who gains their trust instantly and gradually takes on a mystic quality. Singleton brings along Christo, a ventriloquist's dummy who may have a mind of his own. As director Jim Torres pointed out Cathey's ad-libbing in the commentary, I suspected that Cathey's performance was the most vital toward the finished product. Toward the end, Phil Parker gives a good performance as Harvey, the awkward, isolated DJ who also likes ventriloquist's dummies.
In the informative commentary, director Jim Torres discusses Three Caves, the real-life Huntsville, Alabama, fallout shelter site that sheltered the fictional refugees, and his efforts to expand a small-scale story on a small-scale budget. A behind-the-scenes feature, clocking in at 7 minutes, doesn't add anything to this. Several deleted scenes are included as well; the best are one in which Sarah maps out her dream trip, which is echoed in a joke in another deleted scene.
Despite the small budget, 20 Years After usually looks pretty convincing with its mix of HD camerawork and CGI effects.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
During the commentary, I noticed director Jim Torres was filling in more story holes than he should have. The movie went fast enough, but the first-time director needs to bring details into the picture more fluidly.
The post-apocalyptic world is common to movies, but the pondering and hoping in 20 Years After bears little resemblance to, say, the adrenaline rush of Waterworld. If you're willing to give it a try, this upbeat dystopia is surprisingly engaging, despite some plot holes and an awkward merging of character drama and action.
Not guilty. I'm headed for Three Caves to beat the rush.
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