Anna is tough. She can hunt, trap, and work metal. She puts her Skyrim hours to good use, fashioning tools and weapons in her home-made smithy. It’s obvious within the first few minutes of Josh Mendoza’s What Still Remains that Anna knows how to survive in the woods without the modern comforts that we enjoy today. It’s a good thing, too, because she is apparently surrounded by a world gone rabid.
The world that Anna (Lulu Antariska) inhabits is a full generation removed from its diseased collapse. Twenty-five years ago, people started to get sick, changing them into rabid beasts. They call this the “changing”, and it was rampant enough to completely topple North-American civilization. Those lucky enough to see the dangers coming, like Anna’s college-professor parents, fled into the woods to distance themselves from the maniacs roaming the streets.
It’s in these woods that we spend most of the running time of Mendoza’s directorial debut. Anna and her brother, David (Roshon Fegan), are caught scavenging by someone whose menacing whistling signals his evilness. After a nasty tumble, David implores Anna to run on ahead and leave him there. He promises that he will be home soon, but we’ve seen this before. We know that he’s a goner. Anna takes off with surprisingly little convincing to see to their mother, who is at home, sick and dying. The last we see of David is him burrowing himself into the forest floor, trying to hide from the maniac who has already found him.
Anna’s mother is sick, and they have her tied to the bed like a dog. She insists that she isn’t changing, only dying, and asks for one final comfort. She wants to see the sunrise one last time. Anna declines, worried that her mother will use that opportunity to attack. They forgot to tie their dying mother up very well, apparently, because when Anna wakes up in the morning, her mother is gone. After watching her denied sunrise, Anna’s mother dies.
Now all alone in this world, Anna buries her mother next to her father, who “changed” when she was little and was put down by her mother. She goes about her life, catching fish and hammering away at her smithy, when she is spotted by Peter (Colin O’Donoghue), a handsome thirty-something who approaches her home and asks to talk with her. Anna is tough, she is wary, and she is slow to trust. At least, that’s what we are led to believe. After a few tense minutes of gun-pointing, Anna lets Peter in and dines with him by the candlelight. He tells her that he comes from a community of “true believers” that live by the lake. They are in need of a blacksmith and would love for her to join them. After a night of reflection, Anna decides to give this a go and joins Peter on his trip back to his people. He’s really handsome, so, like, what could go wrong?
Along the way they encounter some men that Peter calls “berserkers”. They worship the “changed” men, dressing in rags and causing havoc everywhere they go. They successfully hide from the men and eventually make their way to their camp, where these “true believers” are not as holy or loving as they initially seem.
I’ll go ahead and stop there before I get too deep into spoiler territory, but just know that there is very little to spoil with What Still Remains. We have seen this story play out a dozen times before and it seems to be a recurring plot device used in all post-apocalyptic fiction, from The Walking Dead to Children of Men and The Last of Us. We have the young woman who is being escorted through dangerous lands to a group that she doesn’t even know is there or who they really are. It’s definitely been done before, but there are a few parts of Mendoza’s story that freshen up the plot and try to make it stand out from all the rest.
First of all, the film takes place over two decades after the fall of government and structured society. It isn’t 28 Days Later or even 28 Weeks Later, it’s 25 years later, and the world is filled with grown people who have never known any other life. Anna is one of those people. At 19, she has lived her entire life in the wilderness, fending for herself and hiding from those that mean her harm. Normally, those that have grown up in this type of story are still young and unable to take care of themselves. Anna is not a damsel in distress. Mendoza wrote her as a strong female lead and Antariska delivers on that strength. She is crafty, truthful, and a just member of what remains of society. In other words, she is a survivor.
The second thing that separates What Still Remains from the other stories that share a similar plot is the amount of religious iconography and rhetoric from the survivors. Usually, in a post-apocalyptic film, religion and faith have left the world. People take one look around at what surrounds them and get whiplash turning their backs on their faith. That isn’t true in this film. The group of survivors where Peter comes from is deeply religious, praising the lord for everything that comes their way, good or bad. This is a bold choice, but Mendoza fell a little short in his bid to make them the creepy and mysterious cult he was intending.
Peter is portrayed as an elder within the group, and he has chosen Anna as his bride. They are baptized together and he begins to force himself on her. We are supposed to be creeped out by this cult-like gathering of people, but what is actually terrifying is Peter’s attempted sexual assaults. The filmmakers would have been wise to lean more into this dynamic, the broken man using religion to force himself upon a strong woman, instead of the “mysterious” cult mentality of the group. If you have spent any time within the evangelical community, you see this kind of behavior all the time. Hell, someone I went to high school with approached a girl and told her that “god demands that they be together”, and if she turned him down, she was really turning down the lord. They’re still married! That’s the mentality that certain evangelical groups have. Dating within that community is one-small-step away from arranged marriage. Men prey upon women who may have no interest in them as people, using the “holy spirit” as a reason for them to be together.
“..Mendoza distinguishes himself in his debut as a director with an eye for framing and shot composition.”
Besides these small improvements on the story, Mendoza distinguishes himself in his debut as a director with an eye for framing and shot composition. Some of the shots in What Still Remains are absolutely gorgeous, using the natural beauty of the forest to compliment the intoxicating score from Johnathan Beard. The cast does a great job with the material they are given, and veteran actors Mimi Rogers and Jeff Kober are a welcome sight as elders in the camp of believers. Both Lulu Antariska and Colin O’Donoghue fill their characters with interesting quirks that give us a lot of information about who they actually are inside, and the way Mendoza shoots the berserker’s chase scenes is extremely well done. I just wish that we would have been able to see his talents used on a stronger film.
What Still Remains is a decent set up that goes nowhere. It is a good-looking film that contains nothing of circumstance. Very little happens in this world that is supposedly filled with dangerous diseased humans and the maniacs that worship them. We see maybe ten berserkers in the entire 92 minute run time of the film, and witness maybe five or six on-screen deaths. What is most disappointing, however, is that we never see one person who has “changed”. We never see one of the beasts that brought down the world. I understand that the whole point of the film is that “man is the real monster”, but that has been overdone in popular fiction. We get it, man can be a terribly cruel animal, but you cannot develop this world of danger and destruction and not place us in any dangerous or destructive scenarios. Overall, What Still Remains is a valiant debut effort from Josh Mendoza that tries to put a new spin on the post-apocalyptic genre, but ultimately it stalls and fails to go anywhere with its premise.
What Still Remains is being released to select theaters on Friday, August 10th, and will be available to rent our buy through Video On Demand Tuesday, August 14th.
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