Pumping new life and vigorous cinematic imagination into science fiction paranoia, “Radiant” is a dazzling first work from scripter-helmer Steve Mahone that spins off fears of worldwide viruses and the more timeless consideration of death. Firmly tucked into the ultra-low-budget tradition of “Dark Star” and “Eraserhead,” pic marks the debut of Dallas-based film production company Silo Media and is certain to get tongues wagging at adventurous festivals and gain nocturnal allies on the midnight movie circuit.
Prelude graphics and a slightly sweaty voiceover narration — reminiscent of the ghostly vocal style of storyteller Joe Frank — by main character Ed (James Cable, also producer) establish a disturbing near-future desert setting, where genetic scientist Dr. Teller Blackpoole (Jim Covault) is in exile.
Doc has devised a “super virus” that theoretically will wipe out killer viruses sans side effects. Like a guru, he has attracted several patients with debilitating illnesses to his desert compound, but a government gambit to shut the renegade facility down accidentally unleashes a spread of the virus-to-end-all-viruses.
Ed, as Blackpoole’s favorite, has been experimenting with the super virus on farm animals in a nearby barn, and is protected from the accidental leak by his hazmat suit. The others — Trish (Sandy Fish), Ray (Matthew Tompkins), Michael (Jeremy Schwartz) and Molly (Laurel Whitsett) — aren’t so protected, and with Ed’s help, must try to stave off the virus’ still-unknown effects while escaping from government agents.
Ed’s perspective dominates “Radiant.” Narration seems excessive at first until it attains a hallucinatory effect through its sheer insistence on auds’ attention, much like the similarly philosophical narration in Chris Marker’s sci-fi classic, “La Jetee.”
Visually, pic puts to shame the vast majority of indie vid-shot features with a panoply of colors, images and moods, some inspired by the mind-altering effect that being out in the desert sun too long can produce. Mahone works tightly and with extreme economy alongside a small team of cast members and a resourceful production crew (lenser Alan Ray’s work stands out). Notably, Mahone applies a gorgeous, painterly approach to his picture-making while keeping one eye on the thriller aspect of his drama.
Cable and his fellow actors play up the obviously demanding physical strains of running through wastelands or suggesting a viral attack with perfs that verge on documentary realism. Unlike most midnight movies, “Radiant” tends to shy away from a sense of humor about its threatening, weird world, but it delivers an audio-visual experience that suggests new cinematic possibilities for low-end digital filmmaking.