A no-budget variation on “The Most Dangerous Game,” “Battle Royale,” “The Hunger Games” and other violent survival-sport fantasies, “The Human Race” falls into that gray zone where it can be judged either an admirably resourceful amateur feature or a pretty inept professional one. Wildly variable performances, Christian overtones jostling with cheesy gore f/x, and choppy editing and storytelling are among the factors likely to make some genre fans roll their eyes. Others, however, will appreciate writer-director Paul Hough’s overall enterprise, unpredictable fatalities and fast (to a point) pacing. Following a tour of horror fests, the film launched theatrically June 13 at Hollywood’s Arena Cinema, in conjunction with its VOD and iTunes release. Niche home-format sales should be decent.
After each experiencing a flash of white light, 80 or so strangers who happened to be on the same Los Angeles block mysteriously find themselves in an enclosed indoor/outdoor institutional setting. (An abandoned juvenile correctional facility was the principal location used.) Voices in their heads inform them of a few deadly rules for the race that is beginning right now: Straying from marked paths, stepping on the grass, or getting lapped twice will all get them killed. Overcoming immediate bewilderment and panic, the assembled get going, their numbers thinning rapidly.
The principal figures who emerge include two U.S. Army vets (Eddie McGee and Paul McCarthy-Boyington) who survived combat in Afghanistan, the former losing a leg in the process; two deaf friends (Trista Robinson and T. Arthur Cottam); and a pro cyclist (Fred Coury) who proves viciously competitive even here, where passing his fellow abductees causes their heads to explode with a bloody splat. Also hastening the loss of participants (counted down in onscreen numerals) are three thugs who, for a time, take pleasure in forcing their fellow travelers to sit on the grass, which also causes them to go ka-boom.
From its opening stretch — when we spend several minutes being introduced to someone who’s then abruptly killed — the pic evinces an intriguing willingness to sacrifice characters who would be spared in a more conventional film. Such usually reliable movie-survival tactics as being a child, pregnant, a kindly priest, an elderly man with a walker, etc., prove non-saving graces here, as whatever unseen force is in control has no interest in rewarding the meek, lame or simply nice. Frequent mention of (and entreaties toward) God initially suggest that “The Human Race” might be an exploitation actioner for the faith-based audience. Yet in the script’s final leap toward sci-fi, that proves a red herring.
The film’s unusual production history (stretched over three years of brief shoots followed by fundraising) may partly explain its sometimes haphazard assembly, with frequent awkward or nonexistent transitions between scenes. The hectic tenor at least keeps things percolating until late in the game, when the decision is made to focus on two of the remaining characters, but their interaction (mostly in sign language) feels out of place and ponderous. Hough, who previously directed the 2002 extreme-wrestling docu “The Backyard,” does OK with the general action and on-the-move human-interest sketches. But real suspense and shocks are MIA in a movie that’s eventful but lacks the atmospherics needed to be scary.
Performances are all over the map, understandably enough, given that not all of the cast members are pro thesps. While “The Human Race” is for the most part technically resourceful and sometimes imaginative on slim means, occasionally the effects expose rather than cover its budgetary limitations. Marinho Nobre’s score is a bit too eager to compensate with bombast at times.