It’s the end of the world and they know it in “Radioflash,” a neither-fish-nor-fowl tale of survival after a massive, seemingly permanent power failure. At first this seems a fairly straightforward “what if” scenario of one family’s coping with the rapid breakdown of society in an unprecedented emergency. But first-time feature director/co-writer Ben McPherson eventually throws in more conventionally exploitative elements that push things toward the realms of thriller and quasi-horror, without actually embracing those genres.
The result is an offbeat conceptual mixture, albeit one that’s somewhat frustrating and occasionally tedious, if beautifully photographed by Austin Schmidt. It opens on 25 U.S. screens Nov. 15. As if anticipating the cries of fanboy types sure to be irked that the film doesn’t identify sufficiently as sci-fi, horror, or thriller, McPherson opens with an elaborately misleading sequence that signals all three, trapping heroine Reese (Brighton Sharbino) in a surreal escape-room nightmare. But it turns out this is just a virtual-reality game she’s playing at an arcade.
Meanwhile back in the real world, everyday life is pretty ordinary, beyond the fact that the teen’s mother recently died of from cancer. Reese and dad Chris (Dominic Monaghan) are having dinner when the power goes out, shutting down everything, from electricity to phone service to the internet. It takes a while to realize that this is no temporary glitch but the dread electromagnetic pulse, or “radioflash,” event that some doomsayers have long warned about.
Among them are Grandpa Frank (Will Patton), a full-fledged survivalist who turns out to be not so crazy after all. He’s anticipated and prepared for just such a disaster, which appears to have impacted at least the entire western U.S. Reaching Reese via the short-wave radio he thoughtfully left in their garage, gramps convinces her and dad to leave town before widespread panic sets in.
Even departing the next morning, however, they find mass chaos already in progress. Driving out of the city en route to Frank’s self-sustaining, well-hidden mountain hideout, they face a number of unexpected delays and increasingly grave threats.
Those perils range from the credible to the stereotypical, reaching a climactic low point when Reese falls into the clutches of some inbred country crazies. Their decor taste is right out of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and their matriarch a campy Fionnula Flanagan, who’s come a very long way from “James Joyce’s Women.” That “Radioflash” only half-heartedly milks this stock horror setup doesn’t make it any less clichéd. If earlier the film suffered from uneven pacing and dull patches, it does not improve by going for hyperbolic action silliness in the home stretch.
Thus what starts out feeling like a fairly serious treatment of a doomsday scenario grows less and less so, the director seemingly unaware of how awkwardly his episodic elements thread together into a single narrative. It all grows more interesting when you know that McPherson is a painter whose classical oils often depict Jesus Christ and other spiritual figures, and that some of his prior screen work (shorts, TV) suggests a more-than-average interest in “end times” speculation. Further, co-writer Matt Redhawk is the founder of My Patriot Supply, a Utah-based “emergency preparedness” company whose slogan is “It’s not just food, it’s freedom!” Not to mention the film’s production company being part of a media consortium connected to the Conservative Review and Glenn Beck, with whom McPherson has collaborated on prior projects.
Yet “Radioflash” isn’t overtly political or religious in content, and those background tidbits are actually more intriguing than much of the film itself, which feels longer than its 102 minutes. Ultimately it seems a message movie not quite willing to deliver any clear message, as well as a genre film shy about admitting as much. It’s too melodramatic to be taken as gritty realism, yet not suspenseful enough to work as a straight thriller.
Still, elements here keep hinting the movie will pull itself together toward some memorable or at least satisfying destination. It doesn’t, but the intermittently impressive scale, competent lead performances and general assembly polish dangle hope that the screenplay might be headed somewhere important. In the end, however, the only thing here that truly fulfills its mission is Schmidt’s widescreen lensing, which is handsome at all times but really makes the scenic rural Idaho locations (standing in for the Pacific Northwest) look spectacular.