Directed by Dan Tonkin
Starring Emma Richardson, John Robbins & Justin K Hayward
Short film review by Chris Olson
The role of the audience member has never been so pivotal than in this short film Survivor, written, produced, directed and edited by Dan Tonkin, in which crucial moments of the plot are decided by the viewer. Using the most modern of features, YouTube annotations, audience members are encouraged to select the direction in which the film will go depending on a “decision point” which the protagonist Tanya Hayes (Emma Richardson) faces. For example which weapon she will pick up, or a fight or flight moment with a hooded stranger.
A difficult film to pin down in terms of plot, as there are several story branches which trail off depending on which route you take, but as a general synopsis, here goes. We are introduced to Tanya through a quick series of vital signs and military files which essentially let us know that her family are deceased and she is addicted to a drug called Peroxetine. Tanya then awakens in a wooded setting, unaware of how she got there and why. After being faced with several situations (and key decisions), it becomes clear that this is a training exercise run by Navy Seals in order to test Tanya’s capabilities, with an added psychological element.
Tonkin’s short film delivers a unique cinematic experience which is breathtakingly engaging, it reinvents what you think you know about film storytelling and delivers something truly special. There is a relevancy to his approach, somewhere between gaming and viewing, which demands of the audience a degree of not only interaction but culpability. Having this much control over the outcome of the story is a completely different experience than simply watching the events unfold as the director intended, especially when the decisions are more than superficial elements.
That being said, Survivor has some fundamental flaws. Much like a game, the script is hackneyed army gabble and feels like it was lifted from a Call of Duty of yesteryear, with Richardson grappling with the monotone dialogue with a bluetooth earpiece (Justin K Hayward) and a mysterious figure in the woods (John Robbins). Each scene feels like it is setting up the next decision, which the audience eagerly awaits without every really getting invested in the story. The score is also a haphazard mix of cliched army sounds and attempts at tension building, most of which were distracting from the intensity trying to be built in the story.
The filming is very good, with some superb cinematography from DoP Russell Dean, who captures the stark isolation of Tanya’s situation with the acute danger she is experiencing. Tonkin uses a multitude of camera angles and set pieces to add pace to the film, so much so that is felt a little frantic and difficult to find a footing.
Coming back to the “choice” element that this film posits, the theory that audiences are demanding more from their viewing experiences, it definitely holds water. For a long time, the gaming industries have offered players the opportunity to carve out their own series of events by making important decisions which alter the path for their hero. So why not film? Is singular narrative storytelling the only path for a filmmaker? Yes and no. There is a huge appeal to choosing which direction a story takes, some of which have already been mentioned. Films could have the opportunity to become even more of a personal experience, determined by a viewer’s own moral code or sense of adventure. However, the drawbacks include the loss of a cohesive plot and instead of feeling like you get more from a film, you actually end up feeling you missed out on multiple eventualities (I myself went back through the film, making different choices to see what I missed out on).
Whilst Tonkin’s approach should most definitely be applauded for boldness and the fantastic aesthetic he achieves with Survivor praised, perhaps a simpler model would have been better as a prototype. It seems a shame that in the execution of a great idea, the fundamentals can be so overlooked.
Furthermore, films with just one, vital decision to make, as opposed to several, could be amazing! The possibilities could be endless and a film’s impact could be more intuitive with a viewer’s sensibilities.
Just think of all those movie deaths that could have been prevented!!
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