The last 10 years or so has seen a huge influx in post-apocalyptic movies. After an initial glut in the 1980s (thanks to the Mad Max series and its countless cheap knock-offs), the genre faded back for a number of years, but has come back with a vengeance in the 2000s and beyond, maybe because it’s an easier way to shoot a movie on a low budget, maybe because of the popularity of The Walking Dead, or maybe because the political climate has grown more tumultuous and divisive over the last decade, making many of us wonder how we’re going to continue living together as a society. Apocalyptic movies play directly into those fears.
What Still Remains, the first feature film from writer/director Josh Mendoza, is interested in exactly these kinds of questions. It’s a relatively intimate apocalyptic movie set years after things have fallen apart and much of the world has been lost to a plague. Lulu Antariksa stars as Anna, a young woman who loses what’s left of her family as the movie opens and is left to fend for herself until she meets Peter (Colin O’Donoghue), who belongs to a camp of religious zealots happy to take Anna in—provided she agree to their conditions. With the fate of an infected prisoner hanging in the balance, Anna must decide what side she’s on… and whether or not she still recognizes humankind at all.
The thing about so many of these post-apocalyptic movies—in particular the smaller, less expensive ones like this that focus on character instead of big Fury Road action set pieces—is that they tend to suffer from a sense of sameness. The central conflict is almost always the same: there’s some sort of external force to act as a surface obstacle (whether it’s zombies or mutants or, in this case, infected), but the story always boils down to “people are the worst monsters.” It’s a theme worth exploring and a story worth telling, but it’s harder to do it effectively when you’re so late out of the gate. The best that What Still Remains can hope for is “well done, but familiar,” and that’s about what it achieves. This is a modest, well-acted, effectively directed film that offers almost no novelty to the post-apocalyptic genre and has very little new things to say about the human condition.
Well, that’s not entirely true. What Still Remains dives more deeply into organized religion than the standard post-apocalyptic fare, as Anna is brought into a camp with a strict ideology run by what might less generously be called a cult leader (the always welcome Jeff Kober) and his female companion (Mimi Rogers). There’s some interesting stuff that Mendoza is attempting to explore here; he’s not being directly critical of religion, per se, but rather of blind dogmatic belief in a “cause” regardless of one’s own moral compass. There are a few lines that can clearly be drawn to the current political climate, especially as the movie gets into the role that women play in this new society. Whether it’s Day of the Dead or The Day or The Divide or The Handmaid’s Tale, our popular culture seems to agree that if given the opportunity to rebuild society, there are some people who would jump at the chance to seize power and subjugate others. This is the most interesting stuff in What Still Remains, but it’s unable to focus on it for very long because it has to chase a couple of other tangents about family and an impending attack from the infected.
I’m of two minds on What Still Remains. It is a perfectly solid genre thriller that knows how to make use of its limited resources and never insults our intelligence. At the same time, it doesn’t add much to the ever-growing canon of post-apocalyptic movies, so if you’ve seen as many of them as I have, it’s all going to feel familiar. Similarly small films like These Final Hours or Alone Here have found ways to distinguish themselves by putting the slightest spin on the formula. What Still Remains chooses to stick to the formula, but at least it does it well.
Movie Score: 2.5/5