Originally written for:
Directed and Written by Tim R. Lea
This slab of sci-fi-tinged goodness is another recent addition to entries from last year like These Final Hours, The Rover, The Infinite Man and Predestination. Some kinks in the dialogue and some cliche-ridden moments might cause a small groan, but nothing is bad enough to detract from a well written, tense film. Cramped like a good submarine movie, we have five people locked in a fall-out shelter together. The movie doesn’t really go into what has happened on the surface, just that the world seems to be blown to bits. It reminds me of These Final Hours in its reverse apocalyptic approach, and also its ambiguous approach to an impending disaster. But that is the only similarity between the two Aussie flicks, as this becomes less and less sci-fi and more psychological thriller.
Not unlike These Final Hours it seems a simple plot synopsis does not do this justice. Upon reading it, it seems more than a little unfair, as it sounds like a very familiar movie. Biological weapons, a catastrophe on the surface with no idea as to what is happening. Yet another dystopian flick, right?
Wrong, as this film avoids using a typical narrative and has a constant sense of ambiguity. This is made apparent in the very first scene, as we start the film on a rooftop, at a party of some sort in good old Sydney-town. One gentleman is handing out business cards for his bomb shelters, which is our first indicator that the world isn’t quite as we know it today. The party doesn’t last long, as about ten minutes into the movie all mayhem breaks loose after the guests witness a building explode, followed by a sizable mushroom cloud. This latter sight is the catalyst for anarchy, as the friendly party turns into a fight for survival, each man fending for himself. Thanks to some innovative camerawork and a well-written scene, people start throwing themselves down a flight of stairs while fending away other party guests. This scene is absolutely chaotic, aided by the lack of a clear explanation – we don’t know these people, whether they left family or friends behind. After this excellent opening, we finally find ourselves at the shelter. Five people have finally reached the bottom of the stairs, the first fifteen minutes of riveting film ending with a bang. Much like a good book, 54 DAYS begins with action, there is no slow-burn build-up to be found here.
The intense first scene sets the story for us: five people stranded in a bomb shelter. Not unlike ROOM 1408, this is a film set in only two or three different rooms. Nick (Michael Drysdale) decides to take charge as the building was his uncle’s, he knows important details about the shelter. Built for two adults and two children, Nick approximates that the supplies in the shelter will last thirty days for five adults. Rationing begins and we jump ahead to day 15, the group not looking healthy as they slowly eat canned beans. Passive-aggressive behaviour seeps into the shelter as the inevitable conflict between five people in a tight space begins. Sides are taken, opinions are formed and are suddenly changed as each day passes. The psychological toll of the situation comes into the equation, as some pray, others cling to a wind-up radio hoping to hear from the outside world, and they all slowly become more childishly obsessed with a cockroach. The cockroach is an obvious metaphor, as the myth goes, they could survive a nuclear blast, but it is also utilised in an interesting way, almost functioning as a fly on the wall. This feeling is compounded by the choice of camera shots, as we see the room from the cockroaches’ perspective more than once.
The final act is truly gritty as personal truths are revealed and used as weapons. Suddenly a movie with ‘biological warfare’ in the tagline turns into a cramped psychological/survival thriller with a final act that felt impossible to predict and left me thinking for a good ten minutes. Not many films have that effect on me.
Shot on a typically low budget, not unlike the many local successes of last year, 54 DAYS uses its small location to its advantage. While this does reveal some clichéd character traits and some throwaway lines that feel very forced, the cramped quarters make for an immersive film that grabs you by the throat from the opening scene and doesn’t let go until its unpredictable, and again, ambiguous final act. The minor flaws apparent in some of the acting, dialogue, and the writing of the characters are easy to swallow given the unique narrative and its own spin on a post-apocalyptic scenario.
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