Sunday, 3 April 2011

VHS Quest #6. Rising Storm (Francis Schaeffer, 1989)

The future is an anti-consumerist dystopia in Rising Storm (1989)

When I picked up the box for Rising Storm (aka Rebel Storm) I assumed it would be just another lame duck 80s actioner, cheesy and clichéd, but at £1 it's hard to complain - VHS double features can often hold much amusement, and this seemed like perfect fodder. The cover is unassuming, quite bland in fact. I turned it over to be met some some apocalyptic imagery, and then read the plot. It was at this point that Rising Storm distinguished itself and became an essential purchase. I'll reprint the synopsis exactly as it appears on the VHS box...

Los Angeles, the year 2099 AD. The Big Orange is now ruled by Big Brother, The Blessed Reverend who rules by a simple system. He and a small number of people are filthy rich while the rest of the city is dirt poor. Tired of the tyranny are brothers Artie and Joe who plan to get their hands on some of the wealth - not gold or silver, but Elvis Presley piggy banks, Batman comics, and any meaningless memorabilia that has now become valuable art. Teaming up with fellow treasure seekers and freedom fighters, the beautiful Mila and Blaise, Artie and Joe find themselves pitching their wits and matching strength against the ruthless Reverend and his band of bloodthirsty Troopers. This is revolution and it's only just begun!

So against all odds Rising Storm is actually a cultish satire; an action-packed jab at a consumerist obsessed society, exaggerated by the futuristic dystopia that is 2099 Los Angeles. It's a B-movie through and through, but then in the most rigid definition of that term so is The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973), and that's an acclaimed classic. B-movies can often engage with ideas that big-budget blockbusters can't - they have mass audiences to please by adhering to genre codes and conventions. B-movies are often cheaper and less exposed, so they engage with genre in a slightly different way; not subversive so much as non-conformist. For example, a scene you wouldn't see in an A-list popcorn flick: two girls gather around a copy of Playboy, protected by a glass dome. One of the girls notes that it cost $120,000. The other one replies, unsurprised, "it's classical late 21st century." In this alternate universe pornography has become the height of sophistication; a rare art form reserved for the upper echelons of society. It is to be preserved, and adored. The same goes for anything retro. The first (hilarious) scene sees a group of archeologists unearth the top half of a Big Boy. It rises out of the ground, attached to a winch, to the sound of 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra', most famously used in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It's ridiculous, but grabs attention.

I'm not going to make a case for this as some kind of forgotten masterpiece, because it's really very far from that. But it is an interesting film, and one which frequently subverts expectations. An early scene sees Joe (Artie Crawford) in a gladiator-style conflict for the amusement of the prison guards. State-approved violence is likely their only form of excitement. This world is run by a religious dictator who has outlawed any form of entertainment; material or physical. Radio stations have been bombed, and one character speaks of the evils of rock 'n' roll music. The government, he says, used to play it over the airwaves to induce mass violence. Sex is kept to a minimum; everyone is allowed the pleasure once a month. Our protagonists are living in a time of repressed doctrine, where the state employs a secret police to track down and kill those who rebel. Those who seek treasure, and to debunk the myth of the female orgasm (yes, that happens... graphically). There's no real plot to the film, just the central idea which is strung along almost as if the filmmakers were making it up as they went along. It's not that Rising Storm has a bad narrative; it has a very straightforward one. It just feels a bit slapdash and cobbled together from genre clichés. I wish the intelligence of the central idea had been implemented more into the plot, rather than serving as a backdrop for it.

The dystopian landscape is quite realistic and well photographed; there's a genuine sense of society having undergone a genocidal mutation - kill all those who stand in the way of regression. The film it reminded me of most was Hardware (Stanley, 1990), but that films barren, post-apocalyptic world is much harsher. What's really winning about Rising Storm is the combination of humour and action. One chase sequence sees Joe shooting at an armour plated enemy vehicle. He gives up and moves to the front of the truck, being driven by Mila (June Chadwick). "Why don't you keep shooting?" she asks. "Why don't I just piss against the wind in a hurricane too?" Joe dryly responds. He's the classical cynical anti-hero; you want to punch him, but there's no way you wouldn't want him on your side. Wrong place, wrong time - that's the way his life has gone, and he's had enough. There's a one-liner for every situation, and that's what keeps the tone of the film light and breezy. There's also a hugely inventive action set-piece that is played for laughs - the massacre of a small town which is played to orchestral music and the pre-recorded thanks of Jesus. Violence, it seems, was on the agenda. It's very entertaining, and it's a shame that such a brilliant scene arrives at the end of a film I ultimately have to call just 'good'.

I'm going to recommend Rising Storm simply because it has an interesting idea, engaging characters, a sense of humour and some solid action. It's not perfect, but if you can track it down on the cheap it's definitely worth watching, and doesn't deserve to be as completely forgotten as it currently is.

1 comment:

  1. What is the name of the song near where the end credits begin?