Pilot Error…Or Supernatural Terror? Only One Man Can Tell!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a mass transit accident leaves a lone survivor, totally uninjured despite the massive scale of the carnage. It’s a mystery that pushes for an investigation, though no one is satisfied with the answer. You might be forgiven for thinking that I’m talking about Unbreakable, M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense, about a man who survives a train crash unscathed and seeks out the truth. But no, I’m talking about 1981’s The Survivor, about a pilot who survives a plane crash that decimates his passengers. Much like Shamalan’s film, however, The Survivor doesn’t really hold up to close inspection, though in both cases the top-notch cast keeps it from being a total waste.
So Keller (Robert Powell, Mahler) is piloting his fancy jet when he’s forced to land in a small park. The crash sheers off a wing on a house and though everything appears to be going well, the fuel tanks ignite. Keller is the only one who walks away, with only minor injuries. In the park before the crash is Hobbs (Jenny Agutter, Walkabout), a woman who may be psychically sensitive. She helps Keller come to terms with some of the weirdness surrounding the crash, while Tewson (Peter Sumner, Color Me Dead) investigates the possibility that the plane might have been sabotaged.
The Survivor is kind of two movies for the price of one. The first is an aviation procedural. We see the pre-flight machinations of the pilot, his take-off, and then the crash. With the help of Keller and Tewson, we get a sense of how a crash gets investigated, how blame is assigned, and what kinds of theories get proposed to explain this kind of disaster.
The other film is much spookier, in a Twilight Zone kind of way. Hobbs’ apparent abilities drive this part of the plot as she works with Keller to figure out what might have happened. We also get the appearance of a spooky little girl, who may have been one of the passengers, who seems to act like the spirit of death, ushering others to their end.
The problem, of course, is that these two pieces never quite mesh. The investigation could be a nail-biting procedural, working against a clock to find the perpetrators (or not!) of the aerial crime. Though these kinds of films tend to be more compelling when they focus on an historical disaster, there’s nothing that says that The Survivor couldn’t have built a compelling mystery/thriller out of the procedural elements of an airplane crash.
On the flip side, committing to the spooky side of things might have worked well too. Planes are miraculous enough, so it’s not a huge leap to put something supernatural in the sky (The Twilight Zone did it, so has Stephen King). Take the seeming-miracle of a single survivor, focus on his fight to understand his own survival, and lean into the psychic aspects of Hobbs character and there’s the potential for a supernaturally-inflected drama or scare story.
The problem with The Survivor is that these two plots work against each other. It’s hard to take the spooky stuff seriously when Tewson is banging on about potential bombs, and the procedural side of things doesn’t do much to bring out the necessity for a supernatural explanation. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the film ultimately wants to have it both ways, keeping the door open for supernatural agency while offering a seemingly-rational explanation for the film’s plot. The fact that if you’re paying attention it doesn’t all hang together is only the final nail in the film’s coffin.
I can’t, however, complain about the film’s cast. Robert Powell is wonderfully weird as Keller, the pilot who has to deal with his survival. Jenny Agutter is easily believable as a psychic. Peter Sumner is both detail-oriented an officious as Tewson. He’s intimidating in surprising ways, and makes the procedural plot way more compelling than it has any right to be. Throw in Joseph Cotton as a priest and you’ve got a cast that elevates the material.
The Blu-ray is also pretty solid. The film’s 2.39:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks pretty decent. There’s some age-related wear and tear, including some speckling and a bit of wobble. Grain doesn’t always resolve well either. But these aren’t distracting problems. For the most part we get plenty of detail, a solid (though muted) color palette, and decent black levels. Without a full-blown restoration, this is as good as The Survivor is likely to look, and it has a decent, film-like appearance. The LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack fares a bit better. Dialogue is clean and clear, with the film’s score and effects appropriately balanced in the mix. The track doesn’t suffer from any age-related degradation.
Extras start with a series of archival TV interviews with many of the film’s principals, including director David Hemmings, Joseph Cotton, Peter Sumner, and Robert Powell. We also get two brief bits on writer James Herbert, the horror author whose book was adapted for this film. We get a 10 minute featurette on his life, and a short interview with Powell on his friendship with the author. More interviews, with producer Antony Ginnane and cinematographer John Seale, are excerpted from the documentary Not Exactly Hollywood. There’s also a TV spot for the film, along with a compliation of trailers for other films produced by Antony Ginnane, many of them pornographic. There’s also a brief extended scene.
The Survivor is a weird movie that tries to blend a mystery procedural with supernatural elements. The blend never quite coheres, though the excellent cast strives mightily to make it work. This Blu-ray does a fine job of bringing the film to hi-def, though die-hard fans might with for a full-blown restoration of the film.