When was the last time you came across a cinematic or literary portrait of the future that didn’t envelope you with a sense of dread or disbelief? Even if the good guys prevail eventually (and prevail they usually do), could you see yourself surviving in that particular vision of the future? If disease, ill-designed garments, social disorder, and technologically regressive living conditions are not causes for a swift surrendering of will, then isolation will surely do the trick. Even (superficially) attractive and cheerful societies, such as the ones depicted in “Logan’s Run” (Michael Anderson, 1976), “The Fifth Element” (Luc Besson, 1997, and “Gattaca” (Andrew Niccol, 1997) inevitably fracture into violence and deception. The corrupt, antagonistic forces may not triumph in the end, but their actions leave behind heavy indentations.
In comparison, the future according to “Deadland” (Damon O’Steen) is not quite so bleak. Written by Gary Weeks and photographed by Reuben Steinberg, this film depicts a world awakening after sustaining a nuclear disaster and is adorned with a visual palette akin to The Call of Duty video games. Set to Patrick Morganelli’s stirring musical score, “Deadland,” which screened at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival, starts by introducing its protagonist, Sean Kalos (Weeks), stopping at a gas station en route to Georgia to see a woman named Katie (the lovely Emily-Grace Murray). His plans permanently change, however, when he and the lone gas station attendant watch televised reports of nuclear attacks on American soil. A bright explosion in the horizon greets Sean and the station employee when they go outside.
Five years pass, and Sean — now head-shaved and sans SUV — is trekking across the architecturally decrepit country. He finds a bag containing, among other items, a bottle of pills and a stack of papers. Sean also witnesses two men in military fatigues (Chad Mathews and Philip Boyd) chase down and subdue a man suspected of stealing from one of the soldiers. After he retreats to a safe distance from those men, Sean examines the bundle of papers that reveal a series of numbers and a list of women’s names, including “Kate Johnson.” With this one morsel of hope, Sean decides to find out whether or not his wife — the woman he was driving to see in the opening scene — is still alive.
Via strategically placed flashback sequences that contextualize Sean and Katie’s relationship and the significance of specific plot points, the storyline unfurls against a post-apocalyptic environment where controlling an epidemic and ensuring the survival of the human species (and the “United Provinces'” political authority and identity) necessitate the implementation of methods that shouldn’t be tolerated but are nonetheless practiced: the sick are discarded, the healthy conscripted, and the hemoglobin-unique sequestered.
The deeper into the woods Sean ventures, the stronger his motivation and determination grow. He encounters people that are as eager to aid him as to hinder him. The super sly and self-reliant Jax (an impeccable Brian Tee) acts as a topographical and informational guide and leads Sean to the idiosyncratic, former code-breaker Shiv (William Katt, yes, the Greatest American Hero). Jax does so more for self-preservation than altruism. The members of the Underground, led by Red (Harrison Page) — depicted as more friend than foe — even insist that Sean give them his pill bottle before they’ll share news about how he might locate Katie. The villainous soldiers, subordinates under Commander Rufler (William Colquitt), inflict an avalanche of physical and mental pain onto the protagonist. Their displays of authoritative control, however, ironically end up helping Sean.
The film speaks to much more than a representation of the future or even that people still retain a sense of mercy and morality. Reaching Katie is Sean’s sole objective, and he knows that he can’t do it alone. At the same time, though, he doesn’t proceed with his mission thinking he can save everyone else. That other people benefit from his actions can be interpreted as incidental.
Despite the political elements and ideological motifs embedded into the story, “Deadland” is ultimately about a man’s need to make things right, to reunite with the person that makes his life worth living.