Two groups are assembled at an airport in the North Rockies, one led by the overly aggressive, gung ho Jake (Mark Rolston) who is taking his military cadets out into the wilderness for a few days' toughening up in the great outdoors, and he encourages them to look down on the other group. They are a motley band from all walks of life, here to push themselves in an adventure setting, though as they all step on the plane it's clear Jake's team are seeking to build themselves up by belittling these others. On landing, the Survival Quest collective go to meet their team leader, Hank (Lance Henriksen)...
Who happens to have his shirt off to demonstrate what tremendous shape he's in, which must have really been rubbing it in the faces (not literally) of the huffing and puffing recruits to his survival course. But in contrast to Jake, and we're supposed to notice this straight away, Hank may be hard as nails, but he's a fair-minded man who uses encouragement and trust rather than intimidation and threat to build confidence in his pupils' abilities. All that does leave the film resembling something of an educational effort in the vein of teaching the viewer about making their way through life showing consideration to others.
Although if you had pointed out the writer and director in the opening credits, you would acknowledge that this was not going to be a load of life lessons in the guise of a thriller, because there were actual adventure sequences too when Jake's attitude and way with bringing out the worst in his followers reaps what he sowed. Don Coscarelli was the man behind this, then as now best known for the Phantasm series, though his film The Beastmaster demonstrated his love for making movies outside, of which this was probably the most blatant example of that preference. Survival Quest wasn't as well known as that however - it's one of his most obscure works.
Much of that was thanks to it lying unreleased for at least a couple of years, having been made around the middle of the eighties and not getting a deal to see the inside of cinemas till 1988 or 89, and even then not exactly the worldshaking event Coscarelli might have hoped for. It was interesting for the cast, who apart from Henriksen demonstrating a rough-hewn charisma included Dermot Mulroney as the convict of Jake's group, here as a character building exercise which is hoped will turn him around from his apathetic, prone to crime personality. Also here was Catherine Keener, though you may take a minute or two to recognise her seeing as how this was before she had her teeth fixed.
Her role exhibited the most change, as weak and pathetic Cheryl manages to shake herself up as the hardships increase, and when Jake exits the scene becomes the unofficial team leader, thereby emphasising the movie's theme that you do have wells of capability within you when push comes to shove, your back is against the wall, and so on. Along with her was Traci Lind, a cult actress who never made it to the front rank, as an engaged young woman wishing to live a little before she ties the knot - without her fiancé, that is. But it's the paramilitary squad who proves the most trouble for them all when the testosterone levels built up by Jake's goading erupt into violence, and we're meant to take away from this Hank's reasonable and learned methods are far preferable to barging into the wilderness and shooting deer or whatever. Though bear in mind Hank's way does involve eating worms for sustenance. It's a schematic work as you can imagine, but Coscarelli was very able when it came to the suspense and action, making this second tier but enjoyable. Music by Fred Myrow and Christopher L. Stone.