Why Criticism: Not Quite the Apocalypse

Guy Pearce in The Rover

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

In 2013, David Michôd followed Animal Kingdom with an elemental post-Apocalyptic tale called The Rover. The opening of the film begins with “Australia Ten Years After The Collapse.” In two swift transitions, Michôd moves from sparse savannah to the battered landscape of Guy Pearce’s face. This yet to be named survivor stares out into the sparse nothingness musing about a story that’s impossible to tell. Flies encircle and land on his stone-like visage, marking out pathways to moisture. This unnamed survivor is unbothered. These flying insects are signs that he’s alive. Unflinching and calm in the face of societal collapse, this isn’t the only time viewers observe the man’s meditative navigation of each new situation. He focuses exclusively on the terrain of what’s precisely in front of him. He stalks into an establishment — custom measured in cautious steps with courtesy, and barely-registerable acknowledgements. Cut to the interior of a car; a heist has gone wrong, resulting in the chaotic energy of a soldier left behind, and leading to conflict with devastating and life-threatening consequences.

As we stew in isolation during a viral pandemic, one thing is clear: Australians mostly aren’t taking this thing seriously. Over the past weeks, Australian beaches in the last gasps of Southern Hemisphere summer weather have been heavily seasoned with bronzing bodies. A call to action from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was largely consistent with some of the more stringent measures echoing around the world — social distancing, self-isolation, stay home unless you require something essential. The thousands of people who flocked to Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach responded with two fingers stuck in their ears like a toddler and loudly-sung “la la la.”

In the last few days, as people cautiously exited their homes — mask and gloves on — to approach essential grocery shopping, they are met with looks of curiosity and extremity. Overheard in the crowd (in one way or another): “Wow, he’s kitted out.” Why are people so damned glib in the face of one of the most significant challenges to modern civilisation? And why are people unwilling to pivot their behaviour — even slightly — when a viral plague could result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people?

Film Criticism - Australian Cinema

Australian stories have a thematic constant. While they don’t necessarily engage the founding and British occupation of the country directly, it’s impossible not to be haunted by the profound ambivalence of our origin. The invasion of this continent by military colonisers, and their colonial prisoners in 1788, is a fracture that First Nations people are only now permitted to challenge meaningfully. Australian society functions on the tightly-knitted veil of civility weaved over false ownership, abridged history and a genocidal cataclysm for indigenous culture.

A defining feature for the period known as the Australian New Wave in the 1970s is this gesture of searching — probing at the edges of the foundation myths of our new nation and being haunted. Since that time, Australian cinema has been mainly defined by the end times. Canonical texts express proximity to the apocalypse that essentially define it. Our strange national identity is revealed in how our filmmakers engage with the concepts our flimsy society drives us toward: surviving in a state of collapse.

Released in 1971, Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout takes a white family occupying the thriving, middle-class suburban sprawl of Australia’s coastline for an inland excursion. This trip defies time and space. It’s a trip around the block, through the reflective beacon of the ocean-adjacent city that magically traverses hundreds of kilometres. This trip is a father’s malaise manifested. Driving into the maddening expanse of the Australian outback, the father attempts to extinguish the lives of his family before taking his own life. In a catatonic frenzy, he’s consumed by the flaming wreck of a car (in self-isolation no less). His failure drives his young daughter and son into the wilderness, where they’re guided by a young indigenous man on his “walkabout” (right of passage). Roeg engages with the magisterial natural existence, a salve for the empty order and structure that haunts the furnace in the centre of the country. These fearless innocents are neither intimidated with their engagement with indigenous people — in this case, the young man’s right of passage that involves contending with children born in this country to deeply-tainted European parents — nor the wild natural heart of the country.

By 1977, Peter Weir’s The Last Wave brings the ghosts of the indigenous past from their entanglement to the wilderness (outback) into a subterranean spiritual presence starting to interfere with reality, like smoke leaking through the crack of a door. The presence of this past begins with a whisper and climaxes with a roar. Richard Chamberlain plays David Burton, a Sydney lawyer defending five indigenous defendants charged for a ritualised murder. Chamberlain, the American film actor turned renowned Shakespearean stage performer, has that new outsider quality that isn’t conditioned to relegate this discontent out of his mind. In the process of his investigation, he starts to see visions of an impending disaster, a consequence where the shiny modernity straddles the burial ground of hundreds of thousands of First Nations peoples. The mystical result: a tsunami to wipe the affronting civilisation from the map. Burton is not saved, but rather a nightwatchman standing on the shores of impending doom with a strange peace.

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Australian Cinema - The Last Wave

In 1979, Dr. George Miller’s seminal Mad Max accepted the doom of a text like The Last Wave, but formulated a projection of society on the ragged edge of extinction. The three subsequent sequels, beginning with Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior in 1981, survive beyond the inevitable collapse. In the wasteland, the world has regressed to solely trade in elemental things — water, fertile soil, agriculture and gasoline. In Mad Max 2, a fortified structure emerges in the desert around a vain of oil and swarming leather-bound locusts; a cult of conquest demands their discovery. Despite the seeming inevitability of Lord Humungus’ horde of leather-bound biker Vikings continuing their ongoing pillage of the remaining villages, one reluctant “interceptor” — a harbinger of justice — is compelled to help. Over the past five decades, Miller’s Mad Max films have had a profound impact, aesthetically and technically, on conceptions about the last gasps of humanity.

In 2013, the same year as The Rover, Zak Hilditch released These Final Hours, perhaps the bleakest impression of the apocalypse in Australian cinema to date. Unlike the sense of right that one can feel with the restoration of order in The Last Wave, or the sliver of hope and justice in the wasteland personified by Max the Road Warrior, all is lost. These Final Hours captures a photograph of contemporary time — and thanks to a cataclysmic asteroidal collision, the earth is consumed by a global tsunami of fire and magma. The positioning of the collision means that suburban Western Australian is the lucky last to exist on this rock tumbling through space and time.

Nathan Phillips, best known for Wolf Creek, plays James. He is torn between sharing his remaining hours on earth with the woman he loves and attempting obligatory final rounds with family and friends. The projection of societal collapse in These Final Hours is stomach-turning — planned family suicides, gangs of deviants exercising murder and rape fantasies with a variety of victims; gated drug-addled parties with an incredible assortment of deranged and deluded peoples medicating the impending fiery death. It may have seemed foolish and obvious at the time of release: why would you want to risk the base elements of society knowing there were no consequences for their actions for human contact? Now, in the age of COVID-19, for people starved of physical connection, maybe it’s worth the risk.

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Australian Cinema  - These Final Hours

Then there’s Guy Pearce in The Rover, sitting at a bar, contrasted by a powder keg of a heist crew amid a fight in their escape vehicle. When the conflict reaches its peak, their truck is sent tumbling down sweltering bitumen. The cocktail of glass and debris transitions to the unmistakable weathered profile of Pearce in front of the establishment’s window. While the flurry of metal and bodies rotate like dirty clothes in a washing machine, there he sits, this survivor, this wasteland strider, like a statue as a wave of metal crashes beside him. He does not flinch. The store owner stands, nursing a pump-action shotgun to inspect the fallout. Pearce’s silent man inspects the remnants of his glass.

Uncompromising visions, immovable in the face of a constant monolith of our guilt. A society run by cops since its modern formation, paralysed by a cavalier institutionalisation. Justice, humanity, fearlessness and compassion in the face of doom. In Australia, our cinematic art has been trying to shake us from apathy for 50 years.

Blake Howard (@oneblakeminute) is a film critic and the host of the sprawling long form critical analysis, the One Heat Minute podcast. He is also the founding editor of the film blog Graffiti With Punctuation, where his writing has appeared since 2012.