Friday, August 22, 2014

Science Fiction That Isn't Science Fiction (16)

For descendants of European colonists, the Australian Outback is a palimpsest of apocalyptic fable. A place where law and morals fail; a pitiless landscape where ramshackle settlements that need only minimal set-dressing to portray the ruins of civilisation's end. Wake in Fright shows how upright teacher John Grant was undone by a lost weekend in a rough outback mining town; the inhabitants of The Cars That Ate Paris prey on passers-by; a serial killer stalks backpackers in Wolf Creek (2005); lawmen turn bad in The Proposition and Red Hill; and in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Mad Max, a policeman relentlessly chases down the outlaws who killed his family.

Rover invokes something of Mad Max in its day-after-tomorrow end-of-civilisation scenario.  It's ten years after the Collapse. Apart from desultory army patrols, the Outback is as lawless as the mythic Wild West. Petrol, water and bullets command a premium. When a wanderer (Guy Pearce) loses his car to a trio of fleeing bandits, he sets out to get it back by any means necessary. Along the way he picks up Rey (Robert Pattinson), the brother of one of the bandits, who was wounded and left behind, and the unlikely duo carve a bloody path across the desolate landscape as they head towards the bandits' hideout.

Like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, Pearce's wanderer is gruff, efficiently violent and single-minded. He does have a name - Eric - but refuses to give it. He's also sparing about his background, and refuses to explain why the car, an ordinary unblinged sedan, means so much to him; he only opens up to a soldier who briefly detains him, explaining that he killed his unfaithful wife and her lover ten years ago, and has been waiting to be brought to justice ever since. But that's it. The simpleminded Rey is slightly less opaque, a natural-born follower who transfers his loyalty from the brother who abandoned him to Eric (director David Michod's previous film, Animal Kingdom, was also about double-crossing siblings), but the film's premise, set up with great panache, is never really developed.

In the similarly terse film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (directed by another Australian, John Hillcote), the father's guilt at surviving his wife is tempered and given direction and meaning by his need to preserve the life of his son. All Eric wants is his car back, and we never find out why until the very last moments of the film. The existential minimalism of the story-telling is admirable, but its lack of exposition and stubborn refusal to give any insight into Eric and his mission, or into the nature of the bandits' crime, leaves the viewer with a series of tense and violent scenes that don't cohere, and characters that fail to communicate much of significance to each other. It's a pity, because this day-after-tomorrow western looks terrific, the acting is fine, and Antony Partos's score ratchets up the tension even when the story doesn't.
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