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There is a genre of sci-fi movies that prioritises a resourceful kind of deception: tricking the audience with high-end looks manufactured from low budgets. Australian films entering this canon includes the 2015 outer-space psychological thriller Infini (which cost about $5m), the 2015 drama Arrowhead – about a man on a far-flung moon who talks to a robot voiced by Shaun Micallef (about $200,000) – and the 2018 invasion flick Occupation (about $6m), in which descending aliens do the unconscionably un-Australian thing and interrupt a footy match.
The visual effects supervisor-cum-writer/director Seth Larney’s time travel sci-fi 2067 (the opening-night film at this year’s Adelaide film festival) joins the fold, presenting a devastated future world in which the climate crisis has caused, among other things, a dangerous shortage of oxygen. A message is relayed from the future, from unknown parties, requesting that a blue-collar worker, Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee), be shot forward in time using what looks like a preposterously large industrial fan.
Larney depicts a dystopian society with a touch of steampunk aesthetic that calls to mind Blade Runner, as well as a lusher, greener, more remote setting, contrasting societal decay alongside re-emergence of nature – like in the video game series The Last of Us. Commendably, the director manages to craft a sense of largesse from only a handful of locations.
I’m dubious of this “big look on small change” genre in general. The problem is that Hollywood studios will always be able to make movies that are bigger, more spectacular and more stuffed with SFX. Indie film-makers who primarily seek to impress along these lines enter a situation in which the odds are stacked against them – they’re bringing a knife to a gunfight. It’s a different situation if their aesthetic aspiration is balanced with a good script, particularly one that takes the kinds of risks studio movies avoid. Cheap but effective sci-fi films of this ilk include two from 2018: the US film Prospect and the writer/director Leigh Whannell’s outstanding Upgrade (made for about $5m).
Larney’s innovations are technical; it’s hard to envision anybody congratulating him for a script riddled with hackneyed turns of phrase such as, “Do you really believe I’m going to save the world?” and, “You may be humanity’s only chance.” That last line is delivered to Ethan by the great Deborah Mailman, playing the chief technology officer of a company called Chronicorp. Wearing a silvery white wig and corporate futuristic attire, she sounds bizarrely robotic, as if reading from an instruction manual. She informs the protagonist of a message relayed from the future, which simply reads “SEND ETHAN WHYTE.”
Ethan umms and ahhs, delaying the inevitable. The director packs in extra motivation in the form of a sick wife, which leads to more iffy dialogue – for example, “You may be your wife’s only chance.” The big question is where Ethan is going and how his actions can affect the fate of the world.
If Larney is aware of how silly his material is, he doesn’t show it. Even when the story swirls around in preposterous B-movie territory, everybody maintains a poker face – including and especially Smit-McPhee, who seems stretched beyond his capabilities with this distraught performance. As his best friend, Jude, Ryan Kwanten impresses no more, projecting a flat form of masculinity: gruff and tough – not much deeper than caricature.
2067’s script trades in the messianic archetype, with its message that a “chosen one” will emerge to save humankind from catastrophe, while the rest of us follow like lemmings. The message here is similar to the kind presented in most superhero movies as well as in the marketing of real-world politicians (as explored in this excellent 2018 essay that explores the connection between caped crusaders and “the guiding myth of neoliberalism”).
If you’re thinking “don’t take a silly movie so seriously” – well, sure, but you can tell a lot about cultures by the kinds of narratives they embrace. Part of the problem here is that Larney takes the messages of his own movie very seriously, among other things warning us to heed the dangers of the climate crisis while simultaneously suggesting that one person and a bit of blind luck is our way out of it. “All good art is political,” the author Toni Morrison famously noted. A great deal of not-so-good art is political too; this film explicitly so.
In narrative terms, long-entrenched paradigms such as Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” continue to be highly influential. But dusting off classic models and merging them with more politically conscientious ways of thinking doesn’t have to lead to boring or bland outcomes. Quite the opposite. For a great example of how collective activism can make electrifying entertainment, consult the brilliant Netflix series Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
The most impressive aspects of 2067 are aesthetic and atmospheric. Audiences are likely to recall the film in sets and moments: the clashing Christmas colours lighting up in splotches of red and green visions of dirty dystopian streets near the beginning, painting a seedy-looking metropolis I would have liked to explore more.
If all the money in the world is no guarantee of a good story, all the technical innovations – the dressing of sets, the creation of effects, the careful management of what is in and out of the frame – is of course no guarantee of one either.
• 2067 premiered at the opening night of Adelaide film festival on Wednesday
Source: The Guardian
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