Dan Ewing, Temuera Morrison, Stephany Jacobsen, Charles Terrier, Rhiannon Fish, Felix Williamson, Zachary Garred
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Approached from the right angle, and with the correct appreciation for the Ozploitation genre, it’s a bloody good time.
Most of the buzz around Occupation, the second film from emerging genre specialist Luke Sparke (Red Billabong) has been built around the notion of “Independence Day meets Red Dawn, but ‘Straya” and, by gum, that’s exactly what you get. Sparke’s opus sees a mixed bag of characters, including Dan Ewing’s former footy star, Matt; Temuera Morrison’s ex-crim turned family man, Peter; Rhiannon Fish’s pregnant (uh oh!) nurse, Vanessa; and Zachary Garred as the world’s most good looking homeless bum, Dennis, head for the bush after their bucolic country town is all but razed when aliens attack during the local footy match (sacrilege!).
Holing up in an abandoned sawmill, our diverse group, which also includes Stephany Jacobsen as Matt’s law student girlfriend, Amelia; Charlies Terrier as his footy field rival, Jackson; Felix Williamson as acerbic and cowardly local radio DJ, Seth; Charles Mesure as professional Good Bloke, Albert, and more, resolve to start waging a guerrilla campaign against the occupying aliens, because what else can you do?
From there, as promised, we go into full Red Dawn mode, with black-armoured alien infantry subbing in for dirty Commies, as Matt and co. – who never get around to shouting their footy team name “Drop Bears!” the way Charlie Sheen and the gang yelled “Wolverines!” back in the day – strike back at the invaders, who have turned the town into a labour camp. Laser guns are repurposed, ambushes are laid, daring raids are carried out, prisoners rescued – you know the drill.
For the first half hour or so, Occupation looks like it’s going to be one for the books. Sparke, who also wrote the script, sketches out his large cast and their relationships deftly before bringing the hammer down with a bravura alien assault sequence that sees extraterrestrial fighter craft strafing the footy field while alien troopers march out of the croplands, blasters a-blasting. The director demonstrates a flare for staging dynamic action and a gift for framing iconic hero shots that puts him squarely on the Tony Scott-Michael Bay filmmaking axis. When bullets and lasers are flying (frying?), explosions are exploding and the air is filled with sparks and smoke, Occupation is The Business.
Unfortunately, The Business doesn’t last that long and it’s in the quiet moments that the film falters and trips as it descends into soap opera territory. The crime here isn’t that the characters are simply drawn and their motivations fairly uncomplicated, it’s that a) there’s just a bit too much going on (three romances, one love triangle, a couple of inter-generational squabbles, and a few ideological clashes to boot) and b) Sparke, both as a writer and director, seems ill at ease with the more emotional story beats, defaulting to slathering on the slo-mo when he’s tasked with imbuing the proceedings with some pathos.
Things pick up again when the army, under the command of Jacqueline McKenzie, turn up to recruit our partisans for the usual last-ditch assault on the villains. However, Occupation gets marks for not taking the most simplistic “kill ’em all” approach to the situation, instead drawing parallels with European colonialism; Jacobsen’s character recognises that the vastly technologically superior aliens aren’t going anywhere soon, and at some point the humans will need to negotiate with them in order to win a lasting peace – a level of complexity above what we normally get in this sort of thing. Still, Sparke doesn’t let that get in the way of the action-packed climax we’ve all signed on for, and in the final stretch, Occupation does precisely what it sets out to do.
Taken as a whole, though, the film is a mixed bag. Decent action, impressive effects and production design (there are times when the film feels huge), and a gutsy, none-more-Aussie larrikin spirit are counterbalanced by cheesy, leaden dialogue, an unconvincing emotional tone, and more than a few logical and tactical head-scratchers (if nothing else, the aliens need a crash course in small unit infantry doctrine – perhaps then they’ll stop just marching balefully into machine gun fire). It’s also a clear victim of overindulgence in the editing room – 20 minutes shorter and cut with an eye towards rising action, and it could have been a cracker.
Indeed, it very nearly is. Still, A for effort – Occupation stands alone because the Australian industry has pretty much given up on trying to make this kind of movie at all, and the fact that Sparke and his team have done so independently is unarguably commendable. Approached from the right angle, and with the correct appreciation for the Ozploitation genre, its merits and deficiencies, it’s a bloody good time, and there’s a sequel already in the works. Occupation is decent – with a little course correction, Occupation 2 could be an absolute ripper.