TL;DR – Occupation is an Aussie take on the Alien Invasion genre, with a fantastic setup and ending, though it does meander a bit in the middle.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
For those who have read my work before you would likely know that I am a big fan of the Science Fiction genre, and one of the types of media that falls under that banner is Alien Invasions. They can be on the small scale like Predator, or on the large scale like Independence Day and X-Com, or that one time with Battleship where it was weirdly mid-scale, that was an odd film. However, the basic premise of all these films is that one day everything is normal, you are going about your day without a care in the world and then everything changes. I really enjoy the Alien Invasion sub-genre, indeed I count Independence Day as one of my favourite films of all time, however, a lot of the recent films have been well disappointing, sorry Independence Day Resurgence (see review). Well, today I take a look at a film that is taking the genre in the right direction with an Aussie twist.
So to set the scene, we open with a long pan across Sydney, up into the hinterlands and land in a small town. It is here where we get to meet everyone, the family escaping the city life but still bringing their baggage with them, the former star footballer that is self-medicating in an attempt to make it back again, the local nurse who just found out that she is pregnant with her first child, the drifter just trying to make a little cash to get through the day, and more. It is a world where everyone is focused on their next blog, who will win the footy, or what the by-pass will do to the town. Well that all changes one evening when in the middle of the local footy derby all the power goes out and explosions are heard coming from the direction of Sydney. Soon lights appear on the horizon heading for the town, perplexed people wonder just what is going on, and then the light open fire and the explosions, screams, and lasers puncture the stillness.
As this is an Alien Invasion film, that means that there will be a lot of action sequences as the aliens invade and the people fight back. Quite often in films, this is the drive to destroy as many notable landmarks as one can, but this is a smaller more intimate film, so it family being ripped apart and chaos in the streets. We see flames explode into the night sky as the pyrotechnics team leave nothing in the barrel, there are dogfights in the sky, skirmishes on the ground, and full-scale ground assaults. On the whole, I think the action worked really well, there is a good sense of geography so you always know where everyone is. The one thing though is that they do overuse the slow-mo moment during battles, which feels more like a cover than an artistic choice.
Now it is clear right from the outset that this film had a really small budget but I was really impressed with just how much they got out of only six million dollars with regards to the production design. They went with practical armour and prosthetics for the aliens or the greys. This gives all the aliens a bit more physicality than if they were digitally created which helps give the action scenes more weight. Throughout the film, we visit a number of makeshift camps, both human and alien, and in every case, the location and set design teams have put a lot of work to make these places feel real and tangible. Add to this the film knows when to go in for that big effects moments and when it doesn’t need to, which means that they get the biggest bang for their buck. One area where the low budget is noticeable is with the musical score which while symphonic in nature, was clearly orchestrated on a computer. What this means is that it is lacking some of the warmth you get with a live orchestra and feels a little more clinical than it was going for. Look I could get more picky here but I am really impressed with just how much they did with so little, but more than that from the credits you see that this is really a family production and I hope this is a springboard to bigger projects. Australia has a history of pulling gems out of this kind of space with films like The Osiris Child (see review) and Upgrade (see review), and I hope there are more to come in the future.
Finally, let’s take a look at Occupation’s story and because we are talking about the story there may be some [SPOILERS] here so if you have not seen the film you may want to proceed with caution. I really liked how everything we set up in the lead up to the invasion. We get a sense of where we are in the country and then watch how everyone gets moved into the one location, the footy match. Now we, the audience, know something is about to happen, so when mobile phone service starts cutting out, or static burst out of radios you feel that tension build even when it is being juxtaposed with slightly ironic setting with ‘save our town’ banner plastered all over the place. Where the film shines is in those moments when you are watching everyone in the crowd look at the lights and you know the shooting is about to start but you don’t know when. Throughout the film we get a kind of Falling Skies meets Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves feel which does make for an interesting setting. There was also some interesting little touches like having one of the characters being pregnant so we get a visual representation of time passing.
Where things don’t quite come together is in the middle of the film, where we spend most of the second act montaging our way through a year of occupation. It is at this point where it feels like maybe this was first planned to be a TV series or at least a mini-series and then squished into a feature-length runtime. What this means is that we only get the most important moments for the film, so, on the one hand, this is a film with no faff to wade through, but on the other hand there is also no connecting tissue, or moments to breath, it is just moving straight from one plot beat to the next. The consequence for that is that the characters don’t really have time to develop, so we are kind of stuck with stereotype roles which limits a lot of the emotional engagement. Thankfully the film shifts gear when the army arrives and Jacqueline McKenzie appears to make everything better, and we move into the final act which works much better cohesively, even if there are some cliché moments.
In the end, do we recommend Occupation? Yes, yes we do. It is an interesting Aussie twist on the Alien Invasion formula, it has some good action set-pieces, and a strong cast. Indeed, I think it will be interesting to see how some of the more Australian aspects like Australian Rules Football (AFL) translate overseas, but maybe it is time that more of the world got on board with aerial Ping-Pong. I mean the local football team are called the drop bears, I mean who couldn’t like that.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Occupation
Directed by – Luke Sparke
Written by – Luke Sparke
Music by – Christopher Elves
Cinematography by – Tony O’Loughlan
Starring – Dan Ewing, Temuera Morrison, Stephanie Jacobsen, Rhiannon Fish, Zachary Garred, Izzy Stevens, Charles Terrier, Charles Mesure, Felix Williamson, Jacqueline McKenzie, Aaron Jeffery, Bruce Spence, Trystan Go, Roy Billing, Ben Chisholm & John Reynolds
Rating – Australia: M; United States: R