Director: Brian Hannant
Stars: Tom Burlinson, Nikki Coghill, Dean Stockwell, Carrie Fisher
First viewing, via DVD
Earlier this week I read that Ian McKellen cried a little while filming a scene on The Hobbit when forced to act alongside photos on a green screen stage rather than other actors, who were filmed separately and incorporated digitally in post-production. Reading that piece and reflecting on the past few months of money misspent at the multiplex seeing films best described as digital minestrone soups – X-Men: Apocalypse, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence – made me unexpectedly receptive to the celluloid tactility of The Time Guardian. I don’t think it’s a great film by any means, but it’s unquestionably a film, with actors and sets and stunts and some grounding in rudimentary physics.
During the 1980s, tax incentives made financing Australian films more attractive to investors, resulting in some heavily Americanized, commercially overt hybrid offerings, like the Indiana Jones-esque Sky Pirates (dubbed by producer John Lamond “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Crap”) and The Return of Captain Invincible, a superhero musical comedy starring Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee. The Time Guardian, as Australia’s first moderately budgeted science-fiction action film, is cut from the same cloth. This shouldn’t be surprising; the film was produced by Antony Ginnane, long a champion of transatlantic-minded, culturally-unspecific genre fare (see Harlequin, Turkey Shoot etc) and funded in large part by Hemdale, the British company behind The Terminator (and clearly wanting more of that Terminator money). But to its credit the film, made at and near Hendon Studios in South Australia, acknowledges and incorporates its Australian origins.
The film opens in the year 4039, in a future Earth ravaged by robots. One city remains thanks to time travel technology which enabled it to evade invasion; however, the robotic threat has returned to menace the populace, forcing the city to travel through time again. As a result of a tactical error, two of the city’s premier protectors, Ballard (Tom Burlinson) and Petra (Carrie Fisher), must travel back to the year 1988 to carry out some geological troubleshooting to ensure a safe landing for the city in the future.
Time and/or interdimensional travel to past/present day Earth was a popular plot device in 1980s science fiction films: see the aforementioned The Terminator, along with Back to the Future, Masters of the Universe, Somewhere in Time, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (and its co-author’s earlier charmer, 1979’s Time After Time). Consequently, it’s not too surprising that an Australian science-fiction film would also adopt this formula, especially given the financial advantages of spending a good chunk of screentime in recognizable, less costly locales. In the case of The Time Guardian, much of the past/present day action occurs in and around a small outback town where geologist Anne (Nikki Coghill) encounters the time travelling heroes.
Just as the plot treads familiar terrain for 1980s sci-fi fans, so too are the futuristic stretches of the film evocative of other titles from that era. As mentioned earlier, Hemdale produced The Terminator, and that film’s influence can be seen in The Tim Guardian’s time travel plot, its depiction of a future Earth ravaged by machines and human survivors fighting back, and in individual scenes, camerawork, and a moody blue lighting palette that are all evocative of James Cameron’s film. There are also touches of Cameron’s Aliens in the film’s hardware, set and creature design, and musical score. The film is thus a very blatant attempt to graft proven American commercial aesthetics onto an Australian production, although, as mentioned above, to the film’s credit it doesn’t minimise its Australian attributes. The small town and its surrounds that Ballard and Petra travel to are very much Australian locales – Anne even gets harassed by the male townsfolk as per the convention of many 1980s Australian movies (Shame, Razorback, Fair Game) where professional women are harassed by disenfranchised, misogynistic small town men – and the film incorporates some Indigenous content, albeit fleetingly.
Unfortunately, the marriage of American and Australian sensibilities was not so smooth behind the scenes. According to David Stratton’s account of Australian cinema in the 1980s, The Avocado Plantation, the making of The Time Guardian was plagued by difficulties. To name a few: the production was impeded by financial constraints, with its budget of $8 million – whilst biggish for an Australian film – low for such an effects-heavy flick; there was a disconnect between financiers and creatives, with Hemdale boss John Daly bent on imitating Aliens; scripts were rewritten and shooting schedules curbed; and director Brian Hannant, who had earlier considered abandoning the project but was forced to proceed as it was too far underway, eventually parted ways in post-production and likened the making of the film to “watching the Titanic going down” (The Avocado Plantation, p. 281).
Having said that, Hannant did both second unit and first assistant direction on Mad Max 2: The Road Warror as well as co-writing that flick, and he brought his solid genre credentials and low-budget ingenuity to The Time Guardian. There’s often an innate cheapness and chintziness to Australian films posturing as American or transatlantic genre fare, and whilst The Time Guardian never quite shakes off this stigma, it still looks pretty good. And, as suggested earlier, there’s a tactility to the film, to its effects and scenes, that’s largely gone from today’s moviescape: laser guns obviously fire fake lasers, but they’re accompanied by real blasts, real smoke, real sparks and real stunts. As such, there’s a touch of Alka-Seltzer to the film that’s therapeutic after an Australian winter wading through Hollywood’s CGI-coated summer fare.
Despite its retro appeal, the film is hampered by its lead character and casting. Ballard wrestles the prize for “Most Unlikeable Hero in a Film Featured on Down Under Flix” away from Paradise Found’s Paul Gauguin, and much of this is down to tone. Actor Tom Burlinson was best known at the time for starring as or opposite national icons in The Man from Snowy River and Phar Lap; if he’d dived into a billabong near a Coolabah tree, he’d have been voted Australian of the Year. I like Burlinson and I like his work in those films: he plays those roles with the same earnestness and sincerity you see in Mark Hamill in Star Wars or Christopher Reeve in Superman, and he’s clearly working to his strengths. But he’s an ill fit here. Given the character’s a grizzled veteran fighter, and given the film is so evocative of Aliens and The Terminator, a Michael Biehn type or someone of similarly meaty, raspy presence would have been more effective. But when Burlinson seethes and plays up the futuristic hardass, it feels more snide and petulant: imagine if Draco Malfoy did a lot of CrossFit and joined the military.
The rest of the main cast fare better with their functional archetypes, with Nikki Coghill (The Bob Morrison Show forever!) a spunky heroine and the film’s government-sanctioned import cast – Dean Stockwell and Carrie Fisher – bringing international flavour. Stockwell, a year after lip synching Roy Orbison for David Lynch, isn’t in the film a whole lot but is ever the consummate professional. For Fisher, the film was, remarkably, her only science-fiction film between 1983’s Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and she likewise does good work as a burgeoning warrior, despite the indignity of occasionally having to wear this:
In summary: Hampered by behind the scenes issues and an ill-fitting lead performance, The Time Guardian nonetheless has its tactile, retro charms, and is a curious time capsule of local filmmakers attempting – but not quite acing – an international sci-fi production.
Next week: Get starstruck with Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck (1982)