Film

Alien invasion sci-fi has a strong Australian connection. So it’s a shame that Occupation: Rainfall – a local indie blockbuster that does a lot on a tight budget – is let down by poor screenwriting. By Claire G. Coleman.

Occupation: Rainfall

Dena Kaplan as Robin Sigiro.
Credit: Occupation Two Productions

My research into the history of Australia and the brutality of colonisation has taught me many things. One of them is that making alien invasion science fiction movies in Australia simply makes sense.

It’s possible to pin down with near absolute certainty the moment that the “alien invasion” genre and its attendant tropes began. H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds isn’t the first novel of alien invasion – there were certainly a couple of others – but it was the first to be widely read. Many things that define the genre were first used in this story, including the “aliens have rendered their planet unliveable and thus want ours” trope that drives the action in Occupation: Rainfall, an Australian-made sci-fi that was released in cinemas at the end of January.

Following Occupation (2018), the film opens with humanity suffering losses against the invading aliens. Survivors are hidden in Sydney, living underground. As an assault team attempts to rescue refugees under the cover of an air assault, a small group communicates with alien traitors for intelligence.

After an evacuation under fire the protagonists split up, one group travelling with the refugees and a smaller group searching for “Rainfall” – something the alien traitors think is important – with the aid of an alien traitor they nickname “Gary”. Whatever Rainfall is, it seems that an elite unit of alien super soldiers named the Kali is also looking for it.

The protagonists know nothing of Rainfall except that it’s important to their enemies, so the quest to discover what this thing is and gain control of it seems pivotal to human survival. The rest of the action takes place in a military base in the Blue Mountains, where the remains of the armed forces and the last Sydney refugees are sheltering.

In his introduction to The War of the Worlds, Wells explained to readers that his inspiration for the alien invasion was the colonisation of Australia, particularly the invasion and colonisation of Tasmania by the British, despite resistance from Palawa (First Nations Tasmanian) people. It was neither fate nor innate superiority that led to the British conquest, he believed, but superiority of arms. He demonstrated his theory – incidentally the same theory espoused by Jared Diamond in his excellent nonfiction book Guns, Germs, and Steel – by imagining a militarily stronger force from another planet landing in his own homeland.

In the process, Wells invented several concepts that would become mainstays of the genre and inspire scientists: flying machines, mechanised warfare and, particularly, chemical and energy weapons. His “heat ray” was one of the first energy weapons in fiction, predating lasers and the discovery of radiation. There is little doubt that the mainstays of the genre were invented by Wells; without The War of the Worlds, we might never have had sci-fi action as we now recognise it.

This positions Australia as the spiritual home of the alien invasion genre. What’s surprising is not so much that an indie blockbuster action film such as Occupation: Rainfall has been made, but that so few are –Australians should understand the genre better than most.

Either intentionally or subconsciously, because the director–writer Luke Sparke is Australian, this movie is fuelled by a strong awareness of what it means when better-armed foreigners arrive and decide to stay. This is what my own people experienced; the lives and suffering of Aboriginal Australians are inextricably embedded in the stories of invasion movies.

The cast is properly multicultural, as we might expect from an Australian film, and racism against the aliens – called “Greys” – is prevalent. Many of the apparent heroes – members of the military and small-town tough guys alike – are genocidally hateful towards the aliens, even those who are risking their own lives to stand with humans against the invasion. Most characters in Occupation: Rainfall are genre archetypes, and the actors perform adequately within those limited constraints.

Unfortunately for an Australian movie that uses tropes developed from the history of the colony, the addition of Mark Coles Smith playing the soldier Wessex – as far as I am aware, the only Aboriginal member of the cast – feels tokenistic. Wessex has no real bearing on events: he mostly just holds the line against both the aliens and the genocidal fellow humans while others try to save humanity. Although it’s a speaking role, you could perhaps replace him with an extra and nobody would notice.

Despite this, Coles Smith provides one of the best performances in the film. It’s a shame he was not better used.

Fans of epic, violent sci-fi filled to the brim with the “pew pew” of laser battles and flashy explosions will enjoy Occupation: Rainfall. I love sci-fi and much of my writing involves the fusion of science fiction and literary writing, so I can appreciate its merits. Sci-fi films serve many purposes: sometimes I just want a special-effects action movie and this movie achieves that aim. The action sequences, chases and firearms battles with lasers and projectile weapons are well produced and striking. The special effects, CGI and camera work are visually powerful and effective, especially considering the $25 million budget.

For all Occupation: Rainfall’s strengths, a flimsy script and characterisations so tissue-thin they are transparent let this movie down. For example, the consequences of genocidal imaginings in Occupation: Rainfall are not ironic or karmic in any way, and are woefully mundane. There is little opportunity within the story for the characters to change or to grow; the characters who hate the “Greys” never learn the error of their ways. Only one character shows recognisable change.

As the film was written by the director, improving the script would have been a budget-friendly way to make a better movie.

The ending of Occupation: Rainfall leaves little doubt that a sequel is on the way. There was little hope for humanity at the beginning of the film and not much of that remains by the end. If you like your sci-fi chock-full of laser battles, hand-to-hand brawling, fighter planes shooting at spaceships and bipedal aliens, you may like this movie; if instead your taste for sci-fi extends towards plot, acting and the shock of the new, this may not be the movie for you.

In the end, what seems most important is that Occupation: Rainfall was made at all. I admire the audacity of the director and producers in making an epic sci-fi film in the “blockbuster” style with a relatively small budget, and I hope it inspires more. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Invasion day".

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Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar author whose debut novel, Terra Nullius, was long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize. Her second novel is The Old Lie.