Monday 24 March 2014

Roman's Ark (2011)

Director: Seth Larney
Stars: Damon Gameau, Robin McLeavy and Ingrid Kleinig
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Roman's Ark wrapped up a strong set of four long post-apocalyptic shorts at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2011, where it took a different approach to the subgenre to the movies that went before it. The commonality shared by Earthship, The Island, Picture Show at the End of the World and Roman's Ark is that civilisation had already fallen before the opening credits ran, the reason behind the calamity is left unexplained and the characters to which we're introduced have already come to terms with it. Where Roman's Ark stands unique is with the prescience of its lead and its choice of timeframe. Instead of characters who found ways to survive in a reactive fashion, a Russian scientist called Roman, foresaw the end of the world and proactively prepared to survive it, outwait radiation through cryosleep and thus live on to the point where he could help the world heal and begin afresh. If mankind can reach the point where it destroys itself, the least Roman can do is provide an undo button.
We're never told quite how much time has passed from the holocaust to the beginning of the film, but it's long enough for Roman's muscles to have atrophied a little from his sleep within a nutrient tank of green liquid and, as we soon discover, this awakening is not the first. Once ready, he emerges from his secure underground bunker to face a stark desert world, as captured perfectly by the astounding dry lakes of Mungo National Park in New South Wales, Australia. We see the tops of lampposts, otherwise buried in sand, leading up to broken skyscrapers. Memorably, there's a boat on top of a cliff, suggesting just how violent the devastation must have been to sear our planet dry. He takes a sample of dirt in a little glass vial and takes it back to the lab in his bunker to test, but the chemical he uses turns the soil red, as we clearly see it did on each prior trip. We don't know how many he's made, as the vials extend off screen, but he's been a busy botanist. With nothing on the radio, it's back into the tank for Roman.
Thus far it's been eight minutes and it's only when a song kicks in to accompany his descent back into suspended animation that we realise that they were entirely without human voice. Damon Gameau is believable as this driven scientist, the only human being we've seen thus far except for his wife, who occupied a neighbouring tank and didn't make it, but the idea and the scenery carried us on their own. Then Jonathan Samiec, who co-wrote the original story with Troy Darben and adapted it into a script, decides to hit us with tension, an impressive feat given that we're at the end of the world with only a single character. 140 years later, an emergency alarm causes Roman to burst out of his tank and stab himself in the heart with some sort of medication. Something has clearly gone horribly wrong and life support has gone offline, along with much of the power. This time, however, Roman is not alone when he leaves the bunker to obtain his soil sample. To say any more would constitute a spoiler.
Roman's Ark is a substantial and mature film that deserves a lot more attention that it appears to have garnered, perhaps because 25 minutes is a tough length to sell to film festivals. It played a diverse set of them in 2011 and 2012, the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival being the first, but only picked up one award at the St Kilda Film Festival for its sound. That's surprising, because it's a picture to stay with the viewer. It certainly stayed with me over three years and, revisiting this set of post-apocalyptic shorts, I realise that it wraps it up with a touch of class. It's the obvious choice to finish up a selection of short films or even a festival, because its wonderful ending is precisely the sort of uplifting experience that stays with filmgoers as they leave the theatre. However pessimistic the film's initial concept might seem, and it does posit the near extinction of the human race which is almost as pessimistic as it gets, it not only doesn't get us down, it leaves us with a strong abiding hope.
It's also refreshing to discover that the film and the strong ecological message that it carries, also has a strong connection to the land it features so strongly. Elders of the Ngyiampaa and Paakantyi aboriginal tribes of Australia 'generously invited, welcomed and nurtured' the production, as well as providing the striking extras that we see in the radioactive wasteland. The ties that both tribes have to Lake Mungo and what is now the national park surrounding it date back over 40,000 years, a timeframe that dwarfs the ambitious one visualised in Roman's Ark. Their presence in the project, a rare dramatic one to shoot in this area, grounds it in history and anchors its journey into the future. What those tribes have seen in these lands over the millennia is the sort of conjecture usually reserved for science fiction, making it all the more appropriate that Chaotic Pictures made and fostered those connections. Ignore the mushroom cloud shot, which is a frustratingly clich├ęd moment; the rest of the film deserves to be seen.

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