Like ‘Independence Day’, but Actually Good: Welcome to the ‘Occupation’

Nobody does the apocalypse quite like the Australians. From the zombie hordes of Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead to the arid super-dystopian wastelands of the Mad Max movies, The Lucky Country seems to have an inherent understanding of what it’s like to face the end of the world as we know it with pluck and determination. In Luke Sparke’s film, Occupation, disaster comes in the form of an invasion by armored tall grey aliens, who obviously didn’t do their research before deciding where to attack.

Everybody knows you don’t mess with Australia.

Occupation is a sprawler of a movie, filling the screen with explosions and intriguing background details, while telling the story of a group of strangers caught in a small rural Australian town when the aliens make their presence known. The power goes out during a charity football game. Spacecraft descend and strafe the playing field with laser fire. Ground forces emerge from the fields, herding the citizens into camps. Amidst the panic and chaos, a few survivors escape into the woods, forming the kernel of a resistance movement.

Getting to know the characters is enjoyable, even if it feels like you’ve met them before. There’s the gruff, overbearing father whose wife and son have been captured by the aliens. He has his daughter with him, but she’s falling in love with (gasp!) an artist. A couple of football players, rivals on the field, must learn how to work together against a common enemy. And what about the pregnant girl? What’s going to happen to her and the baby? If the set-up reminds you of a disaster movie from the 1970’s, you’re not wrong. There’s more than a hint of Irwin Allen here and, if they weren’t dead, one could easily picture Roddy McDowall or Charlton Heston with roles in this movie.

Their individual stories are familiar and melodramatic, but that’s okay. The callbacks to previous movies of this ilk feels intentional. Occupation wears its influences like a black concert t-shirt. There are obvious nods to PredatorStarship Troopers, and even Red Dawn. These respectful nods could be cloying in the hands of less capable filmmakers, but director Sharpe knows when to pull back from the homages and focus on the tale he wants to tell.

It’s Sparke’s restraint that keeps Occupation consistently interesting to watch. We do get a good look at the aliens, including an unrecognizable Bruce Spence as the leader of the invasion force, but we don’t see too much of their technology. While the implication is that the entire planet is being taken over, we only get a look at the ruins of Sydney in the third act. The special effects are spectacular, including a ton of practical effects, but the film doesn’t dwell on them. They exist as part of the larger humanistic story. You might come into this movie to see shit blow up, but you’ll stay to see who makes it through the outer space onslaught.

As Peter, the father separated from half of his family, Temuera Morrison steals the show. He taps into his inner Bob Hoskins here, stomping around the scarred terra, grumbling menacingly under his breath, ready to backhand anyone who gets in his way. He’s a badass, but if there’s a problem with Occupation, it’s that practically everyone in this movie is a badass. None of the characters have any real weaknesses, only foibles. Emotionally connecting with any of the major players is difficult.

The final act takes a few unexpected turns. Even if the final twist seems a bit rushed, the whole movie moves at such a breakneck clip that you won’t notice until later. Clocking in at almost two hours, Occupation never feels padded out; Luke Sparke’s direction is crisp and busy. It wouldn’t surprise me if Hollywood snatches him away from home to direct a horror movie remake because that’s what Hollywood does, right?

In a lot of ways, Occupation is like Independence Day, except Occupation is actually good. It’s more of a gritty war movie than a slick space opera, sticking mostly to ground battles instead of dogfights, and presenting us with characters we like, even if we can’t fully identify with them. Aware enough to realize it is formulaic, but bold enough to tweak that formula enough to feel fresh and original, Occupation is well worth seeking out.

Occupation enters limited theatrical release and VOD in North America July 20, 2018.

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