Reviews | Written by JR Southall 13/10/2018

SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS

Australian ‘goth’ director Alex Proyas has a distinctive enough style to have acquired a loyal and committed following, for whom this domestic Blu-ray release of his first feature, presented with enough care and attention lavished upon it to ensure that nobody already acquainted with the picture will feel remotely disappointed, will seem like manna from Heaven – although the film itself isn’t exactly of the calibre of The Crow or Dark City.

As seems de rigueur for an Antipodean director (George Miller and Peter Weir having straddled the divide), Proyas’ debut is an isolated and post-apocalyptic black comedy, involving two siblings living alone in the middle of the desert, into whose lives appears a stranger who will apparently irrevocably change their existence before moving on.

Felix Crabtree dreams of escaping via flight, but has been unable, having lost the use of his legs, to build himself the machine he believes will transport himself and his sister to a better life beyond the cliffs to the north. He shares a wooden house with Betty, his even more broken younger sister, who fills the shack with candles, crucifixes and Bibles and spends her days playing mournful tunes on a seemingly homemade musical instrument and tending the grave of their father. There are unanswered questions about this post-apocalyptic existence – where do the candles come from, not to mention the food? – that are perhaps better not asked.

Spirits starts with the arrival of a young stranger, ostensibly on the run from forces unknown, who gives his name only as ‘Smith’ and spends more time smoking cigarettes than talking. Until Felix co-opts him into helping out with the project, that is, which Smith fears will delay his flight from his pursuers, but also hopes will provide a means of escape beyond their ability to catch him up.

Spirits is incredibly beautifully shot – Proyas has an excellent eye for visual composition – and just as memorably scored; Peter Miller’s distinctive compositions have been justly celebrated in the years since this was made. However the three characters are each so eccentrically (if brilliantly) performed and the story so filled with longueurs and non-sequiturs, the first hour is a bit hard-going. When the project gets underway a sense of (ultimately bittersweet) hope is added to the narrative, but the score and pacing could have done with something a little different in the middle to break up the monotony.

That said, for a bunch of young filmmakers decamping to New South Wales to make their first feature, this is incredibly accomplished and the Blu-ray is an aficionado’s dream. The 2k restoration looks improbably crisp and sharp, given the 16mm source, and there are quite extensive catch-up interviews with the actors who played the Crabtrees, along with twenty or so minute’s worth of behind-the-scenes footage from some rather murky old videotapes. Rounded out by a music video based around Miller’s compositions and two worthwhile commentary tracks, this is not a film for everyone but a release that’s certainly worth forking out for.

Extras: two audio commentaries, cast interviews, making of featurette, music video, trailer

SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS / CERT: M (AUSTRALIA) / DIRECTOR: ALEX PROYAS / SCREENPLAY: ALEX PROYAS / STARRING: MICHAEL LAKE, RHYS DAVIS, NORMAN BOYD / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW