Zone 39

(John Tatoulis, Australia, 1997)


In the days before the Mad Max movies, it was fashionable for critics to sneer that Australian filmmakers had no feel for or understanding of genre. Where were our playful, knowing, inventive thrillers, romantic comedies, action movies?

Zone 39 is a woeful film that rekindles such uncharitable, un-Australian thoughts.

As an exercise in science fiction, Zone 39 is not exactly bereft of references to prior classics of the genre. The initial premise of a lone rebel, Leo (Peter Phelps), exiled by a hostile state apparatus, evokes many precedents, especially George Lucas's THX 1138 (1971). Then, as Leo wanders the desert and sits alone in a squalid bunker conversing with the ghostly simulacra of his dead wife Anne (Carolyn Bock) and an earlier victim (David Tredinnick) of a deadly virus, Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) comes quickly to mind.

I am a fan of minimalist art, but this movie is mind-bogglingly threadbare. The fact that it has a tiny budget compared to the blockbusters of the genre is no excuse: just about any current B grade SF movie from the video shop (Circuitry Man 2 [1994], say) has more pizzazz and nous than this.

It is hard to become involved in a story that alternates weak, repetitive scenes of Leo fiddling on a computer or howling to the air with glimpses of three heavies in suits (supposedly the guys who are ruling the world) listlessly arguing with each other.

Writer Deborah Parsons and director John Tatoulis (who did infinitely better work with The Silver Brumby [1993]) try to work in a few standard social comments about media mind-control, racial reconciliation and ecological apocalypse. Such meaningful embellishments (another staple of the SF genre) are sabotaged by laughable attempts at action-drama – as when a bleeding Leo urges his colleague Boas (Bard Byquar) to "stick with" fixing the electric circuitry that has just blown him clear across the room.

Phelps is a fine actor when well directed, but here he faces the same Herculean challenge that Keanu Reeves faced (and failed) in Johnny Mnemonic (1995) – to be alone in the frame for most of the film and pull a melodramatic face whenever a ghost appears, an explosion fires or a revelatory thought occurs to him. It is a thankless part.

Amid the reams of techno-drivel flashed up on computer screens during this plot, I noted the cryptic statistic: "Bore – 7". Unfortunately, on a scale of 10, Zone 39 achieves a boredom rating three points higher than that.

© Adrian Martin May 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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