Skip to content

UNDER THE RADAR – Spirits Of The Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds and Franklyn

July 27, 2012

Little film gems which escaped wide attention and perhaps yours too.

by greg moss

Under The Radar is a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.

This week –

A couple of debut features from two first-time directors. And yes, OMG! – one of them is AUSTRALIAN – quick, somebody stop me!


First up …


Written and directed by Alex Proyas (The CrowDark CityI Robot). It stars Michael Lake, Rhys Davis and ‘The Norm’.

Felix, a wheelchair-bound inventor, lives with his religion-obsessed sister in a barren future wasteland. Felix’s dream of building a flying machine to escape the desert appears a step closer when a fugitive stranger arrives.

Why it’s worth seeing:

After a successful stint in directing music videos and high-end TV commercials, Alex Proyas’ debut feature Spirits Of The Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds never received a proper theatrical release and has pretty much slipped into obscurity.

Having been an admirer of Proyas since seeing his 1981 student short Strange Residues (at the time it received a cinema release – back when shorts supported main features) I was later lucky enough to be one of the few to see Spirits Of The Air on the big screen, as part of the AFI award screenings in 1988 (the year Vincent Ward’s The Navigator took out all the major prizes).

As an aside, it only just struck me while watching it again recently – the parallels between Spirits Of The Air and Vincent Ward’s first dramatic feature Vigil, as they are both tales set in remote locations where a stranger’s arrival upsets the status quo.

An oft-used classic theme, I guess.

Spirits is a fable set in some distant future, after an unspecified cataclysm has befallen humanity.

Felix (Lake) is the wheelchair-bound inventor, whose dreams of flying upset his sister Betty (Davis). Betty is somewhat unhinged herself, a result of her upbringing by their puritanical, recently deceased father. Actress Rhys Davis steals whole scenes as Betty, with her bizarrely hysterical but oddly convincing performance – think Isabelle Adjani in Possession and ramp that up to eleven.

When the fugitive Smith arrives (played by actor ‘The Norm’) and he is persuaded by Felix to help him build his Da Vincian flying machine, Betty becomes deluded into believing Smith is a demon come to take her brother away. Threatening to derail Felix and Smith’s attempts at flight – she, in effect becomes the antagonist in this story. Tension is further elevated with the realisation there is a posse of trackers on Smith’s tail and they will arrive within days. Will Felix and Smith succeed in building the flying machine before the posse gets there or will Betty do something REALLY crazy?

As Proyas has been the first to admit, the film is not without its flaws –

Michael Lake’s performance as Felix is unconvincing at times and the tone wavers here and there – perhaps the integration of humour could have been a little less jarring than it is (Proyas was later more successful in balancing pathos and humour in Garage Days).

But the positive aspects far outweigh the negatives.

The production design by Sean Callinan, with its ‘found objects as art’ visual aesthetic (something you might find in a music video – as opposed to any film I can think of) gives Spirits an oddly cohesive sense of surrealism which is entirely unique.

David Knaus’ lensing gives the big blue skies and red earth a definite Australian yet otherworldly feel, which recalls nothing less than Razorback (also shot near Broken Hill) in the way it presents the Australian landscape in a highly-stylized, almost alien manner.

Peter Miller’s atmospheric score (particularly the lilting lullaby theme which runs throughout the film) is effective in enhancing the dream-like feel of the piece.

Although not even close to being Alex Proyas’ master work (Dark City has that distinction) Spirits Of The Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds is a fascinating signpost to where the filmmaker would take both his visual and story-telling aesthetics.

Next up …


Debut feature written and directed by Gerald McMorrow. It stars Ryan Phillipe, Sam Riley, Eva Green and Bernard Hill.

The lives of four seemingly unconnected characters living in contempory London converge with a vision of a parallel future world in which a masked vigilante seeks retribution.

Why it’s worth seeing:

Perhaps the most authentic first-person portrayal of schizophrenia ever put on film, although the illness itself is never mentioned, Franklyn is essentially an extremely clever psychological puzzle movie in the tradition of Dark CityLost HighwayThe FountainJacob’s Ladder and perhaps even Donnie Darko.

Although on first viewing, it is easy (normal even) to feel frustrated during the first half of Franklyn – being left in the dark about how the future London sequences relate to the contempory London story strands, just sit back and let it unfold – as everything becomes clear by the mid-point, leading to a poignant and wholly satisfying pay-off at the end.

It’s one of those films you can’t explain too much without giving it away, as part of the joy in watching a good puzzle movie – is watching how cleverly it unfolds.

One for those willing to put their trust in a talented first-time filmmaker who clearly knows what they’re doing.

And it’s always great to see Bernard Hill in something.

Highly recommended.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

From → under the radar

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: