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Alex Proyas’ First Feature Wasn’t The Crow

May 23, 2013

The following article is a slightly modified version of a review I posted last year. As my readership has increased markedly over the last several months – I have decided to repost it.

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.

SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS (1988)

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.

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.

While Spirits Of The Air may never receive an official DVD or Blu-ray release – bootleg copies can be easily purchased online.

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

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2 Comments
  1. Only lazy people re-post their own work. Which is why I do it so much 😉

    Excellent write up as always Greg 🙂

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