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The Time Guardian – film review

November 4, 2013

THE TIME GUARDIAN

An undisputed shambolic train wreck gives rise to aussie visual effects.

the time guardian - domed city

Directed by Brian Hannant. Written by John Baxter and Brian Hannant. Starring: Tom Burlinson, Nikki Coghill, Carrie Fisher and Dean Stockwell. Year of release: 1987. Running time: 86 mins.

There was a massive buzz of anticipation here in Australia when The Time Guardian went into production in 1986. It was viewed as an opportunity for the local film industry to shrug off its cottage industry perceptions and show the world we were entirely capable of producing high-tech sci-fi fare as well as anyone. Executive-produced by legendary Ozploitation genre extraordinaire Antony I. Ginnane (Patrick, Turkey Shoot, Screamers) and with the financial backing of British mini-major Hemdale (who had scored a surprise hit two years earlier with The Terminator) – the budget for The Time Guardian was set at $8 million and would mark the feature directing debut of Mad Max 2 co-scripter Brian Hannant. Hannant was inspired     during the production of the Mad Max sequel to pen The Time Guardian after visiting a famous crater-like landmark here in South Australia known as Wilpena Pound         (I guess he felt it was an ideal place to land a time-travelling domed city from the future). The story Hannant conceived with sci-fi author (and noted film biographer) John Baxter concerned a young geologist named Annie who encounters people from the future in the Australian outback, charged with preparing a landing site for their crippled time-travelling city. It was to be a culture clash of sorts, contrasting the sensibilities of contempory locals with those from four thousand years in the future.

There is a term of phrase used here in Australia – ‘a dog’s breakfast’. Literally it means the left-over food scraps you feed to a dog after the family meal from the     night before. Figuratively it refers to something which has been haphazardly put together; something which lacks cohesion. And The Time Guardian is a dog’s breakfast – big time. Actually, it’s more like a banquet.

The continuity of scenes in this film is truly bizarre – indicating major tinkering has occured somewhere along the line. The first indication that something is seriously amiss occurs during a strange sequence early on in the piece which seems to serve no purpose and is never explained. Annie (Nikki Coghill) arrives in the tiny outback town of Midas, just as some kind of weird atmospheric disturbance occurs – a wild wind picks up, clouds speed past overhead and all liquids instantly freeze (including   a character’s pee when he is caught urinating mid-stream). Once the scene ends     and everything returns to normal – no reference is ever made again to these bizarre events. Later when Carrie Fisher and Tom Burlinson arrive (playing advance scouts from the future: Petra and Ballard) – Burlinson says he senses the presence of their sworn enemy the Jen-Diki – however, the Jen-Diki don’t actually arrive until AFTER this scene. Burlinson also says that he figures the Jen-Diki must have followed them back through time by locking onto their signal. But if the Jen-Diki have already arrived before they did – how is this possible? And as I mentioned, we don’t actually see the Jen-Diki arrive until after Petra and Ballard! I suspect the wild weather event seen earlier was originally meant to herald the arrival of the Jen-Diki, so perhaps their actual appearance was reshot to take place at night later on – and someone felt the weather event was too good a scene to discard – so they kept it in, even though it no longer held any relevance to anything. Seriously, you could give yourself an aneurism trying to figure this shit out.

Just while we’re on the Jen-Diki: the film’s chief bad guys appear to be a nod to the classic H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine; being conceived as a subterranean race of mutated humans much like the Morlocks from Wells’ book. The point of difference being; the Jen-Diki are essentially cyborgs (part human, part machine) – with an uncanny resemblance to the character of Davros from Dr Who; being wizened, wrinkly creatures here encased in clunky Japanese-style robotic armor. Mystery surrounding the look of the creatures was generated by the studio during production with the hope of creating anticipation for the film. Words like ‘unique’ and ‘scary’ were bandied about which ultimately made their actual appearance all the more disappointing when the movie opened.

jen-diki from the time guardian

Aside from not being particularly menacing, the Jen-Diki also have the added problem of not having a clear agenda (as far as what they hope to achieve by invading the city). Exactly what are they after? Time travel doesn’t seem to be a factor; as they already possess this ability. And since they are light-sensitive; preferring to reside underground, the city itself wouldn’t hold any appeal as a prospective dwelling.     This issue of not clearly conveying what is to be gained is problematic because it immediately creates a vacuum in terms of generating tension. Since we are unaware as to what exactly there is at stake for the antagonist if they achieve their goal or not – we simply do not end up caring one way or the other – we become disengaged.

jen-diki - the time guardian 1987

The Jen-Diki. What’s with that crazy bird thing on his chest?

Presumably cast for her perceived marquee value as Princess Leia from Star Wars (although by 1986, the space opera boom begun by that film had pretty much run its course) – Carrie Fisher plays a cultural expert on 20th Century customs who is sent back with Tom Burlinson’s character to assure that he blends in with the locals and doesn’t draw undue attention to himself. Tom Burlinson (The Man From Snowy River) is embarrassingly miscast here as lead badass Ballard. He seems to be attempting   a more grizzled version of Michael Biehn’s character from The Terminator – although Burlinson doing grizzled isn’t all that convincing. What was needed for the role was someone like James Remar – someone who naturally exudes badass without having to try. Given so little to do, Fisher comes across as a less snarky version of Princess Leia. The steel breast plate she wears at one point; provocatively moulded to accentuate her significant curves, is clearly an attempt to out-sexy Leia’s slave girl costume in Return Of The Jedi – but merely comes across as kind of sleazy and dumb. And Burlinson’s own dubious midrift-baring get-up does nothing to make his faux macho swagger any more convincing – giving him the appearance of your classic 1980’s metrosexual nancy-boy. American actor Dean Stockwell (Dune, Blue Velvet, Quantum Leap) plays Boss, the leader of the city. But he only appears in two or three scenes in what could easily be described as a cameo. Travelling halfway round the world as he did, Stockwell’s reasoning for accepting the role is a mystery as – aside from barking a few orders – he is (like Fisher) given virtually nothing         to do here.

carrie fisher as petra in the time guardian

Carrie Fisher in her breast plate – get it, breast plate?

The characters of Petra and Ballard were clearly written with the sparring of Han     and Leia in mind, which could have been entertaining if not for the fact that Petra       is wounded in a Jen-Diki ambush upon arrival in the present day and is effectively sidelined; laying prone by a water hole for the remainder of the film (nice work if you can get it). This leaves Ballard to enlist the aid of Annie in procurring a front end loader in order to build a rock pile as a support for the city’s damaged leg when it arrives. It seems most likey this sidelining of Petra was a result of the last minute script-doctoring which occured and not something which was originally intended (shortly before the cameras rolled at the South Australian Film Corporation studios here in Adelaide, Hemdale demanded last minute script changes; hiring an anonymous Hollywood script doctor to carry out reportedly drastic rewrites). This is mere speculation, but some of these script changes may well have been done to allow a romance of sorts to flourish between Ballard and Annie (again aping The Terminator) – leaving the character of Petra with literally nothing to do. There was also another character (ultimately played by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Henry Salter) who reportedly featured more promenantly in the original draft screenplay; a crusty old prospector named Prenzler who Annie befriends and enlists the aid of, whose role in the finished film was so significantly reduced as to be virtually non-existent – indeed appearing only in one or two scenes at the beginning – his role effectively reduced to nothing more than a bit part.

nikki coghill and henry salter in the time guardian

Nikki Coghill with Henry Salter.

Further evidence of tinkering can be found in the scenes involving a couple of crooked cops who suspiciously appear to be modelled on your stereotypical ‘southern small-town redneck sheriff’ – the kind you might find in a Dukes Of Hazzard episode or any number of US television shows from the early eighties. These scenes with the cops (payed by Tim Robertson and Jim Holt) add nothing substantial to the plot and feel suspiciously like padding and seem only included to provide ‘business’ to cut away to (we know these guys are rednecks thanks to the Confederate flag hung proudly next to a portrait of The Queen in their office). In one particularly superfluous scene; the deputy (Holt) becomes strangely enamoured with a Jen-Diki artifact – a broken fragment of their time travel device which still seems to be functioning (despite being hit by a truck) – and he is sucked into it – never to be seen again.     Not only is this scene patently ridiculous, but it has absolutely no connection with anything in the rest of the film! And there is also a telling moment prior to this where the game is given away (as far as revealing a foreign scribe’s hand in the doctoring     of the screenplay). It is a moment where Annie uses the term ‘jackass’ to deride the deputy – an American expression and one you would never hear spoken by an Australian – especially in the aussie outback, which has its own distinctive and     very unique bush vernacular – oops!

tom burlinson as ballard in the time guardian

Tom Burlinson challenges Thye Liew Wan to a manly arm wrestle.

Baxter and Hannant, to be fair, shouldn’t be held accountable for the awful script which was ultimately shot and bares their names. It is difficult to tell whether the incoherent, choppy nature of the film is due to the changes made to their script or the fact that the shooting schedule was also effectively halved from twelve weeks to six. Or perhaps it was a combination of the two. Adding to the production’s escalating woes, Hemdale, who were unhappy with Hannant – attempted to have him removed from the picture and replaced by someone else. In a classic display of aussie loyalty and mateship (qualities which Australians pride ourselves on) – the film’s crew rallied around Hannant, with department heads threatening to follow him out the door if he was replaced. Fearing a full-scale mutiny was highly likely, Hemdale backed down – but had him fired as soon as principal photography wrapped – forcing the film’s editor Andrew Prowse to shoot additional pick-ups with a different crew and edit the picture by himself. As it transpired, Hannant would never direct another picture again – while Prowse successfully forged a career as a director of television drama.

Despite the film’s gargantuan flaws, there are one or two concepts which clearly were part of the original vision which ultimately made it to the screen. The first is the idea that the city has been operating for at least five hundred years and is therefore     kind of run-down – barely able to function amid the neverending breakdowns and malfunctions. The jerry-built aesthetic of the city’s clunky inner workings brings to mind the depiction of Zion in The Matrix trilogy which The Time Guardian predates by at least a decade (production designer George Liddle would go on to do great work on Dark City). The other nifty idea is that the city has appeared in the distant past many times before – as evidenced by a throw-away scene where Annie discovers an Aboriginal rock painting with an image depicting the domed city standing atop its multiple legs. The idea of a city from the future being part of the Aboriginal Dreamtime is an intriguing concept which is casually just tossed away, which is a shame.

the time guardian - rock painting

Prior to The Time Guardian, the only large-scale sci-fi to be shot in Australia was the British production of Roger Christian’s Orwellian sci-fi western 2084 (aka Lorca And The Outlaws). Filmed in the open-cut mines of Western Australia and released in 1984 – this too was another movie with major production issues which also sank without a trace (although it did garner a home video release here as Starship). Filmed in a disused quarry in the Adelaide hills; the battle scenes which bookend The Time Guardian – featuring the Jen-Diki facing off against the humans; with plenty of stunts, lasers and explosions – are quite well done. And the scene where Ballard and Annie break out of jail while under attack from the Jen-Diki is also well-staged and nicely edited. Even the obligatory gas station explosion (a mainstay of 80’s movies) which ends the sequence is spectacularly handled. If there’s one thing to be said about aussie genre films – it is that our stunt work is right up there with the best. Memorable music scores, on the other hand, have never been a particular strength – aside from perhaps Brian May’s scores for Mad Max and Mad Max 2 and Graeme Revell’s score for Dead Calm. The cheesy musical score for The Time Guardian by Allan Zavod (Communion, Howling III: The Marsupials) is unfocused and overbearing and features a cringingly awful end credits song ‘This Time I Know’ with vocals by Angry Anderson. The cinematography by legendary lenser Geoffrey Simpson (Storm Boy, The Year My Voice Broke, Sunday Too Far Away) is gorgeous as always.

The locally-produced visual effects for The Time Guardian had never been seen on such a scale in an Australian film before. They were produced by Sydney-based VFX company Mirage, under the supervision of Andrew Mason – a visionary who was one of the key forces behind the emergence of the Australian visual effects industry in     the 80’s – an industry which flourishes to this day with companies the likes of Animal Logic and Adelaide’s own Rising Sun Pictures providing world class VFX for major Hollywood movies. Although low-key and relatively unspectacular, the VFX for The Time Guardian led to Mason supervising effects for The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, The Crow, Dark City (which he also produced) before ultimately co-executive producing The Matrix and its sequels.

force field - the time guardian

If blame must be levelled at someone for the artistic failure of The Time Guardian – then that blame must be laid squarely on the shoulders of Hemdale. Slashing the budget, scaling back the shooting schedule and meddling in the screenplay all contributed to its failure. As they had previously demonstrated in their refusal to allocate additional marketing for The Terminator once that film had become a major box office smash; Hemdale clearly had no understanding of or appreciation for genre film (so incensed were Cameron and Schwarzenegger over Hemdale’s indifference to their movie in fact; they famously refused to have any future dealings with the studio in developing T2).

It was a shame The Time Guardian ended up being the fiasco it was (earning a paltry A$97, 728 at the Australian box office) – as it was always intended to be the first in   a multi-picture deal which would see more large-scale, internationally-released sci-fi movies produced in this country. Then again, considering Hemdale’s demonstrated lack of vision – perhaps it was just as well this never happened.

2 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

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. Princess Leia is in this?! Lol! No, I’ve never heard of this but it sounds… Badly fun? Or just bad? 🙂

    • gregory moss permalink

      I know, it’s hard for me to believe Princess Leia was actually here in little old Adelaide – but there you go. And is it badly fun – like, bad in a good way? Hmmm … not so sure about that. 🙂

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