The Rover (2014) Directed by David Michod. Written by Michod, from a story by Michod and Joel Edgerton. Starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. 103 minutes.
What, precisely, defines a science fiction movie?
This is not as simple as question as it seems.
Science fiction is, after all, a self-touted literature of ideas, and sometimes what we get when we’re sold a science fiction movie is not a story that hinges of any recognizable ideas, but one that uses the iconography of science fiction to tell a tale that hinges on emotions, that hinges on action, that may in fact be science fiction only because of its use of science fiction props. Some science fiction movies have precious little science fiction in them. They are embraced as science fiction because they pay obeisance to the proper vocabulary and because they seek to welcome in the proper segment of the audience, and we call them science fiction because they flatter us in the proper way.
Sometimes, of course, the reverse is true. Sometimes we, as science fiction fans, fail to recognize off-market science fiction films as specimens of our beloved genre, instead giving our fannish statuettes to stuff that isn’t nearly as good but is much easier to identify.
And then, sometimes, we are faced with material of what we’ll call the lenticular kind, that is science fiction when regarded from one angle, but only slightly, and in such an extraneous manner that its dipping of one toe into the genre well might well go completely missed by audiences on both sides of the genre wall.
In this magazine’s first installment of this feature’s companion column, The Remake Chronicles, we addressed two versions of one story with only the slightest dusting of genre trope: the French-language action film District B-13 and its American remake Brick Mansions, both set in near-future urban dystopias where the poor neighborhoods are hemmed in behind walls. Both versions of the story require this slight conceit, but that conceit is only there so that the moviemakers can package a series of eye-popping action sequences driven by parkour stunts in a ninety minute block driven by as slight an actual story as possible. It’s not hard to imagine an inattentive viewer there just to see all the bone-crushing action completely missing that these movies are, just barely, classifiable as science fiction because of their near-future setting. It’s also not hard to imagine a too-picky viewer with antagonism toward the genre rejecting them on principle because of they possess the whiff, the barely discernable whiff, of speculative content. But really, these movies straddled a line so slight, in their context, that it was almost invisible. They were science fiction movies if you insisted them to be, and mainstream action if that’s what you preferred instead.
Next to this year’s The Rover, now available on home video, they might as well feature swooping spaceships and cute beeping robots.
The movie is set deep in the Australian Outback, ten years after a global economic collapse (we’re informed about by a single line of text). Much of what follows is driven by the realities of a world turned to crap. But if you happen to blink and miss that one line, or if you doze through the occasional dialogue that supports it, or if you simply have trouble understanding Australian accents or for that matter can’t make out what the lead played by Guy Pearce mutters in his most sullen and empty-souled manner, you can be forgiven for utterly missing that the story takes place in “the future” at all. You could just as easily conclude that you’re watching a movie about a bunch of disadvantaged poor people who never get to a town of any population worth speaking of and also don’t own any clothes other than the clearly malodorous outfits they’re wearing.
As further documentation that this speculative fiction is not too speculative, we get a dazzlingly long freight train, which as it passes through the region where all the action takes place, momentarily delays the forward progress of our protagonists — and in so doing establishes that civilization still exists, despite all the talk of a world turned to crap. We also get a brief visit by a squad of uniformed soldiers, whose top-kick references a civilian justice system still active in Sidney. And money is still a thing, even if Australian currency, in particular, is toilet paper. So if this takes place in a universe anything like The Road Warrior (another film that, despite its popular classification as science fiction, possesses precious little in the way of science fiction), it’s very early in the devolution of its society. This is a world where, if you drive far enough, you will be able to find access to a shower.
But then we’re forced back to that single line of text, “ten years after the collapse,” and that brings us back to the problem of definition. The sneaky question is whether the movie is playing a game with you there. After all, there was a worldwide economic meltdown, not apocalyptic but certainly disastrous, in 2008; is it possible that what we’re watching is actually contemporary, and the violent events of the film set among the poorest of the poor in Australia, among folks who have not felt any recovery, if things get just a little bit worse? Could the movie possibly be up to something that subversive?
Honestly, who knows?
Either way, the film is no crowd-pleaser, and it’s easy to imagine many of you hating it. The action sequences are slight, the violence restricted to short and decisive bursts, the stakes so miniscule they’re downright petty, the dramatics punctuated by long pauses and long reaction shots. The protagonist is a sullen piece of crap who in the pursuit of his goal outright murders people who have done nothing to threaten him, and has no problem with brutalizing others. He goes to ridiculous lengths to address a wrong that really doesn’t outweigh the damage he does tracking down the perpetrators. And yet it does all hang together, at the end. This is a movie where the protagonist’s motivation does ultimately come to matter, where the explanation for everything he’s done is ultimately provided to those with the patience to make it all the way to the payoff.
Of the plot we’ll give you this. We first meet Eric (a weather-beaten Guy Pearce, decades removed from his fresh-faced prodigy cop in L.A Confidential), sitting in his car, where he’s just pulled up to a desert trading post. He sits, and sits, and sits. The shot is held for what feels like a full minute. It teaches us first that this will not be a movie for people with blinkered attention spans. It tells us second that this is a profoundly weary man at one of the lowest crossroads of his existence, imprisoned in whatever hell he’s constructed inside his own head. We don’t now know the specifics. At this point we don’t know whether the movie will ever deign to tell us. But he is certainly not the happiest of all men, and his immobility documents that he is not looking forward to doing the next thing, whatever that next thing will turn out to be.
After some time he gets out of the car and enters the trading post, where he gets himself a drink and sits by the window, mentally lost in the same place he was before he entered. In the background another car careens past the window in a massive rollover, caused by an angry tussle between driver and passengers. They all survive the crash, but they are carrying a fortune in stolen money and they are so eager to get away that they assume their own vehicle totaled, and escape in Eric’s. Eric is driven to action by his fury over what they’ve done, and after only a minute’s effort gets their car working, so he can race after them. Everything else that happens in the movie is propelled by his determination to get his car back — and it matters little that the theft left him with another vehicle so road-worthy that is able to catch up. It is his own car he wants, and the sight of him murdering an innocent during the pursuit, in order to get his hands on a weapon that he will use to further this quest, establishes that he’s not about to be civilized about it. The movie’s big ticking fuse has to do with whether this monomania has any explanation other than the simmering fury that appears to be Eric’s only functional emotion.
Two other elements deserve mention.
First, there’s a scene at the house where he has gone to seek medical attention for an ally. While in that house he finds a room filled with kenneled dogs of multiple breeds, all panting in cages too small for them. The woman who lives in the house enters, senses how deeply Eric is affected by the sight. She explains that these are not her dogs. They belong to her neighbors, who over the past few years have had to move away, one at a time, in search of work; they all promised to return for their animals, but none of them ever did. She has found herself forced to cage them all, because it’s no longer safe for them to be outside. Other refugees in the region keep killing them for food.
The poor woman is ashamed of having had to take this measure, but what else can she do?
Whatever else you think of the movie, and given its sense of pacing it would be as appropriate for you to hate it as it would be for you to love it, this in particular is a profoundly powerful moment, that both speaks to the deteriorating conditions of this time and place and raises questions about the point of living in a crumbling world, in particular whether it’s still worth the effort. The scene rewards attention for narrative reasons, as well.
Second, there’s the character of Rey, played by a thoroughly deglamorized Robert Pattinson (yes, the same Pattinson from Harry Potter and Twilight; I recognized him from his eyebrows; another viewer with me actually did not). He plays the not-very-bright, probably developmentally disabled, younger brother of one of the men in the gang that took Eric’s car, who was wounded and got left behind during the same act of larceny they were fleeing during the rollover. He and Eric end up riding together on the long and bumpy journey toward a showdown with the gang.
This needs to be said: because the Twilight films gave him an idealized and one-dimensional character reading lines of often quite extraordinary vapidity, Pattinson’s signature role has left him as often-derided a talent as any marquee name who ever lived. Whatever else you say of the movie, The Rover establishes that he’s not a pretty-boy no-talent, and not just because he is here doing what so many actors have treated as a path to the Oscar, playing a character of limited mental capacity. The role requires subtlety of him, entire trains of thought eloquently conveyed by small shifts in facial expression. There is one scene, a pivotal scene, where something terrible has happened and we get more than a minute of him processing it, all the stages from shock to comprehension to devastation. If the movie shocks you in no other way, my friends, it is this sterling revelation. Robert Pattinson can act; he simply wasn’t well-served by blockbusters. And what happens in this film between his character and the one played by Pearce, a character who should be his enemy from frame one and who never stops being that, but also becomes something else, establishes what he can do when handed more than one note to play.
So, yeah: this has been a conditional positive review, with caveats for bleakness and at times irritating slowness.
But is it science fiction?
Beats the living hell out of me, frankly.
You are free to argue one way or the other.
If I’ve come up with any answer at all, it’s that in this particular case the answer is irrelevant.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.