Australia Day. Invasion Day. Survival Day. Amid the nationalistic fervour that takes place at this time of the year, it is worth remembering that January 26 – the date, in 1788, that the British Governor Arthur Phillip arrived with the First Fleet at Sydney Cove – is not just a time of national celebration but a day that marks the beginning of centuries of geographical appropriation, savagery and cultural oppression of the continent’s original owners.
If you’re opting out of the backyard barbeque and tinnies today, perhaps you might enjoy this list of movies and videos that look at ways contemporary Sydney has been fictionally invaded or destroyed on the big screen.
It seems to me no coincidence that in Australian popular culture our founding colony is usually the site of major onscreen attacks. Beyond the city’s iconic status internationally, might this speak of cultural guilt and repressed truths? In any case, we can watch these fictional invasions and reflect – today of all days – on the real ones.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
While this third instalment of Mad Max mostly takes place in the fictional outback gulag Bartertown, who could forget the hallucinatory sequence when Max is exiled into the desert and is helped by a children-only society hiding in the middle of a lush gorge oasis?
The children have been waiting for years to be rescued by a pilot called Captain Walker and Max ends up fitting their ideal. After helping Max, at the end of the movie the children find a real pilot and are finally able to fly with Jebediah the Pilot (Bruce Spence) back to their home Sydney … only to discover the city in ruins.
This is actually the first moment in the trilogy where there is definite proof that some kind of apocalypse has devastated the city.
Australian literature fans might recognise the resonance of this plot sequence – as Lucas-esque as it is here – to another white-children-crashed-in-the-outback story, James Vance Marshall’s 1959 novel Walkabout.
In that book, two American children are stranded in central Australia after their plane crashes, but they are helped by an Indigenous boy to find a way back to European civilisation.
This story was adapted into a film by Nicolas Roeg, but in the film version the raison d’etre becomes even more sinister: the children are stranded in the desert by their father who had driven them into the outback on a murder-suicide mission.
One Night Stand (1984)
John Duigan’s little-known film about nuclear war in downtown Sydney is a strange creature – a teen comedy meets serious drama, which somehow seems to filter out the effectiveness of both of those genres.
Hence, the result is a little unsatisfying - four young people are stranded inside the Sydney Opera House and use their time putting on mock performances, chatting and trying on costumes. “The radiation would have died down now,” notes one of the children rather naively some ten minutes after the attack begins.
The movie also features quintessential teen ruminations such as “if we are going to snuff it I wish I could have gone overseas”. It remains a true generic oddity of the mid-80s and captures the sense of nuclear paranoia of that era, complete with Day-Glo imagery of the Sydney Opera House set against a blood red sky, as the future remains uncertain.
There is also live concert footage from Midnight Oil, the band performing material from its apposite 1984 album Red Sails in the Sunset – the album cover, of course, showing Sydney destroyed by nuclear attack.
Independence Day (1996) and Pacific Rim (2013)
Two fun Hollywood films that feature Sydney as the symbolic representation of Australia – and in both the invaders in both are extra-terrestrial aliens seeking to destroy the human race.
Hence, both movies show humanity united against foreign invaders, although of course the global heroes and rescuers are the Americans. In Independence Day there is just a short cut-over to shots of Sydney being destroyed – which was met with cheers from the Sydney audience when I saw it at the movies in 1996! – whereas some of the key action takes place in Sydney in Pacific Rim.
Both films feature the key iconic locations of Sydney in danger – the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010)
This action thriller follows a group of teenagers hiding out in rural New South Wales after the nation is suddenly taken over by foreign invaders in a military coup.
The teens had evaded capture because they had gone camping out in “Hell” over the Australia Day long weekend (which in the movie consists of the valley of Sydney’s Blue Mountains).
A national cultural anxiety of invasion – whether it be through boat people, too many tourists, terrorism, or indigenous oppression – is cleverly highlighted in this film, as the children are forced into being the outsider figures fighting for their homeland, using guerrilla warfare techniques as they fight the enemy for their families and friends.
This recent adaptation of the popular YA John Marsden book series ended up failing at the overseas box office, so sequels appear to be unlikely. But there is going to be a new ABC3 children’s television series adaptation as of April this year.
Let’s Dance – David Bowie (1983)
The Let’s Dance music video focuses on racial inequality for a young Indigenous couple, showing them wandering through prime initial invasion points of the continent – downtown Sydney, Tamarama Beach, and so on.
Yet there is one moment in the video where a group of Indigenous children watch the apparition of a nuclear mushroom cloud appearing on the skyline in the distance. This nuclear moment highlights that, for this couple and their friends, not even the country or the outback is safe for them.
Everywhere has its dangers. Perhaps the idea for us all to “dance the Blues away,” as David Bowie sings, can mean to maintain connection and awareness of our country, its terrible history and its necessary shared future.