Stars: Dan Mor, Aleisha Rose, Christopher Kirby and Mark Redpath; featuring the voice of Shaun Micallef.
Writer/director: Jesse O’Brien.
WINNER: Best Feature Film at 2015 SciFi Film Festival (Sydney, Australia).
Driven by the DNA of a dozen sci-fi classics while pulsating with its own original life force, Arrowhead is both a love-letter to the adventurous space visions of yore and one giant leap into the genre’s future.
Australian writer-director Jesse O’Brien has crafted a thematically complex, occasionally confounding but never less than riveting character study, centred by the terrific Dan Mor’s compelling, bracingly physical lead performance. Should anyone be concerned that Arrowhead comes in the wake of 2015’s other castaway-on-a-desert-planet film, they can rest assured that O’Brien’s debut feature is immeasurably more cerebral, exciting and satisfying.
The narrative’s central conflict (adapted and expanded from O’Brien’s 2012 short) is a large-scale ideological feud between warring factions, although the obligatory interstitials detailing the future setting prove a bit of a MacGuffin; the director quickly focuses his lean, central story on a prisoner named Kye Cortland. The opening action sequence, depicting a bloody prison break, suggests that this particular dystopian future may not be unlike the brutal killing grounds of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s 1982 cult shocker Turkey Shoot (or, perhaps more precisely, the locally-shot international productions Salute of The Jugger and Escape from Absolom).
Maimed and unconscious, Kye awakens in the presence of enigmatic rebel leader Tobias Hatch (Mark Redpath), who promises safe passage for Kye’s imprisoned father if our hero flies one last op for the cause as pilot of the Arrowhead space craft. Cue one beautifully rendered dissolve from the launchpad to deep space and Kye is on-mission, until forced to crash-land on a remote, rocky landscape. O’Brien blasts through this first act with precise beats, making every frame count in his commitment to slick storytelling, mounting tension and human drama.
Marooned, Kye engages with the downed ship’s advanced operating system, known as REEF (the distinctive tones of popular local actor/comedian Shaun Micallef providing the vocal interface) and begins to recce the alien landscape. O’Brien is now in his element, disorienting his audience with ambiguous visual and aural cues that indicate the planet is not the lifeless rock it initially seemed. Kye instantly adapts to the atmosphere; time and space defy scientific notions; the presence of a potentially dangerous alpha life form becomes apparent.
Kye is joined by fellow displaced astronaut Tarren, played by the wonderful Aleisha Rose who shares a rich on-screen chemistry with her leading man (and sports a superbly retro figure-hugging flight-suit, straight off the covers of a 50’s comic book). Also materialising in one of the plot’s more ‘out-there’ moments is the mysteriously resurrected Norman Oleander (Christopher Kirby). But Kye shares the closest affinity with the symbiotic essence of his new home; as time becomes increasingly fractured, so to does Kye’s grip on his human state-of-mind and tissue integrity.
It is this gripping psychological component, combined with some lavish ‘Jekyll-&-Hyde’ moments of transformative change, that ensures Arrowhead transcends its genre trappings and emerges as something particularly enthralling. Mor’s physical manifestation of his twisted psyche represents truly great body acting; both the technical prowess and emotional insight he plumbs in conveying O’Brien’s superbly written script is great to watch.
All tech contributors, from the lensing and VFX contributions of Samuel Baulch to Stephanie D’Alessi’s art direction and Ryan Stevens’ production design, reflect innovation and vision of an international standard. Detractors might gripe that the influences are too prominent; Duncan Jones’ Moon is an obvious touchstone, as are, to varying degrees, the likes of Silent Running, Pitch Black, Starship Troopers, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Total Recall. But, just as those genre standard bearers found there own voice, Arrowhead grasps the tropes and reworks, re-energises and redefines them with a bold ambition and crackling originality.