Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds is the long-neglected 1988 Australian debut feature from director Alex Proyas, best known for his ‘90s Hollywood cult classics, The Crow and Dark City. Australian label Umbrella Entertainment, through their new partnership with OCN Distribution, offers this scrappy 16mm production with pristine-looking A/V specs that burnish the ambitious visuals from Proyas and DP David Knaus. The film plays like a post-Road Warrior riff on the acid westerns of the ’70s and unwittingly suffers from the same indulgent flaws as many of those flicks. Worth a Look.
In his audio commentary track, director Alex Proyas points to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac as key stylistic influences on his debut feature Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds. With El Topo, Jodorowsky deconstructed the Hollywood western, laced it with psychedelic style and symbology, and amplified the genre’s spiritual and philosophical angst. Meanwhile, Cul-de-sac is a signature example of Polanski’s early-career knack for constructing a pressure cooker chamber drama between three characters. Young Proyas can’t quite synthesize his models into a coherent whole, but he gets part of the way there.
Proyas was already a working music video director at the time of production, and every frame of Spirits has the striking slickness of the best rock clips of the ‘80s. Director of photography David Knaus pushes the 16mm film format to its limits, getting super-saturated colors and filling every inch of the 4:3 image (partly thanks to a reliance on wide-angle lenses).
The opening credit sequence, in which our black-clad antihero Smith (Norman “The Norm” Boyd) walks through a post-apocalyptic desert landscape littered with abandoned vestiges of modern society, might be the film’s best. The sky is an impossible aqua blue at the top of the frame, while the red clay of the desert is so rich and vivid at the bottom. The tiny Smith trudges his way across the horizon in between, towered over by disused billboards, cars, and power lines (all of which are actually in-camera forced-perspective effects, as per the commentary). The style is music video at its most artistic – or art cinema at its most accessible and appealing.
Eventually, Smith comes upon a disheveled farmhouse, covered in crosses, plopped down in the middle of nowhere. The house is occupied by two weird siblings: wheelchair-bound flight enthusiast Felix (Michael Lake) and the religiously warped Betty (Rhys Davis). Betty immediately takes Smith for a demon and wants to either kick him out or kill him. Felix clocks that Smith is simply a man on the run from something and latches onto him as a possible way out of his own sad, secluded life.
Smith needs to go north, since the men tracking him are coming up from the south. Unfortunately, the only thing north of the farmhouse is a fortress-like mountain range with sheer cliff faces to dissuade climbers. Felix has previously tried to rig up a plane to get over the mountains, but the effort failed and put him in his wheelchair. But Smith’s predicament inspires Felix to get back to work on building a functioning flyer that can get the three of them over the mountain. Betty is repulsed by the notion, especially since Felix had promised their father on his deathbed that he would never attempt to fly again.
The film essentially consists of beautifully shot scenes of awkwardness between the three principal characters and beautifully shot scenes of Felix trying out versions of his plane and failing. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Proyas says the film was conceived as a short, and the paltry plot doesn’t comfortably stretch to 95 minutes. As such, the film’s pace feels superficially languid, which allows viewers to savor the nuances of lighting and production design – as well as Betty’s dozen hair and make-up changes. The cast – especially the actors playing the siblings – make bold choices to stand out from the meticulous design but never quite feel more than two-dimensional. Audience members should be forgiven if they decide to check their phones throughout.
Film directors rarely emerge fully formed with their first efforts. Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds feels like a gloriously ambitious display of raw talent in need of some shaping. Fans of Proyas’s better known ‘90s work should get a kick out of this splashy, quirky debut.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds is presented on a Region Free Blu-ray, in a standard keepcase. A booklet is included, featuring some stills, a message from director Alex Proyas, and an essay on Australian Gothic by critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. The disc loads to a copyright disclaimer, followed by the Umbrella logo, before arriving at an animated menu.
Sourced from a new (well, 2018-vintage) 2K scan, the AVC-encoded 1080p 1.33:1 pillarboxed presentation is outstanding. Colors are rich, sometimes hyperreal (on purpose). The texture is organic, well-resolved, and not distractingly grainy. A few optical shots reveal some specks of dirt, but in general the image is clean and crisp. The transfer is truly this disc’s biggest selling point.
The soundtrack is presented in both a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix or in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Both mixes present the dialogue in a clear and well-presented context. The surround mix offers some more ambience and a broader soundstage for Peter Miller’s ethereal synth score, but depending on your set-up, the greater focus of the 2.0 mix might more effectively get the job done for you. One subtitle option: English SDH.
All of these bonuses were created in 2018 for the 30th anniversary of the film and Umbrella’s initial Australian-market Blu-ray
Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds is a striking feature debut, with off-center, post-apocalyptic ambience. I’m genuinely torn on how to sum this flick up, because I loved the craftsmanship, ingenuity, and style of literally every single shot. But I had to watch it in multiple sittings, because I kept falling asleep. And I wasn’t tired. If that doesn’t scare you off, this package from Umbrella is well worth a purchase. In general, though, it’s Worth a Look.