By most measures Australia is one of the world’s most pleasant places to live – so why are so many movie dystopias set there? These post-apocalyptic visions speak to Australians’ deepest fears, writes Andrew Mueller.

In 1959, a delegation of Hollywood royalty gathered in Melbourne to shoot a film of Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear thriller On the Beach. One of their number, Ava Gardner, was reportedly unimpressed by the location. Her piquant summary of her discontent has acquired folkloric immortality: “On The Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.” Sadly, Gardner never actually said this: the quip was invented by a bored journalist from Sydney called Neil Jillet, who hadn’t been able to land an interview with the star, and who naively assumed that it would be cut from his copy once the sub-editors back home had enjoyed a chuckle.

Gardner’s non-quote has since endured primarily as a staple of the rivalry between Australia’s two biggest cities, but it’s actually quite astute. Not about Melbourne, which is an altogether pleasant and civilised place, but about the country as a whole. Australia’s largely unsettled – and often unsettling – interior is a superb backdrop for cinematic representations of life after the apocalypse, a perfect metaphor for all that is ungovernable. Few attempts have been made to set dystopias in Australian cities, unless one counts as such the irradiated Sydney on the cover of Midnight Oil’s 1984 album Red Sails In The Sunset, or 2011’s epically silly B-movie Panic At Rock Island, in which a virus mows down attendees of a music festival on the Harbour. It’s the bush that scares us, swallowing up schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock, secreting serial killers in Wolf Creek, providing an appopriately unforgiving arena for brutal moral choices in The Proposition.

The latest to take advantage of Australia’s parched badlands is David Michôd’s The Rover, starring Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce. It’s sort of a road movie, and kind of a buddy film, but its power to terrify is derived not only from its physical setting, but also its political one. The Rover takes place in the near future, after Australia’s civil institutions have been destroyed by global economic calamity. The Rover is not the first Australian film to have understood that the things which really scare Australians are not the things non-Australians might assume them to be.

Law and order

Far from being a wild frontier populated by laconic crocodile-wrestlers, Australia is, for most of the people who live in it, a peaceful and secure oasis of law-abiding, latte-slurping, middle-class cosiness. The funnel-webs, great whites, death adders and razor-clawed possums won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. Australians would never have made Jaws: we’d just have obeyed the signs warning us to keep out of the water. Our country is basically Sweden with sunshine.

This is why the films Australians make to terrify ourselves don’t feature the apparently obvious villains among our fauna, but focus on the removal of the most crucial underpinning of our wealth and comfort: the rule of law. The most famous Australian cinematic depictions of its absence are George Miller’s Mad Max series, all three of which remain among the 60 highest-grossing Australian films, three decades and more since their release (a fourth instalment, Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy in the role formerly occupied by Mel Gibson, is due next year). The echoes of Mad Max in The Rover are unmistakable: both are placed in an Australia in which financial crisis has unleashed anarchy.

It may seem, to those aware of modern Australia’s origins, surprising that Australians would be perturbed by this prospect. Indifference to the law was the reason many of our ancestors ended up there in the first place – although it’s arguable that the settlement’s early years as a penal colony under martial law were an enduring lesson in doing as we are told. If there’s one impression Australians are keener on advertising than that of the self-reliant bushman, it’s the irreverent larrikin unimpressed by authority; not coincidentally, by far the highest-grossing Australian film of all time is Crocodile Dundee. Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli – about a dystopia of sorts, albeit one we created on the shores of Turkey – depicted the Anzacs as self-reliant types who only saluted those who deserved it, and maybe this was individually the case: as a collective, however, they’d sailed around the world to invade a country with which they had no quarrel, because Britain had asked them to do it.

Out of luck?

When Americans make films about a world in which the only law is the gun, they tend towards the romantic – for example, almost every western, with their subtext that a lack of regulation about whether one may wear one’s revolver in the saloon is something to aspire to. Australian films set amid similar elemental freedom never portray it as desirable (see also the adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began.) Everybody else’s dystopias, from The Matrix to 1984, are those in which the powers that be are all-pervasive. Our dystopias are those in which they cannot or will not help us. David Michôd’s previous film, 2010’s Animal Kingdom reminded that no Australian folk bogeyman is as potent as the ne’er-do-well who refuses to live within the law (in this case, the all-too-real Pettingill family).

Australia has, of course, hosted one example of a way of life being swept aside; perhaps a fear lurks that what was done to the country’s indigenous peoples can be done to us. In the years since Britain invaded the continent in the late 18th Century, Australians have carefully built some of the most agreeable, orderly and wealthy urban environments ever established. The most recent annual survey of the world’s best cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit placed four Australian state capitals in the top 10, and awarded Melbourne top spot for the third year running. The Rover isn’t the only film this year to threaten Australians with the loss of all that – Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours also plunges us into Hobbesian squalor at some point in the near future, prompted by the impending arrival of an asteroid’s shockwave.

It’s 50 years since the publication of Donald Horne’s scathing book The Lucky Country, in which he declared Australia “a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck”. This was harsh: Australia hasn’t become what it has without some measure of good judgement along the way. But our filmmakers well understand that nothing frightens the lucky like the prospect of that luck running out.

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