Rolf De Heer’s earnestly well-meaning and visually stunning “Epsilon” contains a potent message to the environmentally conscious the world over. Though unsubtle and hectoring at times, the film’s passionate pro-Green stance, and the legendary fantasy that is used as a basis for the eerie story, should ensure a niche audience for this bold, if at times frustrating, saga. After post-production delays dating back nearly two years, pic opened in limited release in Oz on Feb. 27.
De Heer demonstrated in his impressively abrasive “Bad Boy Bubby” (a major prize winner at Venice which never found a U.S. distrib) and in his 1996 Cannes competition entry, “The Quiet Room,” that he could argue passionately and yet entertainingly on the ills of Western society in the 1990s. But in “Epsilon,” which was made prior to “Room,” his argument, though no less passionate, is less rewarding.
Yarn is related by an old woman (Alethea McGrath) to her two wide-eyed granddaughters (Chloe and Phoebe Ferguson, the sprigs from “Quiet Room”). It’s sometime in the future, when the Earth’s ecology has apparently been vastly improved, and the tale is told about a time “before they knew better,” when the grandmother met a man wandering in the desert who told her an amazing story. The woman’s narration continues throughout the film.
Drama proper kicks off promisingly with an awesome stop-motion day-night-day sequence in the spectacular Central Australian desert. A naked woman (Ulli Birve) appears in the wilderness, dumped on Earth from distant star Epsilon. The stranger stumbles upon an embarrassed surveyor (Syd Brisbane) who lends her some clothes, and for the rest of the film they dress identically in blue shirt and khaki shorts.
For about the next hour, the self-righteous alien bombards the simple earthling with damning evidence of the way the world’s ecology is being destroyed by humanity, telling him that the rest of the universe has written off the planet. Since the spacewoman is able to transport herself and her bemused companion anywhere in a flash, she takes him first to an Australian city to see the pollution caused by automobiles, later to the outskirts of both Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where smog shrouds the landscape, and then to a variety of landscapes where pollution has affected the environment, all the time keeping up a scathing running commentary about the stupidity of mankind.
In the film’s most powerful, and at the same time contentious, sequence, she asks the man to show her his favorite tree, which is situated on top of a hill, a place he says he loved as a child. She then promptly chops down the tree (while he stands by wimpishly protesting) to demonstrate, as if it wasn’t already clear, what humans have done to their planet.
Gradually, the two fall in love, helped by a little time-shifting on the part of the spacewoman. But just as they find happiness, she literally fades away, having been spirited back to Epsilon, and he’s left alone to contemplate the ravaged Earth with the realization that humans must change their ways of life in order to fight and win the war to save the environment. According to the old lady, he successfully wages that war against earthly pollution in the succeeding years.
De Heer’s heart is so obviously in the right place that it’s a shame “Epsilon” is so unsubtle. Part of the problem stems from the actors, who improvised some of the dialogue along with members of the crew, according to the end credits. It’s hard to empathize with Birve’s disapproving spacewoman, even when she softens toward the end, and Brisbane’s simple Everyman comes across as a bit too simple at times.
Visually the film is exciting, with frequent use of a computerized camera system that allows the characters to move freely from one location to another without blue-screen effects or other constraints. De Heer’s visual boldness goes a long way to compensate for the film’s dramatic thinness.
The film has been greatly modified since it was shown privately at Cannes in 1995 and screened for judges in the Australian Film Awards later the same year. For one thing, the cast has more than doubled, with the addition of the scenes involving the old woman and the two children. The grandmother’s narration, which is used extensively throughout the film, is also new, and while it fills in a lot of gaps, it also makes pic less mysterious and more prosaic. One or two minor scenes have disappeared, and the ending has been completely changed (in the original, the wandering man came upon the woman from Epsilon in human form, and a happy future between the two of them was indicated). This version runs approximately 10 minutes shorter than the earlier cut.
Graham Tardif’s music supplies a majestic backdrop to the proceedings. Pic still bears a 1995 copyright date.