The Dustwalker (2019)

Rating: C

Dir: Sandra Sciberras
Star: Jolene Anderson, Stef Dawson, Richard Davies, Talina Naviede

Rarely has a film gone so completely off the rails in its second half. It’s a very promising start, opening up by playing like an Aussie cross between Tremors and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Joanne Sharp (Anderson, channeling her inner Lucy Lawless) is a cop in a remote outback settlement, who is just about to get back to civilization. Then, something crashes to the ground just outside town, and an increasing number of the local residents, begin acting increasingly weird. As in, murdering their loved ones. There seems to be some kind of spore-like infection which is causing them to become the hosts to whatever it was that landed. A massive sand-storm has sealed the town off, and communications to the outside world are cut, leaving Joanne and a mere handful of uncontaminated locals to fend for themselves.

Which is about where everything falls apart. It’s so bad, it seems as if the second half was written by someone completely different, based on a 15-words-or-less synopsis of the first half.  [Spoilers follow] The entire spore concept is forgotten, in favour of something which looks like a giant scorpion, galloping about, occasionally sweeping people off the streets. Joanne seems, for no reason ever explained, to be able to communicate with it. The attack simply evaporates, ceasing abruptly when dawn breaks the next morning. And don’t even get me started on the inexplicable scene where the space scorpion builds a giant pyramid of human corpses, then shoots flame out of its mouth at it. Oh, did I forget to mention the fire-breathing earlier? That’s alright: so did the script-writer (also Sciberras).

It’s a real shame it implodes in this fashion. The early stages have a thoroughly entertaining ambience, as noted, not unlike Tremors. The presence of a convenient geologist feels like a nod to that, as well as Joanne’s frustrated efforts to get away, and the collection of quirky local characters, who have to fend off an unprecedented menace. The Australian setting brings an appealing down-to-earth element to all the characters, who largely roll up their sleeves and make do as best they can. The effects in these early stages are restrained, yet effective enough, and are enhanced by some creepy audio design, with the infected’s shrieking an apparent nod to the 1978 Body Snatchers remake.

But it feels like Sciberras is on much less solid ground when she has to find her own voice. There’s no shortage of ideas here; it’s just a near-complete failure to arrange them into a coherent structure, one that operates in any logical manner – even by the low standards of invading extraterrestrials. Not helping, the bigger in scope this grows, the less able the FX, clearly operating under budgetary constraints, are to deliver what’s necessary. I can’t deny, this does contain more than an average number of “What the fuck…?” moments. However, it acts as a good lesson, that those aren’t necessarily a good thing.