Where’s she from anyway? The outback?

The moon?

Worse. L. A.

– friends of Rhonnie (Thea Gumbert) in Sally Marshall is Not an Alien

At the end of the twentieth century, there was more than one reason for Australian filmmakers to be thinking about alien invasions. The most internationally prominent figure in Australian politics was Pauline Hanson, leader of the far-right One Nation party, who warned in her maiden speech to Parliament that the country stood in danger of being “swamped by Asians” (1). At the same time, much of the debate in local film circles turned on the construction of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Studios in Sydney – seen by some as a boon to the industry, by others as a sign of cultural capitulation to Hollywood (2).

An Australian-Canadian co-production set in a bayside suburb of Adelaide, Sally Marshall is Not an Alien is a modest “family entertainment” that speaks with uncanny clarity to this moment, though the screenplay by Robert Geoffrion and Amanda McKay is a mostly faithful adaptation of McKay’s almost identically titled children’s book from 1994 (3). Widely criticised on initial release for its stiff script and performances (4), the film has worn better than many of its ilk – its most surprising stylistic element being a lushly orchestrated score by Christopher Dedrick, who made his name as a member of the 1960s “sunshine pop” outfit The Free Design and went on to collaborate with Guy Maddin on The Saddest Music in the World (2004).

A peppy tween with a North American accent, Sally (Natalie Vansier) is identified as a probable visitor from outer space by the kids in her new neighbourhood, who are baffled by her non-conformist tendencies: she dresses like Punky Brewster, pops vitamin pills as if they were tic-tacs, and hangs upside down from the parallel bars while reading Stephen Hawking. Only astronomy buff Pip Lawson (Helen Neville) holds firm, insisting to the scaremongering Rhonnie that no evidence exists for extraterrestrial life. In front of the youthful crowd gathered in an abandoned fun-park, Pip and Rhonnie agree on a wager: within a week Pip will prove that Sally hails from planet earth, or surrender her beloved telescope.

While Sally Marshall is Not an Alien carries no overt feminist message, it’s a film that unabashedly puts girls in charge – and while Pip spurns the precocious romantic advances of her hapless sidekick Ben (Glenn McMilan), she soon develops a bond with Sally after launching a surveillance operation to find the proof she needs. A series of extended sequences in which the pair pursue each other in and out of a supermarket, through a beach carnival and down a drain suggest a junior version of the chase that opens Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie go Boating, Jacques Rivette, 1974), with scripted narrative yielding to a playful, semi-documentary use of location. The cross-cultural friendship is cemented when Pip and Sally embark on a riverboat cruise and persuade a European-accented couple to take their photo, incidentally allowing Sally to demonstrate that she isn’t a space vampire.

Meanwhile, in a scene that owes more to Lord of the Flies than to anything in McKay’s book, the increasingly fanatical Rhonnie perches on a cliff-side rock formation – suggesting an “authentic” tie to the land – and addresses the assembled crowd in terms that explicitly evoke Hanson’s rhetoric: “Aliens, more and more of them, coming here and taking everything we have!” In a pointed bit of editorial commentary, Andreaocchio cuts between her diatribe and a racially mixed group of musicians, mostly women, engaged in African drumming on the foreshore, with Sally and Pip as appreciative audience.

“Are you prepared to fight for your lives?” Rhonnie asks her child army, to mounting cheers, as the drummers pound away in the distance. Chanting “Alien!” the mob marches down stone steps towards the beach. Pleading for moderation, Ben is trampled as they go by. Sally turns tail and runs to the end of the jetty, where she’s cornered and forced into the sea.

Naturally Pip dives to the rescue, but afterwards Sally falls sick (the boat scene has already established her fear of water). Dismissing science fiction fantasies as kids’ stuff, Pip gives up on the bet and publicly offers Rhonnie her telescope. But then comes the twist: a gust of wind blows across the funpark and the children look up to see a vast flying saucer floating above the trees, a costly digital apparition visible for only a few seconds at a time: bronzed and iridescent, patterned like a seashell or mandala, waiting to carry the visitor back home. Because, of course, Sally Marshall is an alien, after all.

Extraterrestrials in Australia are nothing new, and it’s here that the film reveals its roots in the critically under-explored local tradition of science fiction children’s television, typified by The Girl From Tomorrow (1992) and Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left (1994). But until recently shows like these would hardly have had the means to visualise Sally’s spaceship, which belongs rather to the kind of globalised virtual landscape associated with Fox Studios blockbusters like Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998) (5) and The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999). Equally the scene recalls, through inversion, the most famous image of “alien invasion” in antipodean cinema: the American submarine periscope rising in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay at the start of Stanley Kramer’s apocalyptic On the Beach (1959).

“Maybe we’ll come back one day, when people change”, Sally tells Pip, just before she and her family fly away. Politically speaking, the revelation of her identity is ambiguous – in a sense confirming Rhonnie’s worst xenophobic fears, and leading one commentator to denounce the film as “Hansonism for kids” (6). I see something different, a moment of sublime uncertainty (we are never shown Sally’s true, otherworldly face). Watching her friend vanish into the blue, Pip stands on the cusp between a safe suburban childhood and a future suddenly charged with unknown potential – a true heroine of Australian cinema at the turn of the millennium, looking with mingled fear and yearning to the new horizon beyond these shores.

Endnotes

  1. Fiona Probyn, “‘That Woman’: Pauline Hanson and Cultural Crisis”, Australian Feminist Studies vol. 14, no. 29, 1999, pp. 161-171.
  2. Mark Juddery, “No Stars Over Australia”, Feed Magazine May 2000: http://209.160.13.54/html/comments_opinion/no_stars_over_australia.htm.
  3. Amanda McKay, Sally Marshall’s Not an Alien, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1994.
  4. See David Stratton, “Sally Marshall is Not an Alien”, Variety 19 July 1999: http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117914425.html?categoryid=31&cs=1&p=0; Andrew Urban et al., “Sally Marshall is Not an Alien”, Urban Cinefile: http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=2443&s=reviews.
  5. See Tom O’Regan and Rama Venkatasawmy, “Only One Day at the Beach: Dark City and Australian Filmmaking”, Metro no. 117, 1998, pp. 17-28.
  6. Ben Goldsmith, “The Full Range of Ugly Australians: Australian Film in 1999”, Overland no. 157, 1999, pp. 74-77.