Review: The Time Guardian (1987)

This ambitious Australian science fiction movie from 1987 never quite lives up to its own hype. Exhibit A: the poster for The Time Guardian depicts a muscular guy in a sleeveless shirt and sunglasses, blasting what appears to be a robot or cyborg in the face with a huge laser cannon while the world around him crumbles and burns. The tagline reads "Time is just about the only thing he won't waste." This image and blurb conjures a Schwarzenegger-style action movie in which our hero takes on cybernetic hordes with no holds barred, delivering one-liners as he serves up destruction. In grand exploitation movie fashion, nothing in the actual movie comes close to being as cool as what this poster promises.

I'm still struggling with my feelings on this one. Time will probably temper some of my complaints and I suspect I'll find myself wanting to revisit it at some point. Whenever that happens, maybe I'll be able to enjoy it for the movie that it is instead of the one it promised itself to be. That may be the biggest problem I have with The Time Guardian: it over-sells itself and isn't the Ozploitation movie I wanted to see.
Let's break it down. The first problem with The Time Guardian is that the premise is just too big. We're told in a text scroll following the opening credits (a la the movie Star Wars) that Earth in the year 4039 has become a ruined war zone, devastated by the battles between humanity and a group of armored robots that mankind created in the previous century. In an effort to save themselves, one city has harnessed the power of time travel and gone back in time to hide in safety. Unfortunately, the armored robots (named the Jen-Diki) also figured out this secret and followed them. Now the war of the future will take place in 1980s Australia. To me, this is just too much exposition for a text crawl and it's asking us to buy too much before we even start the movie. Why did mankind create these robots? How did they discover time travel? How did the Jen-Diki also discover time travel, and why was it just one isolated city that was able to travel in time? Keep in mind, this is all before we've seen the first character on screen. I had to skip backward and watch the whole crawl again just to get everything.
The film proper opens with a pretty spectacular future war scene straight out of 1984's The Terminator, which appears to have been a big influence here. It's also worth mentioning that the special effects are pretty fantastic right out of the gate, especially for an Australian movie (the SFX were done in-house by Mirage Effects, a company based in Sydney). You can tell pretty quickly that this is going to be "that kind" of movie, though. You know, one that has decent special effects and cool action but a concept that's out of reach and actors that can't quite make you care. The next hour of the movie doesn't begin to touch the coolness of the battle that opens the film. With the city ship under attack, two future soldiers are sent ahead as scouts to make preparations for the rest of their group's arrival in Australia. It's here that we're introduced to a "sexy" geologist played by Nikki Coghill who gets caught up in the battle against good and evil when the war comes to her backyard.
The two scout soldiers from the future are played by Tom Burlinson and Carrie Fisher. Yeah, they got Princess Leia to co-star in this thing. Australian actor and singer Tom Burlinson is (apparently) supposed to be the muscular guy with the laser cannon from that awesome poster, but Burlinson (The Man From Snowy River, Paul Verhoeven's Flesh + Blood) has neither the physical attributes nor the charisma to be the action lead that this movie is begging for. Carrie Fisher is pretty good, bringing the same mature confidence that she displays in Return of the Jedi, but she's given almost nothing to do and you gather that she's only in this movie because the filmmakers were banking on her star appeal instead of actually giving her good material to work with. There's a scene where she and Burlinson wear these weird metallic breastplates (armor, I guess?) that I think is supposed to read as sexy, but just feels kind of silly and sad, especially since Fisher was just a few years removed from the biggest motion picture trilogy in history. Frankly, she deserves better, and I couldn't help but think this over and over as I watched The Time Guardian, especially since we will never get another Carrie Fisher performance. I should also mention that Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet, Quantum Leap) makes an appearance here as "Boss," the leader of these time-travelling refugees. He probably has five minutes total screen time.
There are other factors working against this movie. Scenes exist that serve no purpose and seem to come out of nowhere, never to be spoken of again. There are devices and technology that are introduced without any logic at all. It reminds me of the original theatrical cut of Russell Mulcahy's Highlander 2, which was taken away from the filmmakers by the studio before the shooting had finished and assembled by editors who had no regard for the filmmaker's original intent. I have no idea if this was the case for The Time Guardian, but I'm just saying that sometimes it feels like something is missing.

So yes, a lot of the movie feels overly ambitious and out of reach, but I should also make it clear that this movie is still actually fairly watchable and is occasionally really fun. I've pointed out the stuff that keeps it from being a legitimate Aussie genre classic, so let me point out the stuff that I really like.
I appreciate the Jen-Diki; from a design standpoint, they look awesome and are a success in practical effects. Yes, the Terminator influences are obvious, but there are tons of little bits in their design and armor that make them unique. I like the horns on their helmets, and they have metallic birds on their chest plates that remind me of something out of Stargate, which wouldn't come along for another seven years. Beneath the armor, the Jen-Diki are foam latex creations, reminding me of the Sontarans from Doctor Who, vaguely reminiscent of baked potatoes. It's a shame that we don't get to see a lot more of the Jen-Diki, but what we do get is satisfying, at least to this vintage sci-fi fan.

Nikki Coghill is intriguing as the co-lead. I don't think I've ever seen her in anything else, so I can only judge based on what I've seen here. Frankly, I was a lot more interested in her character than I was in Tom Burlinson's ineffective tough guy, and I definitely think that she adds to the movie. In a different, better version of this story, there would be no Tom Burlinson and Nikki Coghill would team up with Carrie Fisher to take down the Jen-Diki. Think about that: one defender from Earth's future, one from its past, united against a common foe. That would have been better than what we got here.
Again, the special effects are far better than we're used to from lower budget genre movies from this era. The budget for this movie was 8 million dollars, and I guess most of it went into making it look like a big budget film. The action, when it comes, is impressive. I like how the movie mixes things up between 1980s Australia, which is soaked in sun and warmth, and "the future," which is dark and cold. The Australian scenery is austere and beautiful, reminiscent of the American west but decidedly more treacherous. Honestly, I just like watching Australian movies, and I feel like we don't see enough of them here in America. When the big laser gun from the poster finally makes an appearance in the third act, I was VERY happy. It's a satisfying moment for anyone who read comics in the late '80s or early '90s, and I'm wondering if comics artist Rob Liefeld saw this movie when he was younger. There's even a hard rock song performed by "Angry" Anderson (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) that closes the movie and is so bad that it's good. Seriously, the song is kind of awesome, but Angry Anderson is out of key and doesn't sing it very well, which kind of makes me like it even more.
Ultimately, The Time Guardian is kind of a tragedy, but a watchable one. It was directed by Brian Hannant, who wrote the screenplay for The Road Warrior, the 1981 sequel to Mad Max, and it's clear that things just got away from him. Reading the press and interviews for this movie, it's clear that everyone involved with the production really saw this as an opportunity to prove to the world that Australia could be a viable competitor in the global movie marketplace. Clearly The Time Guardian was not that movie. It would serve as the last film that Brian Hannant,wrote or directed and the only credit for his co-writer, John Baxter. As a B-movie fan, I can't help but wonder what this movie would have been like if it had been much smaller and had been forced to overcome budgetary and special effects limitations with a stronger story and better character beats. Instead of Australian movie legend, we're left with a very flawed science fiction film that is propelled by occasional moments of success, but ultimately fails to fly. In other words, it's pretty to look at, but it just doesn't make much sense. Hey, that's okay; I'm already starting to feel like I've been too hard on it and like I need to watch it again. One thing's for sure: in the pantheon of midnight movies, you could do a lot worse than The Time Guardian.

The Time Guardian was released on DVD (in anamorphic widescreen!) as part of Shout Factory's "Sci-Fi Movie Marathon" collection.


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