Behind the opening credits an Australian Aboriginal is painting on the roof of a cave which opens like a huge mouth: a black hand, protruding from a Western coat sleeve, completes a curious sign -three concentric circles with four dots in the centre – which will be a central motif throughout the rest of the film.
The camera then cuts to a parched scene in a central Australian township where, under a cloudless sky, a group of Aboriginals sits surrounded by a squalid heap of possessions and some children play cricket in the heat. A child drinks avidly from a hosepipe.
Suddenly, without warning, rain, then hail, bursts from the empty sky. The excited children huddle in the schoolhouse and, as huge hailstones shatter the windows and children are cut, the teacher tells them prosily: “we are witnessing nature at work”.
The next cut is to Sydney where the camera closes in on an Aboriginal drinking at a fountain. As company lawyer David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) leaves the carpark attached to his office building, the attendant gives him a yellow pepper for his wife and he comments on the oddity of its colour.
Out in the streets, the scene is a noisy muddle of cars, umbrellas, and people shouting in a chaos testifying to man’s incapacity to deal with a freak of nature.
On the car radio, David hears that “an unusually widespread low-pressure trough moving up from the southern polar ice” is the cause of the downpour, and the audience registers this as a scientific attempt to explain and demystify the unusual.
As the film goes on, David’s dilemma is increasingly a matter of the rational man’s failure to find satisfying answers to the bizarre.
Director Peter Weir establishes early what the film’s central preoccupation will be: the breakdown of man’s resources in areas where rationality cannot serve him.
As David returns to the seeming safety and sanity of his suburban home, with his pleasant wife Annie (Olivia Hamnett) and two children, he – and the audience – seems to have gained refuge from the unpredictabilities of nature.
The family sits to eat and all is cosy until a sound of running water inside the house is heard. In this black little joke of Weir’s the rivulet on the stairs proves to only be the result of the bath overflowing, with both children naturally denying responsibility for the accident.
David is, however, oddly drawn by the rain and dreams he sees through the window a black figure standing in the rain.
The scene jumps to a barbecue at the home of David’s clergyman step-father (Frederick Parslow). The camera records the church serenely set against the sea and clear sky then pans across a wide lawn to the barbecue, where everyone is relaxed except David, worried at the telephone.
When he tells his step-father about the bad dreams that have lately cost him sleep, his step-father recalls to him his childhood dreams about people “who come and steal your body while you sleep”.
Annie, meanwhile, plays with their daughter in the spray of a lawn sprinkler. The spray, against the clear sky, dissolves into dark storm clouds, lightning and driving rain, ushering in the final episode of this opening movement of the film.
The camera lights briefly on a Danger sign and tracks after an Aboriginal youth. Billy (Athol Compton), stealing sacred stones from tribal grounds beneath the city sewers.
The camera cuts to Billy drunk in a pub, suddenly aware that his pursuers have come for him.
From here the film moves swiftly through the hunting down of Billy to a dark street where an old Aboriginal in a car points the bone of death at him.
Compared with this splendid first third, the rest of the film is only intermittently absorbing and holding.
David begins to believe that he is a descendant of an ancient race which, according to Aboriginal tradition, inhabited Australia in prehistoric times. His increasing sense of alienation from his middle-class life is intensified by his step-father telling him that, as a child, he had predicted his mother’s death.
In the film’s last episode, Chris Lee (David Gulpilil) takes him to the sacred tribal grounds where David sees his own likeness in a stone face and interprets the wall painting to mean that the present cycle of time will end with a giant wave.
The film ends, enigmatically, with David on a beach as a huge wave approaches. He has fought his way back from subterranean regions (both psychic as well as physical) to face the apocalyptic vision of destruction that his “Mulkrul” affinities have enabled him to predict.
It is a striking finale, if not emotionally or intellectually wholly satisfying, and it does carry a persuasive sense, not of denouement, but of horror still to come.
In ways sometimes reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), the film’s most moving and daring element is the breakdown of the rational man’s belief in – and hold on – the certainties and guidelines of his life.