In the distant future a mysterious race of creatures take over the Earth forcing humanity to retreat to a city in the sky known as SkyArk. After a coup fails to depose the corrupt leadership, the wealthy elite exile the children of the rebels to a desolate Earth. Among them is Rags (Caon Mortenson), son of the executed rebel leader. He crash-lands in vast junkyard where a small band of orphans led by defiant, battle-hardened Rusty (Garrett Coffey) and gutsy archer girl Ash (Charlene Tung) are hunted by ravenous mutant monsters. With Rags struggling to endure his harsh new surroundings, the stylishly-dressed Lily (Taylor Coilee) takes a shine to the newcomer and teaches him survival skills, certain he is the saviour prophesized to lead them out of danger. Even so Rusty is not sure he has it in him to take on the monsters.
Like the British-made Robot Overlords (2014), Battle for Skyark is that rarity: an independent science fiction film aimed at a family audience. In keeping with the gritty, melancholy favoured by many of the bigger budgeted young adult dystopian fantasies out there, first-time director Simon Hung and co-screenwriter Guy Malim, imbue their story with a darker edge. Indeed the film is remarkably casual about bumping off cute child actors, albeit mercifully off-screen, while the shock twist revealing the motivation behind SkyArk exiling children to earth is surprisingly cruel for a family film. This hard edge will either make or break the movie for its intended audience. Predictably a few reviewers unwilling to cut a low-budget indie production any slack took the film to task for its 'cheap' special effects. Yet speaking as someone who has sat through scores of half-assed, ineptly made indie genre efforts, the visual effects here are quite accomplished. In fact Simon Hung and his creative team show off no small amount of low-budget ingenuity in their world-building. The costumes and art design are especially accomplished and evocative.
With its cast of plucky, punk-styled feral kids scrambling about a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Battle for Skyark evokes Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) though also the cult New Zealand television show The Tribe. On top of this the script has elements of the class disparity themes found in Neill Blomkamp's Elysium (2013) although neither film tackles them with the verve of the anime Battle Angel Alita (1993). Hung and Malim's fast-paced but awkwardly structured script goes for emotional gut-punches without taking proper time to set up the characters. Nevertheless it has an appreciable emphasis on emotion and relationships over nonsensical action along with a commitment to big themes. Early into the film Rusty tells Rags: "You have to be a monster to kill a monster." The clash of ideologies between savagery and civilized values reoccurs throughout post-apocalypse cinema. Battle for SkyArk does a decent job of exploring this theme through a fairly clever and affecting story with intriguing twists.
Although young Caon Mortenson is a trifle shaky in the lead, his awkwardness befits the insecure, often indecisive nature of his character. The remainder of the likeable young cast are charismatic and eager with Taylor Coilee exhibiting particular promise as the appealingly gutsy and resourceful Lily. The title is admittedly something of a misnomer given the final fate of SkyArk remains undecided come the sequel-baiting post-credits scene. Yet if the execution is occasionally a trifle spotty, Battle for Skyark never lets a meager budget restrict its ambitions. That is something to be applauded.