It may interest readers to know that, for certain prominent movie databases, it is the official editorial position that the genre of "epic" be applied sparingly -- and almost never for new movies. This makes enough sense if you think about it: the great equalizer of CGI has changed the playing field, and there's no longer a feeling of grandness in the casts of thousands and exotic locales that once made movies like The Ten Commandments and Lawrence of Arabia live up to their classification. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's still a shame -- at least in the case of Baz Luhrmann's 2008 film Australia, which is, in the classic sense of the word, epic.
An ode to Luhrmann's home country, Australia takes place during the early days of World War II -- a historical setting that, as in all good WWII movies, brews in the background until the third act, when stuff starts to blow up. The film opens with the prim and proper (but very ballsy) Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) defying all early-'40s conventions by ditching her aristocratic British estate to collect her skirt-chasing husband from a cattle station they own in the Australian outback. Said husband arranges to have the lady escorted from port to ranch by a cattle drover (Hugh Jackman), who goes by the creative nickname Drover. The cavalier Aussie takes Lady Ashley on a three-day ride through the desert en route to the station, and of course along the way, he shocks her left and right with his rough-and-tumble style -- as well as his egalitarian attitude toward the native people, who live in your basic state of colonial impoverished subjugation.
Sarah's journey gets more complicated after they arrive at the cattle station, but it would take way too long to explain the rest of the plot, as the film clocks in at over two and a half hours. Basically, there's an evil, monopolizing cattle company, a beautiful orphaned Aboriginal child, a massive cattle drive by a few ragtag wranglers, a world war, an island full of children in danger, and Hugh Jackman with his shirt off. And yes, somewhere along the way, Sarah and Drover teach each other how to love again. The opposites-attract premise may sound old and stale, but it works perfectly here, where a less tried-and-true romantic formula would have just been confusing amid the rest of the sweeping story -- which spans years. In fact, it should probably be said that one of the reasons Australia works so well is that the story at its core is simple and solid. The enormous scale of the film's vision is what pushes that simple story toward moments of greatness, but it could still survive on its own as a romantic drama if it had to.
But it doesn't have to; Australia goes for the absolute limit in terms of scope. And let's not be coy -- size may not matter, but it still helps. The majesty of vast desert landscapes splaying out into the distant edges of the frame remind you every few minutes that this harsh, enigmatic, brutally gorgeous continent really is like nowhere else on earth. Luhrmann is also completely unabashed when it comes to weaving in themes about the tragically squandered beauty of Aboriginal culture. He dives headlong into his celebration of Australia's native peoples -- complete with their strange singing, their half-nakedness, and any other attribute likely to sit uneasily with cigar-chomping studio execs and corn-fed test audiences. And his commitment to the theme pays off -- even when that skinny elder tribesman pops up out of nowhere like Jim Morrison's imaginary Indian in Oliver Stone's The Doors, you're still totally on board, still believing in the magic, and still paying attention after 160 (very epic) minutes.