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AACTA Film Fest | Exploring Australian Science Fiction

Article by film critic, writer and journalist Sarah Ward.

Australian filmmakers have turned the outback into a dangerous dystopian wasteland (George Miller’s MAD MAX trilogy), a drive-in into a concentration camp for society’s misfits (Brian Trenchard-Smith’s DEAD END DRIVE-IN) and Western Australia into a sun-drenched spot to party away civilisation’s last moments (Zak Hilditch’s THESE FINAL HOURS). Brisbane has doubled as a futuristic cityscape filled with vampires (the Spierig brothers’ DAYBREAKERS), Sydney was inundated with strange weather as the apocalypse beckoned (Peter Weir’s THE LAST WAVE), and a seaside South Australian town became the site of a romantic time loop (Hugh Sullivan's THE INFINITE MAN). 

The list goes on — for while Australia’s desert expanses have become synonymous with fear and menace on-screen, and its suburban spaces with gritty crime narratives, the country’s rural and urban landscapes have also thrived as playgrounds for science fiction. Whether bringing unexpected visitors to quiet surroundings in INCIDENT AT RAVEN'S GATE or SPIRITS OF THE AIR,  GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS, or turning the towering buildings into a labyrinth in DARK CITY and EXIT, the genre keeps calling to local filmmakers. Indeed, as well as directing two of the aforementioned features, Alex Proyas has utilised Australia as a sci-fi backdrop again and again in KNOWING and GODS OF EGYPT.

Australia is, after all, “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world”, or so the comment goes. The line frequently misattributed to Ava Gardner during the making of ON THE BEACH specifically references Melbourne, but given the country’s fondness for sci-fi, the sentiment could be applied nation-wide. Hollywood appears to have taken the notion to heart, shooting everything from THE MATRIX and its sequels, to STAR WARS prequels ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, to ALIEN: COVENENT on our shores. With X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, JUPITER ASCENDING and THOR: RAGNAROK also filmed here, the list goes on once more.

Four titles on the 2018 AACTA Film Fest lineup keep the trend going and retain sci-fi’s penchant for variety in the process. With the genre steeped in speculative, imaginative possibilities, there’s no limit to where its narratives can take viewers — even as they’re contemplating common topics while taking audiences, visually, to different corners of Australia. UPGRADE unfurls its technology-saturated future from Melbourne, and OCCUPATION wages war on aliens from around the Gold Coast and Tweed Coast region. On the other side of the country, PULSE and THE GATEWAY ponder body swapping and multiple universes from Perth.

Jumping from horror to science fiction, UPGRADE sees Leigh Whannell craft a bleak vision of advancement gone wrong — the automated and artificially intelligent evolving to a perturbing extreme. Blending mechanically minded thrills with body horror and fast-paced action, it’s a film that seems to take its cues from THE TERMINATOR meets David Cronenberg meets JOHN WICK; however it’s a gloriously entertaining amalgam of familiar elements. Similar comments can be made about Luke Sparke’s OCCUPATION, which also plays with familiar components, but does so with a strong sense of its place within the extra-terrestrial invasion realm.

In fact, both UPGRADE and OCCUPATION do the one thing that sci-fi demands above all else: with the former’s steampunk-like production design and energetic camerawork, and the latter’s earthy vigour, grounding its humans-versus-aliens action within a distinctively Australian landscape, they build highly immersive and engaging worlds.

PULSE and THE GATEWAY also dally with oft-deployed ideas, with science fiction’s love of hopping between bodies and places hardly new. That said, PULSE director Stevie Cruz-Martin and writer/actor Daniel Monks pair their central idea with a highly intimate tale. PULSE explores a gay, disabled teenager’s desire to be someone different — to be rid of his physical ailments, and for his affections to be requited — all by literally swapping into the body a blonde teenage girl. It’s an ambitious local take on a high-concept premise, boasting its own vibrant personality. As for John V. Soto's THE GATEWAY, it also endeavours to steer a well-known scenario in its own direction, following a grieving scientist who exploits her research into parallel worlds in the hope of bringing back her husband.

Flitting from unnerving, transformative and life-changing uses of technology on multiple fronts, to the arrival of interlopers from another planet, this year’s AACTA Film Fest science fiction efforts continue to strengthen Australia’s sci-fi ranks. Indeed, thanks to the country’s fascination with the genre, pondering what the future holds is as easy as heading to the cinema. Clearly, the future also holds more Aussie-made science-fiction movies.

 

The feature films in competition were screened in cinema in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane during September 2018 as part of AACTA Film Fest. The films will be available for members to watch online via AACTA TV until 11 October 2018.

For your complete guide to the feature films competing for a nomination for the 2018 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Film Fest Guide here (6MB).

 

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