If cinema is an narrative art-form of dreams and ideas then science fiction is the purest form of screen storytelling.
What if… If only… What could be… What might become…? The speculation on possibilities, the exploration of ideas is what elevates this mode of storytelling and makes it so intrinsic to, and influential on, the way we perceive ourselves and our world.
So where the hell is all the great Australian Science Fiction..?
This is a question ive pondered many times (and has even been the basis of an extensive radio interview on the ABC’s Future Tense programme). Australia is naturally a frontier, the edge of the world. It is also a place of world-leading science and a nation of notorious early adopters of technology. It would seem that this combination of ingredients would set us up to be a nation of great scifi storytellers. Yet when you pose the question of when was the last time you saw an Australian science fiction film, the answer is the sound of tumbleweed blowing by…
Yet, it may be the winds of change blowing that tumbleweed. I smell a revolution - or perhaps more accurately and importantly, a ‘Movement’ in Australian screen narratives.
Over the past few years ive seen a small but swelling wave of fresh scifi stories building in momentum. Long-form and short, feature and series projects that are not merely paying lip service to a bastardized idea if ‘futuristic action’ but engaging deeply with ideas presented as rich speculative fiction metaphors. Importantly, this wave is not only formed of aspiring new filmmakers but also includes more experienced and credentialed directors, writers and producers.
But before we take a look at whats coming and what might constitute the first assault of this Australian SF New Wave, its worth defining the scope of the genre. SF is a broad church, rather than one type of story experience, SF embodies a wide range of approaches and forms that are grouped together through pattern recognition of their common elements rather than their rules of depiction.
The breadth of the SF canon means that though they may be common, SF need not have robots or aliens, happen in space or indeed even be set n the future… Highly esteemed author Neal Stephenson (whose books such as Cryptonomicon are clearly part of the contemporary SF cannon yet have none of these elements) has eloquently argued in a lecture delivered at Gresham College that ‘Science Fiction’ is actually a sub-genre of Speculative Fiction. This broader umbrella of ‘speculative’ implies fundamental questioning built on (as writer Steven Barnes has described) speculations of What if? If only? and If this goes on…?
Science Fiction for its part deals with these three questions as they relate to the presence of a Science. But we might also see in other arms of Speculative Fiction these same questions leveled through other frameworks. Dystopian SF most often deals less with the presence of a particular science than it does the presence of a particular social or governmental system, thus a speculation on a possible socio-political environment. Similarly the much loved Post-Apocalyptic narrative poses these same, What if, If Only, If this Goes on, questions but rather than the ‘presence’ of a technology or a socio-political system these stories are framed in the distinct absence of these things - after they have been lost. Hence The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2) is an exploration of a world where a particular ‘science’ is taken away (Oil) and society that relied on it has crumbled.
Of course these three forms often overlap and intertwine; so we see in George Orwell’s 1984 both a dystopian speculative fiction where a very specific socio-political system is in place as well as the presence of a specific technology that disrupts what we perceive as normal in our world - the TeleScreen….! Similarly in the zombie wasteland of 28 Days Later we see a Post-Apocalyptic speculative fiction about absence of both technology and society, yet is triggered by the fictive science of a mutating virus unleashed from a research lab.
Recognising these three forms of Science, Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction as falling under a broader umbrella of Speculative Fiction allows us to to see (and exploit) their unique narrative and mythological strengths. They become a vibrant toolkit for writers and filmmakers rather than an arbitrary set of motifs.
And its from this broad perspective of narratives that engage directly with the ideas and dreams of Speculation that we see a new span of Aussie New Wave SF.
Payload is a prime example of hard-SF where the central disruptive science is based on the very real and plausible Space Elevator; the creation of which has created a dystopian hierarchical society.
In the shadow of a space elevator, Simon Carter must sacrifice everything to save what remains of his family.
Writer/Diretcor Stuart Willi describes the film’s origins;
“The world of Payload drew its inspiration from two very real places: the isolated Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie – full of men and brothels; and the Kazakhstan town of Baikonur – where the locals scavenges the fallen refuse from a nearby Russian spaceport. It was important however that Clarke’s Town (the setting of Payload) not be an allegory for either town but become its own imagined place. Clarke’s Town is defined only by its function as a spaceport, it is isolated, weathered and indifferent.”
By contrast Wastelander Panda sits at the Soft-SF end in a fantastic post-apocalyptic wasteland of mutants and humans struggling not only for survival but to retain some semblance of humanity.
The true achievement of Wastelander Panda is in the way it has built and nurtured a dynamic online audience. $25k in crowd-funding raised from fans desperate to see more of the Panda filled investment bodies with confidence that the project had a vibrant international audience. When stencil concept art of Arcayus the Wastelander Panda was featured in the AAA video game Borderlands 2 it only further confirmed how clearly this project knew its audience. Wastelander Panda is currently shooting a 3-part digital series in South Australia.
Arrowhead: Signal is a scifi short that builds from a long tradition of DIY indie shorts with big ambitions. Yet Arrowhead also transcends the usual low-budget fare with a quality of ideas, performance and visual realisation. Arrowhead is clearly a short film aimed to wave a big hand in the air for its creators of more things to come.
Producer Raquelle David and Director Tobias Andersson are in final post-production on their short film SHELTER - Two strangers must come together in a ravaged, post apocalyptic world - another healthy dose of smart, character-based, high-stakes storytelling. Moreover SHELTER is another project (much like Wastelander Panda) that seems to have connected with its audience as community and raised 300% of its target in crowd-funding.
From a couple of years ago, Mongrels Creed by Tom Noakes presented a dystopian future of worker enslavement.
Moving up scale we see those big concept SF trailers clearly developed as selling tools to promote longer projects to studios. CRYO by Luke Doolan is just such a short that promises big things for the subsequent feature-in-development CARGO.
From more established directors further up the tree we have the Spireg Borthers whose outstanding feature Daybreakers drew big name stars to an otherwise very modest budget film. Daybreakers was a huge success with audiences, critics and money. As a vampire inspired but otherwise clearly science fiction based allegory, Daybreakers ensured that expectations for what the Spiregs would do next would be high. The result is Predestination based on the seminal Robert Heinlein’s 1958 short story All You Zombies.
“A riveting adventure through time centered on a secret government time traveling agency designed to prevent future killers and terrorists from committing their crimes.
And the wave continues; The Rover and These Final Hours are both major Australian speculative fiction projects in production as we speak.
The Rover directed by the luch celebrated David Michod is described as:
“The Australian desert in a dangerous and damaged near future. Eric has left everything, everyone and every semblance of human kindness behind him. And then he has his last possession stolen by a gang of dangerous criminals. Eric sets off on a ruthless mission to track them down, forced along the way to enlist the help of Rey, the naïve and injured junior member of the gang, who was left behind in the bloody chaos of the gang’s most recent robbery.”
These Final Hours by first-time feature diretcor Zak Hilditch has a fresh angle on post apocalyptic;
“A self-obsessed young man makes his way to the party-to-end-all-parties on the last day on Earth, but ends up saving the life of a little girl searching for her father. Their relationship ultimately leads him on the path to redemption.”
There are many more exciting screenplays and projects that I know of in the works and many more shorts, webseries, indie features i dont know about (let me know if you know of something I MUST see). The up-comgn Screen Australia Digital Ignition Milt-Platform clinic, which hand picks high-profile feature-film projects for multi-platform expansion, has no less than 3 out of its total 8 as Speculative Fiction offerings including;
Subject 14 - One man’s journey to the future to save a dying world.
I, Frankenstein - Frankenstein`s monster, named Adam and having taken the surname of his creator, becomes involved in a war between two immortal clans in an ancient city.
And then there’s the ballsy action ambition of Post Apocalyptic Man.
Some of these creations are big, some are small. Some are great, some may be not-so-great… But seen together as a collection - at a certain time, in a certain place, by a diverse spread of people - they add up in a powerful and influential way…
Movements are not created by a single work, nor can they be propelled from just one segment of the screen market. Breakout films are not the answer, it takes a critical mass of screen productions at the right time that engage with something tangible in the zeitgeist of society.
And that’s what I think is coming for Australian Speculative Fiction - not one piece but many pieces on different platforms, at all points on the budget spectrum.
So you heard it here first folks - we are on the cusp of an australian new wave of speculative fiction.
Only the future can prove me right…