When someone says "Australian science fiction movie," thoughts immediately and inevitably turn to Mad Max - if not George Miller's insanely influential 1979 original, then to any of the sequels that followed over the years, including the recent, justly lauded Fury Road. But here's the thing: it was never just about Max.
The Road Warrior arose in a fertile period for Australian genre cinema, when generous tax incentives saw huge amounts of money pour into the film industry, resulting in hundreds of cheaply-produced films across the genre spectrum - action and horror for the most part, but with a thin scattering of scifi. Notably, the tax breaks meant that being profitable was not necessarily the name of the game - simply having money in film production was. The practical end result was that a lot of absolute dross was produced, but if you sow a big enough field with enough seeds, something interesting is going to grow. (The documentary Not Quite Hollywood is an essential account of this weird gold rush period in Australian cinema.)
Now, over 30 years later, it's happening again. The economic drivers are slightly different this time. Emerging distribution systems like subscription streaming and video on demand have increased the demand for affordable original content, allowing a new generation of genre filmmakers to wedge open a door to the industry.
Horror remains the Australian niche genre of choice, covering everything from The Babadook to the ongoing Wolf Creek franchise, but over the past five years or so science fiction has increasingly had a bigger footprint. Crucially, the typically low budgets of Australian productions mean these films can't rely on CGI razzle-dazzle and action set pieces to get by (although there are exceptions). No, these movies truck in the currency of ideas, dealing with everything from parallel world theory to pharmacological virtual reality, time travel, and that most Australian of science fiction tropes, the apocalypse.
Of course, many of these gems have flown under the radar. Given the cornucopia of content at our fingertips these days, a lot of films can slip by even the most dedicated follower of genre fashion - it's hard enough to keep track of every major American release, let alone a bunch of cinematic oddities cooked up at the bottom of the world. Here, then, is a selection of Australian scifi movies from the past few years that are worth plugging into your sensorium.
In a nameless city, a disparate group of people have come to believe that their urban environment is one giant maze equipped with only one exit - an exit they're desperate to find. Part cult and part support group, they spend their days trying door after door and searching for hidden signs and meanings, hoping to one day solve the riddle of their own existence.
The first and only (to date) feature by director Marek Polgar and screenwriter Martyn Pedlar, the oblique and paranoid Exit has drawn obvious comparisons to David Lynch, but it owes a larger debt to Darren Aronofksy's debut feature, Pi — or perhaps it's a low key riff on Alex Proyas' Dark City, minus the CGI kaleidoscope buildings and army of pale bald men? Whatever your take, Exit is a somber, moody meditation on loneliness and alienation that leaves a mark.
These Final Hours (2013)
The world is facing inevitable, imminent doom: An asteroid has impacted in the North Atlantic and a devastating firestorm is tearing across the globe, eradicating all life in its path. In the remote city of Perth, Western Australia, James (Nathan Phillips) must traverse the chaotic city to get to his friend's debauched end-of-the-world party, but is caught in an ethical conundrum when he encounters a young girl (Angourie Rice of The Nice Guys and Spider-Man: Homecoming) who has been separated from her family. Can he reunite the foundling with her kin before the clock runs out?
Writer-director Zak Hilditch recently made a big splash with Netflix's Stephen King adaptation 1922, but his considerable talents were already on display in this apocalyptic thriller. Faced with certain death, characters react in ways that range from numb despair to violent anarchy to hedonistic abandon, but the moral choices presented are rendered all the more stark against the looming extinction event. Jessica De Gouw (Arrow, Underground), Daniel Henshall (Ghost in the Shell, The Snowtown Murders), and Sarah Snook (Predestination, Winchester) round out the ensemble, but the real star is Hilditch's unflinching portrait of humanity facing up to its end.
The Infinite Man (2014)
A young man (Josh McConville) just wants a perfect weekend getaway with his girlfriend (Hannah Marshall), but it all goes to hell when her oafish, possessive ex-boyfriend (Alex Dimitriades) crashes their holiday at an abandoned beachside motel. What's the solution? Time travel, of course! And he's going to keep trying over and over again until he gets it right.
There are low budgets, there are micro-budgets, there are shoestring budgets, and there's The Infinite Man, whose only assets are a few actors, a borrowed location, and a surfeit of cool ideas. Playing out like a cross between Primer and Groundhog Day, Hugh Sullivan's film manages to keep all its time loops and displaced duplicates straight even if the audience can't. It's a bravura example of doing everything you can with the resources at hand - a clever, funny, smart tale of frustrated love wrapped in delightfully lo-fi scifi skin.
Twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig are best known for their horror work; their last film was Jigsaw, a soft reboot of the gory Saw franchise, while their next, the upcoming Winchester, is a fictionalized excursion into the most famous haunted house in the world, the Winchester Mystery House. Still, their work has often toyed with scifi tropes. Their debut feature, 2003's over-the-top romp Undead, injected aliens into the zombie action, while their vampire epic Daybreakers tried - and mostly succeeded - to present a plausible vampire society that echoed but didn't mimic Richard Matheson's seminal and much-filmed novel, I Am Legend.
Predestination remains their only pure science fiction effort to date. Based on the Robert Heinlein short story " - All You Zombies - ", the film sees a time-travelling secret agent (Ethan Hawke) trying to track down a terrorist nicknamed the "Fizzle Bomber" in 1975 New York. Along the way he recruits a new agent, John, and from there things get very twisty. Predestination retains the convoluted but robust time travel machinations of Heinlein's original story but doubles down on the pathos, becoming a labyrinthine mystery that is also a mediation on love, identity, and destiny.
The Rover (2014)
What if Mad Max was really, really depressing? We can't say for sure that was the inciting thought that led director David Michôd to follow up his magisterial feature debut, Animal Kingdom, with this harrowing road movie, but it seems like a safe bet.
In a crumbling near-future that is, as mentioned, reminiscent of Mad Max's pre-apocalyptic setting, drifter Eric (Guy Pearce) teams up with criminal Rey (Robert Patrick) to track down his stolen car, taken by the same criminal gang that abandoned Rey. That sounds like a recipe for a buddy comedy, but The Rover is anything but, depicting a bleak outback world on the brink of total collapse, where military units protect mining interests while the civilian world falls to savage barbarism. The Rover would make a good double feature with fellow Aussie John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road… if your idea of a good time is numb despair.
Otherwise known by the less evocative title Alien Arrival, Arrowhead sees Kye (Dan Mor), a prisoner of war after an interplanetary conflict, rescued from a mining camp and offered the opportunity to rescue his father from execution. When things go awry he winds up stranded on a desert moon along with his ship's computer, downloaded into a mobile robot chassis, and a biologist named Tarren (Aleisha Rose), for company.
Riffing on the Twilight Zone episode "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air," Arrowhead is a real DIY effort that started life as a short film before being expanded into a feature. The film changes things up repeatedly; what starts as a scifi man-on-a-mission movie becomes a survival tale, before taking a left turn into mystery and body horror when an alien biological threat is introduced late in the game. That's both a strength and a liability, demonstrating an admiral breadth of imagination while at the same time never fully developing any one set of ideas presented along the way.
All else aside, astute, evocative cinematography and production design carry the day, and it will be interesting to see what writer and director Jesse O'Brien can do down the track with (hopefully) more resources at his disposal.
The Death and Life of Otto Bloom (2016)
Shot and cut in a mockumentary style, Cris Jones' film tells the story of the titular oddity (Xavier Samuel of the Twilight saga and Fury), a man who experiences time in reverse, remembering the future but completely unable to recall the past. Thus, as he ages, he knows less about the world, but his knowledge of the future makes him a messianic cult figure. The film uses mock archival footage, newspaper clippings, and talking head interviews to good effect, but our real point of ingress is Dr. Ada Fitzgerald, played by mother-and-daughter actresses Rachel Ward and Matilda Brown, the neurologist whose fascination with Bloom's condition turns to love.
A confident, intelligent and moving film, The Death and Life of Otto Bloom marked the debut of a singular talent. Unfortunately, writer and director Jones unexpectedly passed away last year at the age of 37, leaving this as his only feature.
Gateway Alpha (2018)
Jacqueline McKenzie (Deep Blue Sea, The 4400) is Jane Chandler, a driven particle researcher whose investigations into matter teleportation - a clear nod to The Fly, albeit with less baroque-looking telepods - accidentally unlock a way to travel to parallel dimensions. After her husband (Myles Pollard, X-men Origins: Wolverine) is killed in a traffic accident, the grief-stricken Chandler brings back a replacement from another world. But each world is different in some way, and the man she brings back may not be as trustworthy as the man she lost.
Writer and director John V. Soto's been on the genre beat for some time now; his 2010 horror thriller Needle featured Travis Fimmel and Ben Mendelsohn, who seem to have done quite well for themselves of late. This, his first pure science fiction film, deals with some tropes that are fairly familiar to scifi fans, but the proceedings are anchored by a grounded, believable turn from Mackenzie, who keeps us invested even when the plot machinations seem a bit too predictable.
The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One (2016)
Director Shane Abbess has never been one to shy away from showing his influences. His first feature, the dark urban fantasy Gabriel, owed a large debt to The Crow, while his follow up, Infini, demonstrated his affection for James Cameron, specifically Aliens.
The Cameron influence is again clearly felt in the ambitiously titled The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One. Set on a colony world in the not-too-distant future, Abbess's admirably game low budget actioner sees Kane (Daniel McPherson, soon to be seen in A Wrinkle in Time), a military contractor for shadowy mega-corporation Exor, team up with an escaped prisoner, Sy (Kellan Lutz of the Twilight saga), to rescue the former's young daughter before Exor nukes the site from orbit to cover up a bioweapons experiment gone wrong.
Reminiscent of some of the bolder low budget science fiction/action flicks of the '80s (remember Cherry 2000?) The Osiris Child throws everything at the wall, and a lot of it sticks. We get a well-executed dogfight between high-tech attack planes, some effective rubber suit monsters, an evocative location (opal mining town Coober Pedy, which also served as the backdrop for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and the 2000 Val Kilmer stinker Red Planet), and Temuera "Jango Fett" Morrison as a sadistic prison warden. What's not to like? Hopefully Volume Two isn't too far away.
Based on the novel Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge, OtherLife sees Jessica De Gouw (These Final Hours, Arrow) as Ren Amari, a brilliant researcher at a biotech startup working on a kind of pharmaceutical virtual reality system that can be used to induce realistic memories in a subject. Amari's motives stem from guilt; she wants to help her brother, rendered brain dead by an accident and stuck on life support, to experience some semblance of a full life, possibly even curing him. Naturally, her business partners see more commercial applications - such as forcing prisoners to subjectively endure lengthy sentences - "hard time without the time" as one suit cracks. Naturally, betrayal, corporate malfeasance, and the blurring of the lines between realities ensue.
Director Ben C Lucas crafts a clean, minimalist cyberpunk thriller that does a lot with a little, using carefully chosen locations to evince a sense of the near future rather than squandering the clearly lean budget on expensive tableaux. De Gouw makes for a charismatic if somewhat archetypal biohacker hero, all hoods, shapeless sweaters and big boots, and if the plot convolutions sometimes stretch credulity past the breaking point, that's the risk you take when you follow in the footsteps of Philip K. Dick and his acolytes.