Though many international science fiction films are shot in Australia (The Matrix, Star Wars: Episodes II & III, On The Beach) – often by Australian directors (Alex Proyas’ Dark City and Knowing) – sci-fi flicks that are locally created, shot, and funded are far less common. From a decidedly slim but often fascinating field, here are Australia’s Top Ten Sci-Fi Films.
DREAMLAND (2009) One of Australia’s most talented writer/directors, Ivan Sen boasts a truly eclectic resume, with the rich promise of the small-scale indigenous dramas, Beneath Clouds (2002) and Toomelah (2011), eventually finding flower in his brilliantly wide-canvas thriller, Mystery Road (2013), and its companion film, Goldstone (2016). Wedged in between those is 2009’s Dreamland, a near-dialogue-free drama that flirts refreshingly with the science fiction genre. In the black-and-white low budgeter, Daniel Roberts (Underbelly) plays an obsessive UFO hunter scrambling in the harsh terrain of Area 51, the Nevada Desert’s hot-spot for otherworldly sightings. Sen’s narrative is a minimalist and mesmerising one, spiking a mysterious mood which leaves the audience to decipher the dark shadows and enigmatic shapes that flitter across the screen…and make up their own minds about where said shapes originate from. The intriguing film subtly asks whether the search for UFOs is more of a spiritual inquiry for those who partake in it, and a longing for connection beyond our own world. “Hopefully, you’ll walk away with something that stays inside you a little bit,” Daniel Roberts told FilmInk in 2009. “If you’re still thinking about it, you’ll know that something has pricked your consciousness.” And despite the fact that he’s received the most praise for his realist dramas, sci-fi could very well be where Ivan Sen’s heart lies. He told FilmInk in 2013 that he was hoping to make “an international, commercial film mixing romance and science fiction.” Bring it on!
SONS OF STEEL (1988) Largely forgotten but recently revived (at 2010’s Perth Revelation International Film Festival), Sons Of Steel is Australia’s only heavy metal time travelling post-apocalyptic sci-fi musical mini-epic, and it’s a wild, wild ride indeed. The lone directorial effort of one-time music producer, Gary Keady, the fast, funny, and furious Sons Of Steel was born out of the post-apocalyptic short, Knightmare, which Keady co-wrote and co-directed with Yahoo Serious (Young Einstein) in 1984. The film received widespread attention, and swiftly found its feet as a short opener for David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi epic, Dune. “It kicked up interest,” Keady told FilmInk in 2010. “We ended up in Hollywood with the studios talking to us about making a feature version.” That feature version, however, ended up happening in Australia, and eventually became the caterwauling Sons Of Steel, the torrid tale of cocksure heavy metal frontman, Black Alice (played by the hulking Rob Hartley), who is inadvertently sent on a tour-of-duty through time to save Sydney from nuclear holocaust…amongst other things. Filmed and set in the labyrinths and tunnels under Sydney, the film is an unholy meld of Mad Max and The Rocky Picture Horror Show…all made on a shoestring. “I started with $3,000,000 and ended up with just under $900,000 once the wolves got hold,” Gary Keady told FilmInk. “I had the best team that I could ask for, but we didn’t have the budget…and that team had to do it bloody tough.”
DAYBREAKERS (2009) Though ostensibly a blood-and-gore splattered horror film, Daybreakers – the 2009 sophomore effort from Australia’s genre masters, The Spierig Brothers – is also set in a dystopic future, and its detailed depiction of a horrifying new world places it firmly within the often blurry borders of the science fiction genre. Against the grey, sleek cityscape of Daybreakers, almost everyone has been turned into a vampire so that – as in the 1968 sci-fi classic, Planet Of The Apes – humans are now the frightened minority, and a hunted species. “The script is a beautiful allegory,” the film’s star, Ethan Hawke, told FilmInk in 2009. “On the surface, the whole world is vampires, and they must be stopped. It’s your basic plague movie, but underneath is this very strange parable where the whole world is full of vampires: everybody is sucking something off someone else, everyone wants to get something else, and no one’s aim is true. This metaphor just sings in the script.” Set in the not too distant future of 2019, the vampire world’s fresh blood supply is verging on extinction. Painfully aware of their bleak future, renegade humans (led by Claudia Karvan and Willem Dafoe, and assisted by Hawke’s vampire haematologist) are trying to persuade the ruling bloodsuckers that an alternative has to be found before they suck the human race dry. “We spent a lot of time exploring and understanding the world, and the mechanics of it,” Michael Spierig told FilmInk.
SPIRITS OF THE AIR, GREMLINS OF THE CLOUDS (1989) A master at creating stunning visual tableaux – on US-financed films such as The Crow, Dark City, I, Robot, and Knowing – it’s no surprise that writer/director, Alex Proyas (sure, he might not be too happy with us and film critics in general at the moment, but he’s still a cinematic visionary, end of story), came to film via the world of music video, finally jumping to the big screen with the eye-popping 1989 arthouse sci-fi flick, Spirits Of The Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds. “We were naïve and inexperienced, and we didn’t have the resources,” Proyas told FilmInk of his oddball debut. “There was a little bit of AFC money, but the majority came from MMA, who were INXS’ management. We’d just made a video with INXS, and these guys wanted to get involved with movie making. They had no idea either, so they gave us a little bit of money, and we made it piecemeal. We certainly didn’t have the support of The Australian Film Commission, who basically told me that I should give up making movies after seeing the film!” Though Proyas denied enjoying having the last laugh (“They’re not worth laughing at,” he sneered to FilmInk), Spirits Of The Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds proved that he could make movies…and good ones at that. Set in a bizarre post-apocalyptic desert world – where cars are spiked vertically in the sand, and religious imagery abounds – the film is visually stunning and thematically enriched, telling of a mysterious stranger (Norman Boyd) who bonds with a wheelchair-bound misfit (Michael Lake) through a shared love of flight.
THE INFINITE MAN (2014) “Our sensibilities didn’t allow us to make a stripped back realist piece,” producer, Sandy Cameron, told FilmInk in 2014. “We wanted to do something with a high concept and an epic sweep, which is not easy with the limitations that we had.” Though made on a minuscule budget, The Infinite Man – the auspicious debut of writer/director, Hugh Sullivan – is jam-packed with ideas, imagination, and narrative innovation. A fresh and funny time travel romance, The Infinite Man stars Josh McConville as inventive young scientist, Dean, who attempts to win back his girlfriend, Lana (Hannah Marshall), by literally reliving a perfect weekend getaway. Twisting temporal boundaries via his own custom-made device, Dean is soon in way over his highly intelligent head. The smart, innovative screenplay sees Dean’s plan complicated not only by Lana becoming stuck in a recurring temporal loop, but also by a spiral of multiple Deans emerging from different time zones, each one in competition with the next. Though set in one location (an old motel), The Infinite Man bounces ingeniously all over the stylistic and emotional map. “It was challenging,” Josh McConville told FilmInk. “In one scene, I would be playing Dean # 1, and in the next scene, I would be playing Dean # 4 in the future. Each Dean had his own particular trait, which made it easier, and Hugh always had the answers.” Wonderfully and enjoyably obtuse, The Infinite Man is savvy sci-fi on a shoestring.
THESE FINAL HOURS (2013) “I love good science fiction movies that make you feel and think,” writer/director, Zak Hilditch, told FilmInk in 2013. “I love Twelve Monkeys and 28 Days Later. This is my attempt to make something like that, which tells a very personal story, but within a genre framework.” The film in question was Hilditch’s fourth effort (but major budget debut), These Final Hours, which introduces us to a sun-blasted world, already partly incinerated by an oncoming asteroid. With the apocalypse looming, Australia is shattered, its streets ripped by murder, looting, violence, and insanity. In the middle of this madness is James (Nathan Phillips), whose plans to write himself off with drugs and booze are derailed when he saves the life of a young girl (Angourie Rice, now on the rise thanks to her great performance in The Nice Guys) searching for her missing father. This unexpected act sends the bleary but big hearted James on a path to (literal) last minute redemption. Thrilling, heartbreaking, and strikingly imaginative, These Final Hours paints a highly original picture of the end of our world. “It explores a universal question,” Hilditch told FilmInk. “What would you do on your last day on earth? Everyone has their own movie, and this is just one story. That resonates with audiences because you go away thinking, ‘What would I do? Which one of those characters would I have been? Or would I have done something completely different?’ It makes you ask yourself where you belong, and who you truly love.”
INCIDENT AT RAVEN’S GATE (1988) “A film is many things, but one of the things it is, is a series of ‘moments’ – big ones and little ones,” filmmaker, Rolf De Heer (Charlie’s Country), once said. “The more moments in the film, the more likely an audience will come out excited.” Rolf De Heer’s films are cracking at the seams with moments: some shocking, some beautiful, some touching, and some ugly. From the strange cruelty of Bad Boy Bubby and Alexandra’s Project to the bruising sadness of The Quiet Room and Dance Me To My Song, De Heer has proven a master at creating moments. Not surprisingly, when he’s dabbled in science fiction (1997’s Epsilon; 2007’s Dr. Plonk), those moments have been utterly unforgettable. De Heer’s first stab at sci-fi, however, remains his best. After debuting quietly with the 1984 kids’ flick, Tale Of A Tiger, De Heer ramped up with 1988’s Incident At Raven’s Gate, an eerie and engagingly abstruse slab of outback sci-fi which drops an alien presence into a remote corner of Australia. Though ostensibly about the relationship that sizzles between an ex-con (Steven Vidler), his brother (Ritchie Singer), and his brother’s wife (Celine O’Leary), Incident At Raven’s Gate also vibrates with strange cosmic happenings: dead birds fall from the sky; machines break down; crop circles appear; and an enigmatic government parapsychologist (Terry Camilleri) makes his presence felt. Incident At Raven’s Gate is sci-fi the Rolf De Heer way: weird, wild, and wonderful.
PREDESTINATION (2014) “We’re fans of science fiction, and Robert A. Heinlein is one of the big guns,” writer/director, Michael Spierig, told FilmInk in 2014. “His short story, All You Zombies, was written over fifty years ago, but it’s still so relevant and original. It’s testament to Heinlein’s mind. He’s written wonderful books, but a lot of his material has remained untapped by filmmakers.” Teaming with once again with co-director and twin brother, Peter Spierig (with whom he’d previously created the sci-fi zombie low budgeter, Undead, and the above mentioned Daybreakers), Michael Spierig became one of the few to adapt the controversial American author for the big screen, expanding All You Zombies into the ambitious Predestination. Complex and utterly riveting, the film bulges dangerously with subtext (incorporating everything from intersex/transgender politics to the role of society in the shaping of the individual) in its tale of a time travelling government agent (Ethan Hawke) tracking down a terrorist, but The Spierig Brothers maintain tight control over their sprawling narrative, and deliver a stunning Aussie sci-fi flick unlike any other. “We wanted to make a commercial movie,” Peter Spierig told FilmInk. “There are unusual elements, so it was important to make it interesting for a broad audience. We also wanted to make it about the characters, and not just the sci-fi tricks. There are a lot of twists and turns, but if you don’t believe the characters and feel for them, then it’s all meaningless.”
THE ROVER (2014) Set in a remote stretch of Australia “ten years after the collapse” (as an opening title informs us), the stark sci-fi-tinged thriller, The Rover, introduces a world of arid reduction, where civilisation is hanging by a thread. The closest thing to the law are the army patrols that move from town to town, and the outback populace has responded in kind, namely with violence and debauchery. When the stony, enigmatic Eric (Guy Pearce) has his car stolen by a crew of criminals, he teams with the slow-witted but sweet dupe that they left behind (Robert Pattinson) to get it back. Though the mention of cars, criminal gangs, and an Australian post-apocalypse whip up instant memories of Mad Max, The Rover is no punked up, dystopic vision. This is an urgent, horribly familiar world with a smashed-to-bits moral compass. Thrilling, tightly characterised, and punctuated with neck-snapping jolts of violence, The Rover is a powerful meditation on the fragile nature of society itself. “I wanted the movie to feel terrifying,” writer/director, David Michod (Animal Kingdom), told FilmInk of his sophomore effort. “I wanted it to feel intimidating and menacing. When you amp up the craziness of a world left after a post-apocalyptic event, you push the audience away. I wanted it to feel immediate. This is a movie about anger. The characters are angry about what has happened to the world. They’re suffering because of what’s being engineered all around them.”
THE MAD MAX TRILOGY (1979-1985) Co-writer/director, George Miller’s bone-rattling 1979 biker flick, Mad Max, is undoubtedly one of the finest and most original sci-fi action films ever made, and was responsible for a plethora of cheap knock-offs and genre revisions (most from Italy) throughout the eighties. Set in a violent near-future where vicious biker gangs strike terror into anyone on the road, Mad Max follows the downward spiral of young cop, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson in his star making performance), who goes from disillusionment to burnt out frenzy when his wife and baby are mowed down by a vicious crew of two-wheeled maniacs, setting off a shattering chain of events that spark murder, rape, and sadistic savagery. A visceral, unforgiving thrill ride that critiques the culture of violence while at the same time offering up some of the most gut wrenching action ever committed to film, Mad Max is a fuel-injected masterpiece. George Miller then equalled it with 1981’s Mad Max 2 (titled The Road Warrior internationally), which pushed its titular anti-hero into an even more dystopic – and more distinctly sci-fi in tone – future, where petrol is scarce, and the planet is a shattered mess. “This world is not meant to be inviting,” George Miller told FilmInk’s Danny Peary for Omni’s ScreenFlights! ScreenFantasies. “It is brutal, scary, and forbidding.” A true groundbreaker, the film’s international impact was enormous, with both critics and audiences. “Never,” declared Vincent Canby of The New York Times, “has a film’s vision of the post-nuclear-holocaust world seemed quite so desolate or so brutal, or so action-packed and sometimes funny as in this extravagant film fantasy, which looks like a sadomasochistic comic book come to life.” A third, less successful entry in the series – 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – boasted a bigger budget, but a softer, less focused tone. Though disappointing, it didn’t dent the magnetic aura that had risen around Max Rockatansky, a lone anti-hero every inch as essential as Alan Ladd’s Shane, or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. The character is now appropriately part of the cult cinema firmament, as are the truly fantastic cinematic images that swirl around him. George Miller’s Mad Max films are essential entries in the futuristic, post-apocalyptic canon, and rate as bona fide sci-fi classics. “I still get letters from people wanting to write a thesis on Mad Max as classic post-modern cinema, although when I made the first film, I thought that it was just a car chase movie,” George Miller has said of his Mad Max series. “And then in every place, it seemed to have a resonance. Someone from Iceland said that Max is a lone Viking guy. In Japan, they told me that he was a samurai. I suddenly had the wit to see that I was a storyteller, and a servant of the collective unconscious.” And now thanks to the enormous success of his reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller is about to continue tapping into that collective unconscious with a proposed series of follow-up films…
OTHER AUSSIE SCI-FI…GOOD & BAD
THE CHAIN REACTION (1980) Mad Max meets The China Syndrome in this sci-fi-tinged collision of cars and nuclear meltdown.
TURKEY SHOOT (1982) Ultra-violent “hunting humans” sci-fi action belter from exploitation maestro, Brian Trenchard-Smith.
CROSSTALK (1982) Little seen sci-fi thriller about an advanced computer that witnesses a murder and resorts to violence to protect its own future.
STARSHIP (AKA 2084) (1984) Barely released sci-fi actioner set on a distant mining planet wracked by industrial unrest and patrolled by vicious police droids.
ONE NIGHT STAND (1984) Four teenagers wait out the apocalypse in The Sydney Opera House in this early effort from John Duigan (The Year My Voice Broke).
DEAD END DRIVE-IN (1986) Brian Trenchard-Smith envisions a dystopic future where society’s misfits are interned in drive-in cinema concentration camps.
SKY PIRATES (1986) John Hargreaves toplines this amiable Raiders Of The Lost Ark rip-off involving time travel and alien artefacts.
THE TIME GUARDIAN (1987) As well as a silly story about time travel and murderous cyborgs, this mid-budget disaster also includes an appearance from Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher.
SMOKE ‘EM IF YOU GOT ‘EM (1988) When a nuclear war hits Melbourne, a few of the loosest and craziest denizens respond by dancing and partying their way through the apocalypse.
FATAL SKY (1990) A barely seen Australian/Yugoslavian co-production starring Michael Nouri, Charles Durning, and Maxwell Caulfield.
ZONE 39 (1996) Peter Phelps stars in this meditative post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama about a grief-stricken soldier stationed at an isolated desert outpost.
EPSILON (1997) Rolf De Heer mixes aliens and environmentalism in this highly original effort.
TERRAIN (1997) This forgotten telemovie tracks the fraught relationships of the staff of an isolated research station on a far-flung planet.
UNDEAD (2001) The Spierig Brothers inventively – and bloodily – mix zombies and aliens.
GABRIEL (2007) This tale of warring earthbound angels is more fantasy than sci-fi, but we couldn’t resist giving it our blessing anyway.
DR. PLONK (2007) Though shot like a twenties-era silent movie, Rolf De Heer’s oddball comedy boasts a time machine and an impending apocalypse.
EXIT (2011) This little known existentialist sci-fi low budgeter turns an entire modern city into a mystery that needs to be unlocked…
IRON SKY (2012) Nazis from the moon threaten to take over the world in this deliriously high-camp German/Australian co-production.
TURKEY SHOOT (2014) Jon Hewitt gives Brian Trenchard-Smith’s exploitation shocker a thoughtful makeover.
CRAWLSPACE (2014) Inventive low budgeter set within the confines of Pine Gap’s top secret underground military compound.
WYRMWOOD (2015) This dystopic zombie flick is more horror than sci-fi, but still offers up inventive thrills aplenty.
54 DAYS (2015) A Sydney dinner party is interrupted by the end of the world in this psychological sci-fi thriller.
INFINI (2015) Gabriel director, Shane Abess, crafts an edgy, compelling, visually stunning work of exciting but cerebral science fiction on an unbelievable low budget.
TERMINUS (2015) Though Australia subs for smalltown America, and the story itself is a quintessentially American one, all of the film’s talent is Australian, and the resulting film is a fine example of a high concept achieved on a small budget.