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Thursday
Oct182018

THE AUSTRALIAN DIRECTORS WHO CHANGED THE SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSE

2018 SCIFI FILM FESTIVAL: Despite a recent run of films that include Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours (2013), Hugh Sullivan's The Infinite Man (2014), The Spierig Brothers' Predestination (2014) and Luke Sparke's Occupation (2018), Australia isn’t traditionally known for its science fiction movies (The Time Guardian...anyone?), but there have been a number of Australian directors who have not just been world class at the genre, but helped to re-define it.


With the 5th annual SciFi Film Festival about to launch in Sydney (featuring no less than six new works from Aussie filmmaking talent), guest contributor STEPHEN VAGG looks at five local filmmakers who have glimpsed the future...

Jim Sharman with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): In the early 70s there were few hotter theatre directors than Jim Sharman – he was a twenty-something wunderkind whose CV included acclaimed productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show. Sharman reprised his theatre work with the 1975 feature film adaptation, adding …Picture to the moniker but maintaining the raucous, anarchic energy of the stage production (pictured, right; Sharman, right, directing Tim Curry). A famous box office disappointment before becoming the most cult-y cult picture of all time, its combination of kitsch, gender fluidity, sexuality, camp and tunes spawned countless imitators and created some of the most devoted fans in cinema history. While Rocky Horror was the world of many, notably Richard O’Brien, Sharman’s stamp was all over it. It wasn’t Sharman’s only venture into sci fi; in Australia he also made Shirley Thompson vs The Aliens (1972), arguably the first local science fiction film (unless you count On the Beach, 1959 or Summer of Secrets, 1976). Despite Rocky Horror being a game changer, Sharman hasn’t made a feature since the dire reception afforded the film’s sequel, Shock Treatment, in 1981.

Peter Weir with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Picnic doesn’t have a reputation as a science fiction film – people generally consider if more of a mystery or period drama.  And yet, it’s a mystery that’s never solved about an event that never happened. Natalie Dormer, star of the recent mini series remake, calls the story science fiction… and the unpublished final chapter of Joan Lindsay’s novel is definitely science fiction. What no one denies is the film’s influence – it has affected countless other works dealing with death, femininity and adolescent sexuality, notably the themes of Sofia Coppola's finest work. Weir’s earlier The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) is also kind-of-sci-fi, which seems to have directly influenced the design for Death Race 2000 (1975). It’s strange Weir (pictured, above; Weir with actress Rachel Roberts) doesn’t work in this area more often, especially considering two of his best films were science fiction-esque, The Last Wave (1977) and The Truman Show (1998).

George Miller with Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): The Mad Max series can’t really claim to have invented the post apocalyptic road movie – that was already present in films like Damnation Alley (1976) and Deathsport (1978) – but those films remain that genre’s touchstone. Brilliantly transplanting Western tropes to a futuristic setting, they redefined the sci fi action film, especially Mad Max 2, and set new standards for world building and chase sequences which, to be honest, are still rarely matched, except by Miller himself in the most recent Mad Max Fury Road (2015). You can see the influence of Miller and Max on countless other films, books, TV series, video games, comic books, rock bands, directors… they revolutionised a genre.

Russell Mulcahy with Highlander (1986): In the mid 80s Russell Mulcahy was probably the most famous video clip director in the world thanks to his ground-breaking work with the likes of Duran Duran, Elton John, Spandau Ballet and Billy Joel, among many others (Ed: he directed the first video ever played on MTV, The Buggles’ 'Video Killed the Radio Star'). He made his feature debut with the visually stunning Razorback (1984) then followed it with this fascinating swashbuckler-sci-fi-fantasy-time-travel hybrid, starring Christopher Lambert (the US-born, Swiss-raised Parisian playing Scottish) and Sean Connery (the world’s most famous Scot…playing Spanish). The film was a box office disappointment at the time but became a major cult success, leading to a franchise of sequels (Mulcahy returned to helm the much-derided #2 in 1991)  and TV spin offs. Mulcahy backed away from sci-fi during his busy Hollywood heyday (Ricochet, 1991; Blue Ice, 1992; The Real McCoy, 1993; The Shadow, 1994), only to return to the genre in 2007 with Resident Evil: Extinction. (Pictured, above; Mulcahy, left, on-set with Connery).

Alex Proyas with The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998): Proyas’ talent was clear from his early video clips (amongst them the Crowded House classics 'Don’t Dream It’s Over' and 'Better be Home Soon') and his debut feature, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1988), but he was not that well known to wide cinema audiences until he made The Crow (1994), a visually dazzling work overshadowed by the tragedy of Brandon Lee’s death. Proyas confirmed his promise with the stunning Dark City (1998), which helped define “emo sci fi” of the ‘90s and ‘00s, including the films of Christopher Nolan and the Aussie-shot The Matrix (1999). He scored big with the Will Smith sci-fi starrer I, Robot (2004), but stumbled with his genre follow-ups (Knowing, 2009, with Nicholas Cage; the ill-fated Gods of Egypt, 2016). Perhaps weighted down by the studio restrictions that ironically come with big budgets (his unfilmed project Paradise Lost is one of the greatest “if only” films of Australian cinema), Proyas is still young enough to come up with a few more classic films.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published.

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