The state of science fiction

Is it the atmospheric desert landscapes or could there be something more mysterious behind the number of science-fiction films being made in South Australia?

Oct 07, 2022, updated Oct 07, 2022
'Carnifex' sees an aspiring documentary maker (played by Alexandra Park, pictured) and two conservationists encounter a terrifying new species in post-bushfire Australia. Photo: supplied

'Carnifex' sees an aspiring documentary maker (played by Alexandra Park, pictured) and two conservationists encounter a terrifying new species in post-bushfire Australia. Photo: supplied

At this month’s Adelaide Film Festival, three of the Investment Fund features – the international creative showcase for SA talent – are science fiction, along with a short film about extra-terrestrial invaders. They build on a growing trend from previous festivals that includes the zombie pandemic thriller Cargo in 2017; the robot psychodrama I Am Mother, starring Hilary Swank, in 2018; and in 2020 the sci-fi eco drama 2067, with Kodi Smit-McPhee.

One of the three 2022 offerings, Carnifex – an opening weekend, red-carpet premiere – is set in a not-so-distant, post-bushfire Australia in which the charred and ravaged landscape has given birth to a new species of marauding megafauna.

“It’s a wilder kind of sci-fi – a big production, with special effects,” says AFF artistic director Mat Kesting. “They have made a really solid creature flick with an environmental underpinning, so there is a message there.”

Starring Alexandra Park, Sisi Stringer and Harry Greenwood (whose father, actor Hugo Weaving, is on the AFF board), Carnifex is the directorial debut of experienced editor Sean Lahiff, part of the team behind I Am Mother, with a former South Australian Film Corporation CEO, Helen Leake, producing. Shot in Kuitpo Forest, the story follows a documentary maker who is tracking the welfare of bush animals, guided by two conservationists.

Described as having done for the Australian bush what Jaws did for the ocean, the movie promises to reflect Lahiff’s commitment to not be boring.

“I believe entertainment is priority number one for the audience, when making films,” he says. “When I watch a film, I want to escape into its world and live for an hour and a half to feel what the characters feel.”

Also much anticipated is the ultra-low-budget, high-quality thriller Monolith, about a disgraced journalist who starts a podcast and finds herself on the trail of an alien artefact – a black brick with strange powers. Shot in the Adelaide Hills and featuring Sydney-based star-on-the-rise Lily Sullivan, it was directed by Closer Productions’ Matt Vesely, who has been obsessed with science fiction since seeing Star Wars as a child.

Lily Sullivan stars in the low-budget sci-fi thriller Monolith. Photo: Ian Routledge

“All I’ve ever cared about is genre; and that’s in my personal life as well,” Vesely says. “I think it’s about escaping into other worlds. There is something really intoxicating about living in a different kind of reality.”

Science fiction has the advantage of being more attainable for early-career directors with limited budgets, and the money for Monolith – a FilmLab/New Voices project that was mentored at script level before getting the green light – was tight. Rather than make a bigger film on the cheap, Vesely and producer Bettina Hamilton went for a strong but simple premise that would cost less.

“It’s one cast, it’s one location, it’s all on the phone, so it came out of that,” says Vesely, who drafted South Australian actors including Damon Herriman, Erik Thomson and Kate Box for off-screen speaking roles.

Vesely also believes there is a move in cinema towards science fiction, with streaming audiences, in particular, embracing high-concept sci-fi like Stranger Things, Counterpart, Black Mirrors and Severance.

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“People and relationships are still the heart of it,” Vesely says. “I always like films that are about something as well, not just a fun narrative but with something very human at the core.”

For the Film Festival’s gala closing night event, Kesting has chosen Talk to Me, the first feature film from the RackaRacka brothers, twins Danny and Michael Philippou, whose impressive YouTube following of 6.63 million subscribers was built around high-voltage horror spoofs and comic explosions. While they are new at directing, the film was guided by experienced producers Kristina Ceyton (The Babadook, Cargo) and Samantha Jennings (Cargo) and a cast that includes Miranda Otto and Sophie Wilde, to tell the story of a young woman who conjures up dead spirits with a ceramic hand.

Kesting says the brothers from Pooraka, who built their careers on the back of sheer inventiveness, are a prime example of South Australian talent elevating stories to the world.

“Their energy is palpable,” he says. “We invested in this film very consciously to expand and attract new, younger audiences who the film is geared towards.”

‘RackaRacka’ brothers Danny and Michael Philippou will make their film directing debut with Talk to Me. Photo: Matthew Thorne

With the AFF becoming an annual event from this year, and COVID lockdowns gone, Kesting and his team have been able to attract a strong international program with a new Special Presentations strand offering one-off showings of some of the biggest films from the Venice Film Festival, including Cate Blanchett as a troubled conductor in Tar, and the return of Martin McDonagh’s iconic screen pairing from In Bruges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, in The Banshees of Inisherin, about the fracturing of a friendship.

Other gems to watch for are the Swedish dark comedy Triangle of Sadness; Aftersun, with Paul Mescal as a divorced father on holiday with his daughter; a dazzling re-telling of the opera Carmen, set in Mexico but filmed partly in South Australia, with Mescal again; and Riley Keough (Zola) making her debut as a director with War Pony, filmed on a South Dakota reservation.

Kesting says the festival’s annual cycle, guaranteed by the State Government for four years, is an enormous boost for continuity and will help the local film community, with a number of projects already in contention for AFF 2023.

“If you look at the Adelaide Fringe, WOMADelaide and the Adelaide Festival, they have all done well, their box office has grown and operations are stabilised. It gives us continuity and allows for longer-range programming.”

The Adelaide Film Festival runs from October 19 to 30 across various venues.

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