It’s become a mantra of critics of the Australian film industry to call for "more genre films". I know what they usually mean by this.
For some reason, while many critics of Australian films are obsessed with horror films like Wolf Creek, they do not seem to regard crime stories or lavender lady films for the blue-rinse set (starring whoever is the Aussie equivalent of Maggie Smith) as genre films at all. This is a pity, since there’s one genre that’s all set to be dusted off and revamped, not only here but in the US and indeed, the rest of the world: science fiction.
You may be excused if you initially assume that I have a drooling android loose in the top paddock. Following the decline of the Western and the rapid rise and fall of the buddy cop movie (Lethal Weapon et al), science fiction has become the dominant genre of spectacle-driven blockbuster filmmaking. You may well ask, how can independent filmmakers in Australia or indeed anywhere compete commercially with the likes of digital-FX-a-thons like Independence Day, Transformers, Deep Impact , War of the Worlds or whatever digit we’ve reached in the Terminator series?
Answer: you’re not paying attention. One of the success stories of the year is District 9, a film that performs a neat twist on the creature-feature formula by transforming aliens into the oppressed, corralled into South African squatter camps after their mothership stalls over Jo’burg. The allegorical level of the film — mistreated aliens = black South Africans — is hardly subtle but District 9 can at least lay claim to a perceptible subtext.
What’s more, the film — whose special effects are more seamlessly convincing than many films with 10 times the budget — is an independent production with no name stars, originating in South Africa and shepherded to the screen by executive producer Kiwi Peter Jackson. It’s not just another monster studio baby. Despite its Transformers-style finale, District 9 is far more thoughtful and entertaining than most sf movies belched out by the Hollywood studios.
Exhibit Two for the defence of sf will be released in Australia next Thursday. The Box is the third feature from Richard Kelly, the filmmaker who gave us the teen angst meets rip-in-the-time-space-continuum story Donnie Darko. The new film falls within the well-respected tradition of "inner space", the strand of sf that rejects space travel and monsters and finds its intrigue instead in the moral, existential and philosophical quandaries produced by advances in technology. Here the quandary is faced by a family loaned a mysterious box that will bring them a gift of a $1 million if they choose to press the button on top — and cause the death of a stranger.
Inner space themes were fondly nurtured by UK writers of the 1960s like JG Ballard and Brian Aldiss, and reach back further to John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine of the 1940s and 50s, to which Kelly pays open homage.
The Box is one of those seriously flawed films that is much more engaging than many more smoothly crafted, yet anodyne, specimens. Watching it I wondered why we don’t more frequently see stories with this level of ambition: in other words, why don’t we see more films of ideas?
My thoughts moved along the same lines when I was watching Duncan Jones’s intriguing independent drama Moon the other day. Moon is about a solitary lunar worker (Sam Rockwell) who is fast approaching the end of a three-year stint mining a substance that will revolutionise Earth’s energy production. That is, until events start to get seriously weird.
Moon is another reminder that science fiction need not be the skin-deep genre that George Lucas and Michael Bay expound but rather an opportunity for serious filmmakers to explore ideas and fresh sensations and experiences. The film sparks memories of a handful of earlier classics like Dark Star, the low-budget film that launched John Carpenter’s career as a director. This droll comedy was the first film to suggest that life as an astronaut might be as mundane and unglamorous as life back on earth on the factory night shift. Moon‘s grotty living quarters and Rockwell’s lank hair and greasy complexion are clear echoes of this theme.
More significantly, Moon echoes two of the most revered science fiction movies of them all, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Andrei Tarkosvky’s Solaris — both of them films of grand philosophical, even spiritual and theological ambition.
Tarkovsky later returned to the genre in Stalker, set in a strange, post-acopalyptic area called The Zone. And Tarkovsky was not the only European art film director to use the supposedly low-brow vehicle of sf. French New Wave filmmakers François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker made sf films such as Fahrenheit 451, Alphaville and La Jetée (which was remade by Terry Gilliam in unfortunately madcap style as 12 Monkeys). Bertrand Tavernier later managed to predict the ethically challenged media sensationalism of our current decade in Death Watch.
These intriguing films were made on relatively limited budgets, years before digital effects were invented. They showed that science fiction could be at it most potent when viewers were required to use their imaginations.
Being able to encompass grandiose spectacle and serious themes is no impediment to Hollywood — witness films like Total Recall and Blade Runner, both based on the writing of Phillip K Dick. But $100 million budgets are often not necessary. A thousand potent sf stories are waiting to be turned into film with only a smattering of modest special effects, if any.
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