If I were asked to name my favourite job over the past 15 years, since I took leave of my senses to write full-time, I’d probably have no idea how to answer. Useless, really. But one that I enjoyed immensely was writing features for the official Farscape magazine.
Remember the television series Farscape? Most likely, you never saw it. Produced in America, filmed in Sydney, it rated through the floor. It did so badly, in fact, that the Nine Network programmed new episodes as space-fillers while most of us were watching the Sydney Olympics on Channel Seven.
However, like much science fiction, it had a cult following. As the magazine was published in London, my job was to stay in Australia, interviewing some of the regular cast and more memorable guest actors. As the show was US-produced, it could afford the cream of Australia’s acting talent, or at least the ones who weren’t already overseas. I spoke to everyone from Barry Otto to Angie Milliken about going outside their comfort zones and playing alien beings. Claudia Karvan revealed to me the troubles of wearing a skintight alien suit that not only made her unrecognisable and kept her in the costume room for two hours every morning, but also made it difficult to eat or go to the bathroom. It was great, she said, but admitted that she’d never do it again because ‘I’m a sook.’
Farscape stood out from the other space operas because, though created by Americans, it used mostly Australian writers and actors, giving it an edgier, more maverick quality. Australian filmmakers don’t usually have the budget for such fantasies, which is a shame, because we do them rather well. Our own view of the universe is suitably crazy.
So it’s great to see the nominees of the AACTA Awards, our premier film awards. If you knew they were coming (on January 29, to be exact), you probably reacted with some degree of indifference. Commercially, it’s been a quiet year for Aussie films.
But look at those much-maligned gen
res of science fiction, fantasy and horror, as loved by geeks and comic-book fans. Movie awards tend to scoff at such delights. It took 63 years for the Oscars to finally hand their best film award to a horror film (The Silence of the Lambs), and 75 years for a fantasy film (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) to take it home. Somehow, for the past 86 years of its history, no science fiction flick (not even 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) has won that prestigious trophy.
But which film has more AACTA nominations than any other this year? Why, the time travel spectacle Predestination, with nine (including best film), compared to eight for Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner. Predestination is proof of what you can do on an Australian budget (provided you know a couple of big-name stars who are willing to trim their salary). It’s about… well, that’s the problem. It’s difficult to describe without spoiling. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t do better in the box-office.
Or perhaps it was just neglected, like one of the year’s best-reviewed films, the horror movie The Babadook (six nominations). ‘Best-reviewed’ doesn’t just mean Australian films. After an acclaimed but low-key Australian premiere, The Babadook won attention in the US, the UK and France. Stephen King loved it. ‘I have never seen a more terrifying film,’ said US director William Friedkin (who made The Exorcist, so he knows about terrifying films). Numerous five-star British reviews suggested The Babadook was the best horror movie of the year, as it made more in its opening weekend in Britain than its entire theatrical run in Australia. And Aussie film-goers, who had dismissed it a few months previously, considered that perhaps local films don’t all suck.
The late-blooming success of The Babadook makes the AACTAs a bit more interesting. Due to the relatively small output of Australian cinema, these awards are usually predictable affairs. A year ago, it seemed obvious that Tracks, the one-woman-crossing-the-Outback drama, would be named best film. The ever-popular Aussie starlet Mia Wasikowska, who usually makes Hollywood films, could finally get an AACTA for best actress.
But now, Tracks is up against The Babadook. Moreover, The Babadook stars Essie Davis, best known to Australians as the super-confident Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Can you get two more different roles? She has joined the great chameleons of Australian cinema, like Cate Blanchett (who didn’t release any Australian films last year) and Jacqueline McKenzie (who is nominated for The Water Diviner, but that’s another category). Of the other nominees, only Sarah Snook, in Predestination, gives an equally surprising performance – but no, I can’t explain her role without spoiling the plot.
True, Tracks and Wasikowska could still win. However, the AACTAs have often been a little more adventurous. Besides, nothing gives a movie more credibility than international raves. The Babadook might be pulp, but it’s critically acclaimed pulp.
Meanwhile, we have seven nominations for the dystopian thriller The Rover. Other science fiction flicks (The Infinite Man, These Final Hours) have been ignored, despite critics’ adoration and – as per tradition – ennui from local audiences. A pity, because you don’t have to be a super-geek to enjoy such films. At the 2014 international box-office, the top 10 films were all science fiction or fantasy. True, nobody in Australia can afford to make Guardians of the Galaxy or another Transformers movie, but – as the Mad Max series proved, and will hopefully continue to prove when the next one is relased this year – we can do these genres as well as anyone. Hey, the Australian film industry was built on fantasy! (How else would you describe Picnic at Hanging Rock?)
I’m guessing that The Babadook will win the AACTA for best film and its writer-director, Jennifer Kent, will be sought-after by Hollywood as Australia’s hottest new talent. Still, I’m not placing any bets. This ain’t the Oscars, you know!
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Mark Juddery is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.
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