Fantastic Planet: Australian Sci-Fi and Fantasy Gala Shorts/Crawlspace

So this is the Australian slice of the Fantastic Planet film festival...

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It’s been said that local film critics and commentators can be too soft on homegrown produce (unless, that is, you happen to be talking about Australia or A Heartbeat Away).  So in writing this there’s a twinge of worry – you may think this blogger is being too kind, leaving the knives in the drawer until the next Hollywood rom-com. Or if I wrote something clichéd like ‘The future of science-fiction and fantasy is in good hands in this country’, you might respond with the sometimes justifiable, ‘They always say crap like that’.

Thing is, the cliché is true – if these two April evenings are a snapshot of the shape of things to come in local genre filmmaking, there’s much to get truly and madly excited about. The evening of Australian fantasy and science fiction shorts was, for me, the best of all the wonderful festival evenings at the Dendy. The wildly diverse bunch of films – many of them coming from the film schools – were all excellently made and acted, and all supremely entertaining. Nothing amateur about ‘em.

David Fairhurst’s Wolf At The Door – a tale of time travel where the Wild West meets the Australian cityscape – leaves a lasting impression. As does James Cowen’s The Curse of Eleanor Crabtree. Essentially animated, The Curse weaves in live action techniques into something satirical and wickedly funny, while its distant live action cousin, The Fairest Of Them All – another festival highlight is a clever fairy tale mash-up/send-up. 

The two most mind-blowing entries, though, were Kerinne Jenkins’ 10-minute Culling and Dean Law’s 15-minute The Uncanny Valley. Both stories from the future, they also contain that elusive, all-important ingredient so important in these genres – atmosphere. They feel like the future. Set underground, Culling has a kind of Orwellian/Brazil-like handle on the genre, while the minimalist The Uncanny Valley is Isaac Asimov meets Philip K. Dick meets a robot fetishist.

A couple of nights later it was back to the Dendy for a homegrown feature – Crawlspace (pictured). Again, Justin Dix’s Melbourne-made debut is seriously atmospheric, and like Culling, set below ground level – in this case, directly beneath the Pine Gap military base...

Something is catastrophically wrong at the base and a group of gung-ho elite soldiers are deployed to find out what the hell is going on. They go deep beneath Pine Gap and find the mysterious Eve (a sensational, chameleon-like Amber Clayton) – plus a parade of the weird, strange and creepy, which concoct into a genuinely thrilling, well plotted yarn that works just about all of the time.

Already Hollywood (yes the Hollywood) has approached Dix, wanting to make the whole thing again, Tinsel Town-style, the filmmaker told us in the Q&A after the screening. Without giving specifics, he also said that Crawlspace was – like so many films on the festival program – made on a shoestring.

For film-lovers, that’s what is so exciting about movies like Crawlspace and the shorts Culling and The Uncanny Valley – they are triumphs of the imagination over wallets. They make ingenious use of minimal resources to take us to other places – places that often the biggest wallets in the galaxy couldn’t buy their way in to.

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