Is Aussie-made indie sci-fi the hot new thing?

Another brilliant Aussie sci-fi short film has caught our attention — this time, a tale of scrabbling for survival in a bleak dystopia.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

Another brilliant Aussie sci-fi short film has caught our attention — this time, a tale of scrabbling for survival in a bleak dystopia.

When filmmaker Stu Willis saw some photos of Jonas Bendiksen's "Spaceship Junkyard", a photo series about salvaging space rocket scrap from the Baikonur Cosmodome, something stuck in his head.

"Those images really stayed with me. They seemed to be the people the future was leaving behind," he told CNET Australia. "That seed of an idea then, somehow, blended together with what was happening around me; with my our dependency on mining, and the stories I've heard from about and from remote mining towns, as well as our internal debates over people smugglers and asylum seekers. The idea that Australia could become a "transit hub" for people smuggling had an appealing irony for me."

From there was born Payload — a bleak 18-minute sci-fi film about poverty, fascism and the overwhelming need to get away to something better, written and directed by Willis.

As a sci-fi film, the "sci-fi" parts are minimal, centred around a space elevator that is present in the film more as an idea, a dream, an aspiration.

"Space elevators are just this brutal, utilitarian way of transporting goods and people into space," Willis said. "There isn't anything romantic about them. They're like trains, but to space. But just like trains, they can still represent something greater — escape. Really, Payload could be remade as a western, with the Crawler (space elevator) being replaced by a freight train."

Like Arrowhead: Signal, which we came across last month, the film has a sort of minimal starkness to it. Everything is harshly lit, emphasising the difficulty of scrabbling for a subsistence life, when there's nowhere to hide and when you have no one upon whom you can really depend.

We couldn't help wondering if there's something about sci-fi that appeals to Aussie filmmakers, particularly how both films gravitate towards these themes in different ways — and if we're about to see a surge in locally made independent science fiction films.

"It's great, isn't it?" Willis told us. "I do think there's a wave of Aussie sci-fi coming. David Michôd, director of Animal Kingdom, is doing a film called The Rover, which is sci-fi. There's Mad Max, obviously, even if it's not independent. The Spierig brothers are doing another feature, Predestination. There's a smaller (more horror) film called Crawlspace, which is premiering at Stiges [Film Festival]. These Final Hours is shooting in Western Australia. And then there's shorts like Arrowhead, Cryo, Status and Payload, too."

Willis thinks there are two reasons for this recent turn to the science-fiction genre.

"Firstly, the cost of doing 'high production values' has come down, and you need those high production values to make sci-fi feel serious, rather than cheesy. We can now use home computers to do world class visual effects that ten years ago were only the realm of big Hollywood movies," he said. "Secondly, and most importantly, is that, I think there's an uneasiness in Australia at the moment. It's under the surface, so it's harder to express in contemporary dramas. One of sci-fi's great strengths is being able to comment on the present. Climate change, mining, asylum seekers, our wealth compared to the rest of the world ... I think that's all leading Australian filmmakers to be looking at science-fiction as a way to express their thoughts."

Payload is certainly a beautiful expression of desperation, and the lengths to which one might go for freedom. Willis also told us that he is working on a feature-length film set in the same universe; if Payload is anything to go by, as well as Willis' previous credits in film effects, we think it will be a film to go on our must-watch lists. Also, after watching Payload, we really want to know more about the world Willis has created.

You can watch Payload below. For more information, you can visit the Payload website or Willis' own website, StuWillis.com.

And if Payload piqued your interest, you can check out Willis' previous short films on Vimeo: 307: A Love Story and not my film.