Sadly, if you ask most people what defines a “science-fiction” movie, they’re likely to say “special effects and action” rather than “intriguing ideas.” But in the nonstop race at the Hollywood box office, it’s nice to sometimes step back and remember that bigger budgets, bigger stars, and bigger special effects aren’t always better when it comes to sci-fi movies.
In recent years, thanks to the ever-cheaper availability of CGI effects, young filmmakers who grew up on the big-spectacle sci-fi flicks of the ’80s and ’90s are now breaking into the industry with smaller-scale films. These movies may not have A-list stars, but they use their limited effects budgets for maximum visual and emotional impact–and best of all, some of them tap into the cheapest (and yet rarest) of resources: creative, thought-provoking ideas.
We were all so busy last week yappin’ about the Rapture, most of us missed the home-video release of this very apropos horror thriller. Directed by Brad Anderson (the creator of several other terrific low-budget genre films including Transsiberian, The Machinist, and Session 9), it follows Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo, and Thandie Newton as they find themselves in a deserted Detroit full of empty shoes and clothes. Turns out there’s something formless in the growing darkness that’s swallowing folks up unless they stay in the light. Like a lot of smaller genre films, Vanishing comes up with some great ideas but eventually runs out ways to make use of them. Still, Anderson wrings quite a bit of genuine dread and creepiness out of those malevolent, sentient shadows.
The most thematically ambitious of the bunch, this gripping low-key film takes a unique post-District 9 approach to the idea of an alien “invasion.” Accidentally arriving in northern Mexico a few years ago on a returning NASA probe, alien life forms have evolved and infested the area, now a “quarantine zone” that’s more a geopolitical issue than a sci-fi threat. Telling the story of a photo journalist (Scoot McNairy) and his boss’ daughter (Whitney Able) as they try to buy a ride out of the zone, writer-director Gareth Edwards has made a “realistic” indie drama (in part an immigration allegory) that happens to involve giant, glowing, octopus-like aliens on the side. Like Vanishing‘s Anderson, Edwards has a good eye for getting a lot out of simple imagery–a shot near the end of an alien in the lightning-lit night is one of my favorites from last year.
Okay, not all of these little films are trying to break the usual Hollywood Special Effects mold–in Skyline the filmmaking team of brothers Greg and Colin Strause (Aliens Vs Predators: Requiem!) have set out to prove you can do a big-spectacle, alien-invasion action movie (as witnessed from a single LA apartment complex) on a very low budget. They succeed at least visually–the aliens and space ships of Skyline (the first in what the brothers hope is a series) look amazing for what they cost. If the Brothers Strause had gotten as high a lot-for-a-little return on the movie’s dialog and acting (including 24‘s Eric Balfour and Scrubs‘ Donald Faison) they might have had a genuine break-out sci-fi phenomenon on their hands. As it is, Skyline looks very cool as long as you don’t pay much attention to the non-alien bits.
Locke’s Low-Budget Sci-Fi Hall of Fame
Want more examples of great science fiction done on the cheap? Here are some of my faves–what are yours?
- The Terminator (1984) — Some franchises and stars get so big and directors become so well known for record-breaking budgets, it’s easy to forget they started out small, with tight, economical sci-fi thrillers that cost less than the CGI rendering of a single Avatar critter.
- The Quiet Earth (1985) — Fantastic low-key mind-blower from New Zealand about The Last Man on Earth. (Or so he thinks.) One of the best closing shots ever.
- Cube (1997) — Writer-director Vincenzo (Splice) Natali’s debut takes a simple premise and a simple set, and binds it up in terrifyingly complex possibilities and paranoias.
- Primer (2004) — What’s amazing isn’t the nearly non-existent budget of this time-travel thriller, but the unbelievably labyrinthine plot structure that will take you multiple viewings and a white board to figure out.
- Moon (2009) – Duncan Jones (Source Code) made a strong first impression with this mesmerizing philosophical thriller–and having a brilliant Sam Rockwell as the only character doesn’t hurt one bit.