With Transformers coming to DVD next week, I was thinking about science fiction -- how it plays on-screen, how it works as a genre and, most importantly, how a big-number budget doesn't mean a high-quality film. But there are plenty of movies to check out if you want a few examples of how a lack of funds doesn't automatically translate to a lack of ideas. For this list, I wanted to concentrate on a more modern set of films - no '50s Ed Wood-style cheapies, nothing deliberately camp (with one exception), nothing that was more concerned with set design and irony than story and ideas (The American Astronaut, Forbidden Zone) and nothing that played more as horror than science fiction. I wasn't able to track down budget numbers for one of the films (The Quiet Earth), but the rest add up to a fairly modest $3 million -- total; even if you assume that The Quiet Earth cost a million dollars, you're still looking at seven amazing films for a very reasonable $4 million. Or, more bluntly, less than Michael Bay spent on slow-mo spray-on-sweat shots of Megan Fox and a urinating robot gag. And, finally, I'm sure there are some great low-budget sci-films I've missed or overlooked or just not seen ... and I'd love to hear about your picks in the comments selection below.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Striking, unsettling and beautiful, this New Zealand indie takes the basic plot of the '50s end-of-the-world film The World, the Flesh and the Devil and puts a glowing, gorgeous spin on it -- more contemplative than tense, more philosophical than plot-driven. A scientist (Bruno Lawrence) who's been working on an experimental energy source finds that he's ... the last man on Earth. And while he does find two other people wandering the desolate world, he's still forced to try and find himself. Lawrence is impressive -- essentially carrying the first third of the movie -- and Geoff Murphy's direction is full of haunting images and fascinating ideas. Most importantly, The Quiet Earth doesn't come wrapped up with a bow -- you have to actually think about it, and it invites contemplation as firmly as it resists easy conclusions.
Made for a reported $7,000, Primer is that rarest of all science fiction films -- a low-budget brain-bender that both demands and rewards repeat viewings. Friends and fellow engineers Shane Carruth (also director, writer, editor, composer, etc, etc. ...) and David Sullivan are working on their own business in their off-hours, and one of their experiments results in a weird statistical anomaly they can't explain -- and, the more they explore it, leads the two to develop a bizarre sort of time machine. The machine is dangerous, it's risky, it's barely understood ... and it works. And pretty soon, you're watching the film as the characters live it -- is what's happening really what's happening now, or is someone else messing with the time stream? And is one of our characters that 'someone else'? Primer takes a simple, tired cliché and extrapolates that idea to every logical illogical conclusion with riveting, dizzying effect.