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.
Written and directed by Texan Kyle Henry, Room revolves around a Texas wife, mother and bingo parlor worker played by Cyndi Williams -- who begins receiving unstoppable, unrelenting, inescapable visions of a room she's never seen before. The film's shift from kitchen-sink realism to haunting, hounding madness is impressive, especially considering its $130,000 budget. Williams, playing an ordinary woman in touch with extraordinary influences, is truly affecting in her role as compulsion's grip tightens around her. Henry's film never quite explains the why or how of the visions, or what they mean -- but Williams's performance alone makes Room unsettling and unforgettable.
Shot for a paltry $365,000 -- Canadian -- Cube's paranoid prison wasn't just a great existential, Kafka-esque metaphor; it was also a masterstroke of economy, allowing director Vincenzo Natali to use just one set for almost every shot. The focus on math makes Cube more sci-fi than horror, even if the film does offer us the sight of character actor Julian Richings getting diced up like a large block of cheese. Cube owes more than a small debt to the '70s kid-lit paranoia chamber piece House of Stairs, and, again, the fact it leaves things unsettled and under-explained is very much to its credit.
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
This is our big-budget entry in this list -- with a $2 million production budget, it was the most expensive film Roger Corman had ever backed up to that point. It's also a fairly shameless rip-off of The Seven Samurai set in outer space, but there's plenty to like about this film -- the presence of finely-cured hams like George Peppard, Sybil Danning and Robert Vaughan, the script by John Sayles, effects work from a young, ambitious James Cameron. Yes, parts of it are so cheese-encrusted as to be shudder-inducing (up to and including Richard Thomas as our male lead), but of all the quickie-cheapie rip-offs that came in the wake of Star Wars, Battle Beyond the Stars had the most bang for its minimal bucks.
Mad Max (1979)
Made by an ex-ER doctor for a paltry $400,000, Mad Max single-handedly kicked off a franchise and a star -- and inspired a host of pretenders to the throne. George Miller's after-the-fall drama starred Mel Gibson as a cop trying to keep what's left of civilization together, and was loaded with thrills, spills and crashes -- the sort of film making craziness that money can't buy. Mad Max may not have the more conventional post-apocalyptic trappings of The Road Warrior or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Handmade weapons? Check. Leather outfits? Check. Stylish knitwear? Check. ...), but in many ways, the proximity it has to the world we know makes it all the more uneasy. ...
Darren Aronofsky's directorial debut is a queasy, uncomfortable vision, shot in stark black-and-white for about $60,000, depicting the methods and madness of a rogue mathematician (Sean Gullette) who's on a driven quest to explore the uncharted regions of the mathematical constant Pi. When his research turns up patterns in a supposedly-random series of numbers, he finds he can use that pattern to rack the stock market -- and becomes a target for mystics, materialists and what may be a malevolent force within the sequence of Pi itself. Claustrophobic and uneasy -- the film feels like the madness it depicts -- Pi gets maximum effect out of minimal resources.