My invitation to an early screening of James Cameron's Avatar got lost in the mail (cough, cough), so I'm just as eager as the rest of the world to see what a little imagination -- and $250 million -- has wrought when the flick finally opens in theaters tomorrow. We may never know the actual budget of Avatar, but if it delivers on the early buzz, we won't care. Money talks, but it doesn't guarantee that good scripts will be written or that actors will give good performances or that directors will find new ways to surprise and amaze us.
Here are ten sci-fi films from the past 40 years that delivered the biggest bang for the buck, in my estimation. Some had micro budgets, while others had $30-35 million at their disposal, yet still exceeded expectations, delivering thrills and chills that rank among the very finest the genre has to offer. As it happens, the list is weighted toward more recent fare, so feel free to share your favorite 'bang for the buck' sci-fi flicks.
One of SciFi Squad's best science fiction films of the decade, Nacho Vigalando's stylish thriller gets tremendous mileage out of its simple concept: a man travels in time and wrecks increasing havoc upon himself. The script is clever, intelligent, thoughtful, and entirely logical as it plays out the consequences of the man's actions, progressing from lighthearted playfulness to something darker and richer. The film is aided immensely by Karra Elejalde's performance as that ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
2. Dark Star
The wonderfully warped sensibilities of John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon are on full display in this manic comedy, a student film expanded into an oddity that built its own cult reputation in the mid 70s. Four astronauts are charged with making solar systems safe by destroying unstable planets. Beach balls stand in for planets; one of the balls even does double duty as an alien, memorably "chasing" astronauts down a hallway in their tiny ship. It's all quite silly, but cheerful and promising in its no-budget imagination.
3. A Boy and His Dog
L.Q. Jones created a memorable post-apocalyptic future out of nothing but well-chosen locations. He had great source material to draw from -- Harlan Ellison's novella -- and 25-year-old Don Johnson to essay the titular "boy." Sometimes that's all you need.
Speaking of getting a lot out of a little, Sam Rockwell is nothing less than magnificent in another one of SciFi Squad's best films of the decade. I'll cheat a little and quote Jennifer Brown: "Moon is old school science fiction that eschews gimmickry for a solid, provocative story of identity and memory." Similar to Timecrimes and A Boy and His Dog, Moon makes the most out of one character carrying the weight of the narrative, and then adds additional elements to buttress that central performance.
5. 28 Days Later
Made for a reported budget of $8 million, Danny Boyle's hellish vision, based on a script by Alex Garland, belies its financial limitations. The empty streets of London, the ravaging hordes of zombies, the attack on the mansion ... wow. The unsettling atmosphere and jumpy camerawork add to the nerve jangling dread that develops.
Five years later, Boyle and Garland (and Cillian Murphy) went back to the future on a mission to save Earth. For all the excesses of a certain plot element, the bulk of the slow-boiling story is told in lean, elegant fashion, with suitably fantastic visuals to accompany the telling. Reportedly, the budget was multiple times that of 28 Days Later, and while Sunshine is not, admittedly, multiple times better, it is thoughtful and beautiful and scary in its intensity.
7. Dark City
Another relative bargain, Dark City showcased the talents of Alex Proyas in creating an entire world that only faintly resembles our own. Sure, it's a nightmare of a world, yet it's strangely seductive and altogether cool, and invites multiple visits to soak in everything it has to offer.
8. Pitch Black
When Vin Diesel was still young and hungry, way back in 2000, he could play charming bad boys like Richard B. Riddick. (His deep growl of a voice helps.) And that allowed David Twohy to build his cat and mouse thriller around a simple premise: Riddick would, most likely, survive, but no one else was guaranteed anything. The pace and the tension kept things moving at a speedy clip, and it's only in retrospect that you realize how much Twohy got out of very little.
9. District 9
I'll be so bold as to quote myself: "Do we really need another alien invasion picture? When it's as hellaciously entertaining as District 9, the answer is a resounding 'Yes!' ... District 9 swiftly establishes its own tough-minded, smart identity. Think of it as Independence Day for adults. ... Refreshingly, District 9 upends expectations that have been lowered over the years by remembering that human behavior is the most fascinating special effect of all, with the inexplicable motivations of alien creatures coming in a close second."
The story and characters begged to be explored further, but I remain grateful for every existing episode of Firefly and for the send-off that Serenity became, once again overcoming sometimes hokey special effects to deliver rousing entertainment and tremendous 'bang for the buck.'