DARK STAR (1974) One of the first films to prove beyond question that you can create an imaginative science fiction film on fumes, Dark Star (1974) was the low, low, low budget movie that director, John Carpenter, made before graduating to standard low budget filmmaking with Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978). Birthed as a student film – created by Carpenter with co-writer, editor, and star, Dan O’Bannon, at The University Of Southern California – the original 68-minute version of Dark Star was seen by opportunistic producer, Jack H. Harris (The Blob, Schlock), who ponied up for an additional fifteen minutes of film footage, which brought the movie to feature length, and allowed him to release it into cinemas. “We feared that we’d make a mediocre feature by padding it and putting it into the marketplace against professional products,” Dan O’Bannon told Monsterland. “But the decision finally came down to a choice between making a great student film which would impress all the film schools, or a mediocre film that would be in theatres. We opted for the feature.” A bizarre deep space comedy, Dark Star tells of five astronauts who’ve had their minds well and truly bent after spending twenty years on the eponymous space craft, blowing up “unstable planets” that stand in the way of Earth’s space colonisation. Despite being made for around $60,000 and featuring special effects (toys as props; an alien life form that is literally a beach ball with feet) that are hardly special, Carpenter’s directorial muscles were already in-flex, and Dark Star literally pulsates with a warped sense of originality and innovation, with its influence still felt in science fiction today.
A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975) In the world of science fiction literature, author, Harlan Ellison, is a true original, and his novella, A Boy And His Dog, enjoyed a truly original big screen bump courtesy of character actor turned very occasional director, L.Q Jones. In this bizarre 1975 curio, a fresh-faced Don Johnson stars as Vic, a scrappy punk scavenging his way through a dilapidated, post-apocalyptic America with the help of his constant companion, a dog called Blood who he can, ah, communicate with telepathically. If you’re thinking that this all sounds a bit Disney, then think again. All Vic thinks about is sex, and he uses Blood to sniff out female “company” for him. But when Vic is lured into an underground society far more polite than the world above, he gets more than he bargained for when he’s used to impregnate its women because the men are all infertile due to a lack of sunshine! Predating the visually similar Mad Max 2, the kinky and off-kilter A Boy And His Dog was one of the first films to prescribe a future world covered in filth, mud and grime. It’s a cruel vision, and Jones powers it even further with a series of highly inventive shots and vividly created sets, all put together on little more than a shoestring. “It’s an intricately designed little picture,” L.Q. Jones told Rotten Tomatoes in 2008. “It doesn’t look like it though…it looks like we shot it out of a garage! It’s been chosen by a lot of critics as the best science fiction picture ever. That’s BS, but it’s better than having them say that it’s the worst motion picture ever made.”
THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984) Writer/director, John Sayles, has always championed the concept of character. Ignoring the various trends that have spun past him in over thirty years behind the camera, this earthy, independent spirit has built his career on rock-solid, dialogue based dramas that rattle with realism and boast characters that are both instantly recognisable and utterly original. While his most acclaimed films are, not surprisingly, his most dynamic and political (Matewan, City Of Hope, Lone Star), Sayles’ facility for sensitive understatement is just as keenly developed. On Sayles’ resume, 1984’s The Brother From Another Planet is the one that doesn’t quite fit. This perverse take on the sci-fi genre eschews special effects in favour of shambling naturalism, as Joe Morton’s alien – a slave fleeing from another solar system – crash lands in New York and navigates his way through the city with the help and guidance of a series of strangers that he meets along the way. Though enigmatic and oddball in tone, The Brother From Another Planet is also a bittersweet emotional drama that touches effectively on issues of race and prejudice. On a budget of just $350,000, the film’s sci-fi flourishes are few and far between (a shot inside Morton’s spaceship is decidedly lo-tech), but its sense of imagination soars. Ever the independent, Sayles was forced to drop out of The Director’s Guild Of America in order to make The Brother From Another Planet, because its tight budget didn’t allow for a union-level crew. “I had to resign,” he said in the book, John Sayles: Interviews. “I have no problem with the guild, but I couldn’t afford to stay and continue operating in the way that I’m operating.”
ALPHAVILLE (1965) Visionary French director, Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Pierrot Le Fou), has never taken the obvious cinematic path, so it came as no surprise that his 1965 detour into science fiction – via film noir and the American detective novel – fit so uncomfortably into the genre as a whole. Set in a future semi-dystopia (that looks remarkably non-futuristic, even by its contemporary standards), Alphaville: A Strange Adventure Of Lemmy Caution follows the eponymous US secret agent (Eddie Constantine, who had played the character several times before in a number of French crime films in the fifties), who comes incongruously to Alphaville, the capital city of a futuristic totalitarian state, to take out its leader, the near-human computer, Alpha 60. While on his mission, Lemmy meets and falls in love with Natacha (Anna Karina), the daughter of the scientist who designed the computer, which ultimately threatens the super-machine’s control of the state. Though completely eschewing any use of special effects (characters drive around in cars but talk about spaceships), fanciful, hi-tech imagery, or elaborate sets (Godard merely filmed around Paris’ newest, most modern buildings), Alphaville’s narrative approach and thematic push is incredibly prescient, “arguably prophesising the advent of the National Security Agency’s techno super-state half a century before Edward Snowden bravely blew the whistle,” according to Hollywood Progressive’s Ed Rampell. Made for just $220,000, Alphaville feels like sci-fi way ahead of its time, even though it’s so strongly grounded in the ideas of mid-sixties France. “Alphaville expresses ideas that are in the air,” Jean-Luc Godard said in an interview at the time of the film’s release. “Let’s say, ones that are to the taste of the day.”
LIQUID SKY (1982) “I wrote the script around the things that I had: around actors that I had, around locations that I had, and around the special effects that I had,” writer/director, Slava Tsukerman, told Opening Ceremony in 2008. “I knew that I was going to have a low, low budget, and I already liked the idea of cult films, so the idea of creating a film like that was no problem.” Arriving in America from Russia via Israel (where he’d made a number of documentaries), Slava Tsukerman was one of the first filmmakers to actively create a cult film, rather than patiently waiting for a cult audience to build up. With 1982’s Liquid Sky – culled from a twisted melange of influences, ranging from fifties sci-fi to the New Wave musical movement – he hit his target tenfold, engineering a major indie hit on a budget of just $500,000. Raking in $1.7 million in the first months of its release, Liquid Sky focuses on two fashion models – bisexual Margaret (Anne Carlisle) and androgynous Jimmy (also played by Carlisle) – and comes replete with rampant drug use, squalor, multiple rapes, blaring nightclub sequences, and in-your-face sex scenes. And in amongst that already heady mix is a tiny spaceship crewed by aliens who have arrived on Earth to extract the endorphins produced by the human brain when an orgasm occurs. “I included all the myths of the time,” Tsukerman told Opening Ceremony. “Myths about sex, drugs, euphoria, relationships between the sexes, and aliens from outer space. I created a plot that would incorporate all of those problems in a funny way, and that’s why my film has lived so long.”
CUBE (1997) “It’s hard to get a sci-fi film made,” Detroit-born, Toronto-raised writer/director, Vincenzo Natali, told FilmInk upon the release of his 2002 film, Cypher. This statement makes the very existence of Natali’s striking 1997 debut, Cube, even more impressive. Stylish and staggeringly inventive, the film was made for just $350,000, largely thanks to The Canadian Film Centre’s First Feature Project, which was charged with getting promising debut projects off the ground. “All the special effects were donated,” Natali told FilmInk in 1997. “The local film industry in Toronto is a nurturing environment for emerging filmmakers, and we certainly benefited. We received so much support through deferrals and donations.” Lean, economic, and minimalist to the extreme, Cube opens with a group of disparate strangers awakening to find themselves trapped in a mysterious cube rigged with booby traps, with their only way out signalled by a series of mathematical problems. “Physically and technically, it was very demanding, because we didn’t have much money or time,” Natali told FilmInk of Cube, which went on to become an arthouse hit, even inspiring two sequels. “Every day, there was a monumental catastrophe that had to be solved. It’s ironic because you’d think that making a movie in one room with six people would be relatively simple. But it was like a Chinese puzzle – once you scratched the surface, you realised that there were a million tiny details that had to be addressed. And being a science fiction film, we couldn’t make it like Clerks. It had to have a level of technical proficiency, and the environment had to have a level of believability, otherwise the whole conceit would have failed.”
PI (1998) Though now renowned for unsettling audiences with films like Black Swan and Requiem For A Dream, writer/director, Darren Aronofsky’s strangest film remains his 1998 debut, PI, which tracks Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a highly-strung genius who believes that mathematics is the language of nature. Filmed in smudgy, washed out black-and-white on a paltry budget of just $60,000, PI is a non-negotiable formula for complete and utter weirdness. Despite an obvious lack of money, the ideas pour out so quickly that the film bolts like a freight train. With reckless abandon, Aronofsky throws everything into a boiling pot and lets the ingredients steam and collide with each other: maths as a soul language; madness as prophecy; computers gaining consciousness by decoding their composition; the stock exchange as a prime example of organised chaos; and religion as a series of rigid and tabulated formulas. PI – which became a major arthouse hit, raking in a surprising $3 million at the box office, and rating as an influential force – is a real head trip, made for next to nothing by a filmmaker on the rise, and at the height of his powers. “PI was made within its budget range,” Aronofsky told Tripod upon the film’s release. “It was constructed out of what we could and couldn’t do. We took everything that we could do for that money, and pushed it as far as we could. We took Terry Gilliam’s brilliance and copycatted it by taking old technology and putting it into a hyper-future reality. If we’d had more money, I probably would have made Scream 4! From the profits from that, I could have been making PI till the day I die!”
PRIMER (2004) One of the most complex, thematically ambitious, and abstruse films that you’ll ever see, the chief currency in 2004’s Primer is ideas, and not money. After squirrelling away $7,000 that he’d accrued by working as a shoe salesman on weekends and a software engineer during the week, mind-blowing-talent-in-utero, Shane Carruth (whose fingerprints are literally on virtually every aspect of the film), engineered a genre-blasting true original about two men who ride an ad-hoc time machine, and then use retroactive knowledge to navigate the stock market, leading to a crisis of dual conscience and a movie that truly stands alone and on its own terms. Working on such horribly limited funds, Carruth could only afford about one take of each shot, and conceded to FilmInk upon the film’s release that a little more money would have saved him the nightmare of editing for two long years. “What should have taken a day-and-a-half to edit would take two weeks,” he said. “If I’d found just a couple of thousand dollars more, it would have been cut in a quarter of the time.” Full of quantum twists and turns, the success of Primer – which got great reviews and developed an instant cult fan base – inspired a generation of filmmakers with its mind-before-money ethos. Even the film’s much-discussed labyrinthine plotting and near-impossible-to-follow narrative were born of Primer’s next-to-nothing budget. “The revelations are not as clear as I’d like them to be because the audio levels were not as cleanly modulated as they should be,” Carruth (who followed up Primer with 2013’s decidedly more polished Upstream Color, which was made on a budget of just $50,000) sighed to FilmInk.
MONSTERS (2010) $15,000 doesn’t buy you much in the film industry, but that’s all that British special effects artist, Gareth Edwards, spent on his directorial debut, Monsters, a taut sci-fi thriller set six years after a NASA probe has crashed over Mexico, bringing alien life forms with it. “I was trying to think of a cheap film that would have commercial value where I could stick some visual effects in, because that was my background,” Edwards told FilmInk at The Toronto Film Festival in 2010. Following two people (Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able) forced to flee through an alien “infected zone”, what Edwards achieves on the film’s meagre budget is extraordinary, and Monsters is a wonderfully whiteknuckle affair. Edwards wrote, directed, shot, and edited the film, and also did the CGI work, but smiled knowingly when FilmInk asked him if he was a control freak. “It’s funny that you say that,” he laughed. “That’s the assumption, but this film could not have been more out of control.” Thrilling, inventive and nuanced, Monsters (which was shot in Central America without a concrete script and non-actors in supporting roles) got instant recognition, with Peter Jackson (The Lord Of The Rings) famously impressed. “I got the sweetest email from him,” Edwards told FilmInk. “He said, ‘You’ve made a great film, but beware of Hollywood. Don’t fall for certain things. The approach that you’ve taken is a good one. Stick to it and grow from there.’ It was good, sensible advice, so I felt great about it.” On the strength of Monsters, Edwards was handed the reins on 2014’s mega-budget Godzilla, and then the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
ANOTHER EARTH (2011) “It’s so competitive out there,” actress/writer, Brit Marling, told FilmInk in 2013. “There are so many fiercely talented actresses. I write out of necessity. I’ve got to write not only to get myself a job, but also because of all the women whose work I love. There aren’t enough women writing for all the great actresses, who should be doing really challenging, cool stuff.” 33-year-old Marling, however, has made “challenging, cool stuff” her stock in trade, getting strong notices for her performances in Arbitrage, The Company You Keep, and The Keeping Room, and for her writing and acting in 2013’s political thriller, The East. Before that, Marling established herself as an indie darling with two low budget wonders: she teamed with her The East co-writer/director, Zal Batmanglij, for the unconventional 2011 thriller, Sound Of My Voice; and with co-writer/director, Mike Cahill, on the esoteric 2011 romantic drama, Another Earth, which attracted warm reviews and a cult audience. While the former has a sting-in-the-tail sci-fi twist, the latter tackles the genre more brazenly, painting its central gritty romance against the backdrop of the discovery of a “mirror Earth” – a second planet exactly the same as our own, and populated entirely with our physical and spiritual twins. Made for just $100,000, Another Earth is introspective in tone rather than expansive, and – despite the enormity of the ideas on display – there are no real special effects to speak of. “It was very guerrilla and no-budget when we started,” Mike Cahill said while doing press for the film. “We shot a chunk of eight days, and then producers got involved and gave us a micro-budget, which was enough money to keep going.”
LOVE (2011) Making an unlikely jump, Love – the low budget sci-fi parable presented by Angels & Airwaves (the alternative rock supergroup fronted by on-again-off-again Blink-182 member, Tom DeLonge) – went from being an extended music video promo to a full length feature film. “We started down that road, but it spiralled out of control, so we decided to turn it into a movie,” writer/director, William Eubank, told FilmInk in 2011. “Watching all those music videos end-to-end would probably kill people anyway, so we revisited the whole idea and started making a movie, as opposed to a conceptual group of videos.” Love tells two stories in tandem – that of Captain Miller (Gunner Wright), trapped on an orbiting space station in the near future while the Earth tumbles into catastrophe below him, and that of Captain Briggs (Bradley Horne), a Civil War-era soldier on a mission to investigate a mysterious object, possibly of extra-terrestrial origin. With just $500,000 spent in total, Eubank turned the project into an intergalactic labour of love, shooting for over a year, and building elaborate sets (out of “found” material such as packing quilts, MDF, pizza boxes, Velcro, insulation, and Christmas lights) on his parents’ ranch. “I didn’t have a timeline,” Eubank told FilmInk. “It wasn’t like a normal movie where you have to get things done by a certain time. I was looking for creative solutions. It was a matter of trying to create answers for things that are difficult to do – how do I do this on a dime?” It paid off: Love played to great acclaim at science fiction film festivals, and Eubank accrued a much bigger budget for his 2014 sophomore effort, The Signal.
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (2012) On a budget of just $750,000, the genre bending Safety Not Guaranteed – an inspired mix of comedy, drama, romance, and science fiction – walked away with rapturous praise and The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at The Sundance Film Festival in 2012, where it was lauded as charming, consistently funny, and quirky all at the same time. Based on a real classified advertisement taken out by a man named John Silveira, the film follows three magazine employees (Jake M. Johnson, Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni) on the trail of a man (Mark Duplass) who has placed an ad seeking a companion for time travel via a machine of his own creation. Is he a loon fit for an oddball-of-the-month type story, or is there actually truth to his claims that he can jump through time? The film’s inclusion on this list should give you an indication of the outcome. With minimal funds, screenwriter, Derek Connolly, and debut director, Colin Trevorrow (who was tapped to helm the mammoth hit, Jurassic World, on the strength of his work here), cannily mix well developed, likeable characters with a real sense of wonder. “It’s a scrappy looking film which dances between a bunch of tones,” Trevorrow told FilmInk in 2012. “We lull you into this place where you feel like you know what you’re going to get, and then we chip away at those expectations. Audiences are smart, and we have to be a little bit savvier in how we pull people in. One of my favourite things that I’ve seen people say in reviews is that the movie sneaks up on you. That’s what I was hoping for.”
Midnight Special is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.