Ideally, science fiction films require large quantities of cash. Truckloads of the stuff. Just look at the most famous examples of the genre: Metropolis, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Where the horror genre requires little more than a few pence, a bottle of fake blood and a hacksaw to realise, a good sci-fi movie usually requires the building of vast sets, costumes and copious amounts of special effects.
But then, we have the subjects of this top ten list, sci-fi movies whose wealth of ideas more than makes up for their lack of financial investment…
10. Mad Max (1979)
A film so low budget its costume department could only afford one genuine leather jacket, Mad Max launched the once-stellar film career of Mel Gibson, and put Aussie director George Miller firmly on the filmmaking map.
In a post-apocalyptic future where the scarcity of petrol has hastened the collapse of society, Australia’s roads are policed by the Main Force Patrol, and Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is their finest driver. After his wife and son are mercilessly run down by a motorcycle gang, Max gets behind the wheel and roars off on a mission of revenge.
With little more than a few thousand Australian dollars and a few old cars, Miller created a bleak, thrilling movie that managed to make an estimated $100,000,000 worldwide, more than either of its sequels could rake in combined.
While only tangentially sci-fi (it’s more of a revenge thriller, it could be argued), Mad Max is a low budget, trashily enjoyable period classic, and influenced a whole generation of post-apocalyptic action films.
9. Phase IV (1974)
Saul Bass is a name more commonly associated with inventive title sequences, such as his extraordinary animated opening to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
In 1974, however, he directed his one and only big screen feature, Phase IV. A disturbingly quiet and, at times, surreal film, Phase IV concerned the rise of a new, highly intelligent species of ant.
As you’d expect from Bass, it’s a stunningly shot film, filled with unforgettably strange sequences clearly influenced by artist Salvador Dali, including a particularly unsettling scene where ants emerge from the palm of a human hand.
Creating a serious film about intelligent ants taking over the world would be a tricky proposition with even the largest budget, but Bass somehow achieved it. Sadly, Phase IV proved to be such a huge flop when it was released in 1975 that Bass never attempted to direct another feature film.
8. Cypher (2002)
Director Vincenzo Natali followed up his brilliantly nightmarish 1997 horror, Cube, with the desperately underrated sci-fi dystopia of Cypher five years later.
Jeremy Northam is excellent as Morgan Sullivan, a mild-mannered accountant who finds an escape from his dull suburban existence by signing up as a corporate spy for a shadowy organisation called Digicorp. Revelling in his newfound freedom, Sullivan, now known as Jack Thursby, enjoys his apparently pointless task of secretly taping presentations at cosmetics conventions.
But when Sullivan meets Rita (Lucy Liu), it gradually emerges that nothing in Sullivan’s life is quite as it seems, and Cypher‘s plot descends into a sinister warren of paranoid twists and turns worthy of Philip K. Dick.
Hamstrung by a comparatively tiny budget that is visible throughout its oddly lifeless action scenes, Cypher is nevertheless a cleverly wrought, intelligent film, and Northam’s constantly shifting performance is particularly noteworthy.
Barely released in US cinemas and allowed to quietly languish in obscurity on DVD, Cypher is well worth rediscovering.
7. Primer (2004)
Quite possibly the last word in low budget filmmaking, Shane Carruth’s Primer was made for the absurdly meagre sum of $7,000. Concluding that most of the world’s most earth-shattering inventions were made in unremarkable circumstances, his ingenious sci-fi drama told the story of two engineers and their accidental invention of a time machine.
Creating a mind-boggling, but utterly logical approach to its subject matter, Primer is one of the few cinematic attempts to create a properly speculative look at how a time machine might work, and what the moral outcomes of its invention might be. Primer‘s characters are gradually torn apart by their machine’s possibilities, and neither of them is able to resist the temptation to use it for selfish ends.
Filled with baffling jargon and unexpected plot developments, Primer is one film that demands repeated viewing, as we pointed out a few weeks ago, and it’s a film that is made all the more rich and compelling by its uncompromising complexity.
6. Scanners (1981)
It would be impossible to compose a list of classic low budget science fiction films without including at least one example of Canadian master, David Cronenberg’s, remarkable body of work. After all, he’s been crafting his own uncompromisingly individual pictures, which blend horror, sci-fi, and existentialist philosophy, for more than forty years.
1981’s Scanners, which blends Philip K. Dick-influenced sci-fi with his own typically disturbing brand of horror, was one of his earliest big financial successes, making a comparatively respectable $14 million return on its $3.5 million investment. (By contrast, Videodrome, Cronenberg’s more expensive next film, only made $2 million.)
In an alternate future 1985, a drug called Ephemerol has created a new breed of powerful telepaths, the ‘scanners’ of the title, capable of reading minds and wreaking extraordinarily bloody havoc on other people’s bodies. Down-and-out scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, arguably the film’s weakest link) is trained and pressed into service as an assassin under the tutelage of Dr Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) and sent to kill renegade scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside).
Scanners is memorable both for its remarkable practical effects sequences, which include a much celebrated exploding head and a spectacular concluding battle filled with exploding eyes and rupturing veins, as well as a similarly incendiary performance from Ironside, who hypnotises in every scene as a vengeful maniac driven insane by his own power.
Scanners is hardly Cronenberg’s most mature work, but it’s nevertheless an unforgettable one.
5. Invaders From Mars (1953)
William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars is proof that, with the right mixture of creativity and cunning, a lack of budget needn’t be a barrier to making a classic piece of sci-fi cinema.
Made at the height of the ‘reds under the bed’ era of Cold War paranoia, Invaders From Mars is told entirely from a child’s perspective. When a flying saucer quietly descends into the ground behind 10-year-old David MacLean’s house, the boy begins to notice a strange shift in personality among his family, most notably his father, who returns from a trip to the end of the garden with a strange marking on the back of his neck and a decidedly sombre demeanour.
Invaders From Mars‘ faults are legion and glaring. Its use of stock footage is laughably bad, and its alien mutants (or “mute-ants”, as the film insists on calling them) are little more than men in green suits with giant zips up the back.
Nevertheless, Menzies’ film is filled with eerily beautiful images that still evoke a little shiver. The perfectly composed shot of the boy’s back garden, with its crooked fence arcing over an ominous hill in the distance, is a combination of set design and matte painting worthy of German expressionist cinema, while the central Martian invader, a kind of half-man, half-octopus housed in a goldfish bowl, is unforgettably freaky.
4. The Terminator (1984)
Made for a relatively small $6.4 million, The Terminator remains James Cameron’s most lean and disciplined pieces of storytelling to date.
A constant, violent pursuit that ploughs on relentlessly for 108 minutes, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) is the luckless resistance fighter instructed to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from an unstoppable cyborg (a perfectly cast Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent from the future to eliminate her.
Time may have eroded The Terminator‘s once searingly violent edge (the police station massacre no longer appears as epically messy as it once did), and its special effects are markedly less special some 26 years on, but Cameron’s sophomore feature is still a breathtakingly exciting piece of action sci-fi.
3. Pi (1998)
Darren Aronofsky’s debut movie is an acting and directing masterpiece, and is both remarkably shot and written. On a budget of just $60,000, Aronofsky depicted the paranoid experiences of a mathematical savant whose investigations lead to the discovery of a 216-digit number that appears to hold the key to the fluctuating patterns of the stock market, the spiral pattern of a nautilus shell, and perhaps even the name of God Himself.
Shot in stark black-and-white, Aronofsky’s unique film is a tightly wound coil of anxiety and confusion. When its protagonist begins to suffer from terrible headaches, every jab of searing pain is reflected through a sublime blend of editing and camerawork.
In Pi, every character is a possible collaborator in a strange, paranoid conspiracy, and every shot is loaded with paranoia and ambiguous meaning. Aronofsky’s film is like an early Cronenberg picture infused with the surrealist imagery of Luis Buñuel, and a classic mixture of sci-fi, thriller and psychological horror.
2. Quatermass And The Pit (1967)
This 1967 big screen retread of the classic BBC television serial arguably ranks among the greatest British science fiction films ever made.
Workmen chipping away at the compacted earth of a London Underground station uncover an alien spacecraft that has been hidden since mankind’s prehistory. And as professor Bernard Quatermass delves into the ship’s mysteries, he discovers that its long-dead alien pilots hold the key to humanity’s origins.
With comparatively meagre resources, director Roy Ward Baker crafted a film full of unforgettable, chilling images, from the apparition of Satan shimmering in London fog to the zombie-like crowd that turn on one another at the film’s conclusion. A rare, classic foray into sci-fi from Hammer Films.
1. Moon (2009)
Duncan Jones’ debut feature is a stunning film by any yardstick, and that it was made with so little money only makes its achievements all the more remarkable.
In a not-too-distant future, where Earth’s inhabitants are desperate for a source of clean energy, a lone operative called Sam (played with unforgettable poignance by Sam Rockwell) toils away on a lunar base facility that extracts helium-3.
With only a talking computer (GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company, Sam teeters on the edge of sanity as his three-year contract draws to a close. But just as he’s set to return home to his beloved wife, he makes a discovery that is shattering in its implications.
A million miles away from the laser guns and froth of big budget mainstream sci-fi, Moon seldom amounts to more than a couple of characters engaged in quiet conversation, and it’s arguably one of the most intelligent, personal genre movies to appear in many, many years. Its few effects shots, which use a combination of scale miniatures and sensitive use of CG, are a loving nod to the classic sci-fi pictures of the 60s and 70s.
It’s Rockwell’s performance, however, that is Moon‘s biggest triumph, and was more than deserving of an Oscar.
Honourable mentions: Silent Running, Fortress, Alphaville, Timecrimes, It Came From Outer Space