Last week I raved about the German science fiction program IJON TICHY, RAUMPIOLT, whose enjoyment comes in large part from the fact that it embraced rather than fought against its low budget (as exemplified by the interior of the title character’s space ship, which closely resembles a bachelor’s apartment—the very one, in fact, the film’s director and star was living in when the show was filmed). This got me thinking about other examples of affecting budget-lite sci-fi cinema. Low budget and science fiction might seem mutually exclusive terms given the elaborate design work and special effects the genre demands, but I believe the following ten films prove otherwise.
Understand: I don’t have a fetish for low budget sci-fi. I find ALPHAVILLE a mildly amusing trifle at best, and Alexander Kludge’s THE BIG MESS is to these eyes a film that fully lives up to its title, while otherwise-admirable sci-fi-ers like IT HAPPENED HERE, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, THE NOAH’S ARK PRINCIPLE, FUTURE PERFECT and AUTOMATONS are all marred, IMHO, by the fact that, quite simply, their respective budgets were too scant. Anyone who’s ever sat through a festival screening of a science fiction film missing its special effects (followed by the obligatory apologetic speech by the director in which s/he sheepishly admits the FX scenes were left unshot due to insufficient funds) will understand what I mean.
Here then are ten science fiction themed films made for very little money that succeed where the above titles, as well as countless bigger budgeted ones, failed…
A pretty scrappy drive-in feature that doesn’t even try to overcome its dimestore set design and special effects. What CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS has in its favor is a probing intelligence that recalls the writings of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem. The story concerns a future world where humans co-exist with robots; these robots (actually guys in robes with painted faces) are utilized as servants to humans, but could they possibly think on their own? Are they considering taking over the world? And would that be such a bad thing? The script, you can rest assured, covers every conceivable philosophical issue regarding robot-human interaction, and in keeping with the film’s thoughtful bent it’s comprised largely of dialogue exchanges, visualized through precisely composed, and at times downright arty, compositions. Allegedly the favorite film of Andy Warhol, CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS will doubtless seem stilted and archaic to some but profound to others—count me among the latter!
Time has not been especially kind to this film, but it remains a jaw-dropping display of wit and ingenuity in the face of a dauntingly low budget. DARK STAR was in fact a USC student film project that was expanded to feature length by its creators John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (both of whom have since disparaged the other’s contributions). A spoof of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (with a climactic nod to DR. STRANGELOVE), the film is set aboard a spaceship whose stir-crazy inhabitants search the galaxy for unstable planets to blow up, encountering situations that are imaginative and (for once) scientifically accurate. The film also conveys a vivid sense of claustrophobia and despair, and has a great theme song (“Benson Arizona”) to boot. Alas, the amateurish performances and not-so-special effects betray the project’s film school origins, which are admittedly far more noticeable now than they probably were 40 years ago.
Anyone doubting the brilliance of Luc Besson’s LE DERNIER COMBAT need only check out the many similarly themed no-budgeters that followed in its wake. I’m referring to the (dis)likes of AFTER THE APOCALYPSE and DOG MEN, both of which are set in surreal post-apocalyptic landscapes, lensed in black and white and contain severely minimal dialogue—all distinguishing features of LE DERNIER COMBAT, which has a visual pizazz and atmospheric sheen that sets it apart. It was Besson’s feature debut, yet showcases a fully formed visual sense. Unfortunately that brilliance doesn’t extend to the narrative, which is a bit on the clichéd side, with the absence of dialogue (because everyone in this world has allegedly had their vocal chords fried) due, it would seem, to the fact that the youthful Besson simply didn’t have a whole lot to say.
The 27 minute STAR SUBURB: LA BANLIENUE DES ETOILES was the first, and sadly only, completed film by the late Stephane Drouot, who seems destined to be best known for a bit part in Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE. Noe also made Drouot the subject of his 2002 docu-short INTOXICATION, and was reportedly quite impacted by STAR SUBURB. I’m not entirely sure how “no-budget” the pic truly is, as it contains some elaborate model work, but Drouot’s resources were evidently quite limited, with atmospheric visuals and directorial savvy being the film’s most striking elements. The setting is a profoundly oppressive outer space high rise in which a dreamy little girl (Caroline Appere) resides. She’s desperate to improve her situation, and thinks she’s found the means to do so when a spaceship whose inhabitants are running a radio contest docks near the building. An extended fantasy sequence involving a very eighties-chic montage doesn’t quite work, but the girl’s all-too-human longing and desperation register as vividly as her bleak surroundings, proving that in the creation of a futuristic milieu a sense of humanity takes precedence over whiz-bang special effects.
This oddity hails from the earliest days of CGI, utilizing extensive computer animation that looks quite primitive nowadays but still does its job. The film’s real selling point, in any event, is its indescribably tripped-out narrative that encompasses psychic bees, sentient weapons, the interior of the moon, an otherworldly TV transmission and the power of love. Yes, it’s every bit as crazed as it sounds, not unlike an extended peyote trip transposed to film. As such its appeal, I understand, will be minimal, but viewers with a high tolerance for profound weirdness are advised to search out WAX: OR THE DISCOVERY OF TELEVISION AMONG THE BEES ASAP!
The debut feature of Japanese provocateur Shozin Fukui (of RUBBER’S LOVER and DEN-SEN), PINOCCHIO 964 hails from the Japanese cyberpunk-horror movement kicked off by Shinya Tsukamoto’s TETSUO (upon which Fukui worked as a production assistant). I actually prefer PINOCCHIO 964 to TETSUO, as it creates a fully realized universe of cyberistic strangeness in a manner that TETSUO, accomplished though it was, never quite achieved–and does so with what was said to have been an insanely low budget. Involving the surreal exploits of a malfunctioning sex android loose in a futuristic Tokyo, the film is absurd, excessive and visionary in a manner that remains quite unique (and has been imitated—see 2004’s very Fukui-esque HELLEVATOR).
There’s never been a post-apocalyptic drama quite like ATRAPADOS, the unjustly forgotten Spanish language (even though it’s set in New York) debut feature by director Matthew Patrick (of HIDER IN THE HOUSE). The setting is a sealed-off apartment in the wake of an unspecified catastrophe, where a slovenly man (Julio Torresoto, who also scripted) and a metaphysically-oriented woman (Sonia Vivas) are fated to uneasily subside. Not all of the film works, but Patrick succeeds in creating a genuinely otherworldly psychoscape through minimal props and varying shades of black and white, resulting in a viewing experience that ranks with ERASERHEAD in its overpowering sense of hallucinatory oppression.
England’s brilliant, idiosyncratic Peter Watkins often utilized science fiction tropes—see THE WAR GAME, PRIVILAGE, GLADIATORS and THE TRAP—but never more successfully than in PUNISHMENT PARK. As with most of his films it was made on a budget that probably wouldn’t have paid for a week’s catering on STAR WARS, yet it never feels bereft in any way, with Watkins’s spot-on eye for realism and cinematic ingenuity utilized to their fullest. As in all good science fiction the futuristic world the film creates is but a conflation of the actual time and place in which it was created: America in the early 1970s, the real-life upheavals of which are reflected in the film’s premise of a “Punishment Park” where political dissidents are forced to trudge through miles of desert terrain to an American flag, with armed policemen hunting them down. Watkins intercuts the activities of a group of prisoners in the Punishment Park with a tribunal session in which another group is interrogated by absurdly straight-laced establishment types; inevitably, the interrogations degenerate into shouting matches, with both sides unwilling to come to any sort of an agreement. Watkins’ use of sound is particularly innovative in the way he has the voices from the tribunal play over the group in the desert and vice versa, creating a most peculiar sense of mounting tension. Critics of the time accused PUNISHMENT PARK of being unnecessarily heavy-handed and unrealistic; it seems, then, that it’s actually more relevant to today’s world, as our increasingly polarized political landscape isn’t too far removed from the nightmarish reality this film depicts.
In contrast to most of the other films on this list, the irrepressible SPLIT utilizes no-budget special effects in an unsubtle throw-‘em-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks fashion. Yet the film’s headlong rush of an aesthetic is one of its primary virtues; it’s as mind-blown as anything from the psychedelic era, yet also boasts a thoughtful and complex narrative involving surveillance and an alien invasion (if you ask me, it’s the film John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE should have been). Some have dismissed SPLIT as excessively noisy and cacophonous, both of which it is. It’s not what you’d call an easy or pleasant viewing experience, but it is a fascinating and unusually kinetic one. As with the aforementioned WAX, it utilizes highly primitive computer animation, painstakingly created by the film’s writer, director and co-star Chris Shaw, who mixes live action and CGI in a manner that was quite revolutionary back in ‘89, and remains startling today.
Much has been written about Chris Marker’s LA JETEE, a 28 minute wonder that marks one of the premiere examples of the “photo roman” style of filmmaking–in other words, a film comprised of a series of still photos, accompanied by voice-over narration. That style apparently came about due to the extremely low budget with which Marker was saddled; the film’s sole bit of movement occurs around the midway point, and only lasts a few moments (as Marker couldn’t afford to keep the motion picture camera for very long). Luckily the narrative, which pivots on snippets of memory that are utilized by agents of a post-apocalyptic future world to initiate a desperate time-travel expedition, is quite accommodating to this device, making for a film whose form and content are in perfect harmony–and a profoundly haunting, disorienting, mind-expanding viewing experience. LA JETEE was recently proclaimed the 50th greatest film of all time by the BFI—I say it deserves a much higher ranking!