Thursday List – Top 10 Low Budget Sci-Fi Films
Tom looks at sci-fi films that were made on a tiny budget to honour this weeks release of Another Earth
With the release of the excellent Another Earth in cinemas this week, see Scott’s review here, I decided to take a look at ten of the best low budget sci-fi films ever made. Compiling this list was insanely difficult, there is a surprising amount of inventive science fiction films out there, but I have attempted to include the best of the genre as well as picking a few of my personal favourites. There are a number of very high profile directors represented in the list and it is interesting to note that a compelling idea which can be filmed for a small amount of money and goes on to be successful is often all that’s needed for the big Studios to sit up and take notice. Visionaries such as Darren Aronofsky, George Lucas, Luc Besson and John Carpenter all started their careers in this way and I can only hope that their modern contemporaries will be able to follow in their footsteps.
10. Pi – Approx $60,000
Throughout his career Darren Aronofsky has divided audiences but I for one believe that all five of his feature films are near masterpieces, with Pi being the director’s valiant first attempt at creating something bold and unique. Filmed in sparse monotone, this low budget wonder is a stylish character based thriller that follows a mathematician who uses a computer he has built himself in an attempt to predict the behaviour of the Stock Market. When the predictions come true our protagonist, Maximillian, is pursued by a Wall Street company and a religious Scholar who believes the numbers have come from God, all the while suffering from severe headaches that lead to several delusions. Completely mind boggling and utterly watchable, this is a must see for all sci-fans and people interested in checking out Aronofsky’s excellent back catalogue of movies.
9. THX 1138 – Approx $777,000
George Lucas will forever be remembered as the man who brought us the original Star Wars Trilogy but his debut film THX 1138 is an understated cult classic that deserves a wider audience. The visceral imagery used throughout would feel at home in Kubrick’s 2001, and the storyline echoes that of Orwell’s 1984 as two people begin to rebel against their rigidly structured society in the 25th Century. More of a challenging watch than Star Wars, this is no action blockbuster but is brimming with intelligent ideas and the sparsely decorated sets hint at a future that many science fiction films have referred to since. Whilst Lucas’ definitive trilogy is still very expensive on Blu-ray, you can pick this little gem up on the same format for just under four pounds, and I recommend that you do just that.
8. The Last Battle – Approx $500,000
The man most famous for bringing us Leon and The Fifth Element started his career with this exceptional post-apocalyptic film that is shot entirely in black and white and has no dialogue. Starring Jean Reno as a lone survivor in a hostile environment, the film is incredible considering it was made for half a million, with the delapidated world represented perfectly by ruined buildings that add to the stark realism of the picture as the main protagonist struggles to remain alive. Not quite Leon, but hey, this is still a fascinating sci-fi film that is well worth your time.
7. Pitch Black – Approx $22,000,000
Pitch Black was the most expensive film to be made on this list but i couldn’t not include it, thanks in most part to Vin Diesel’s career defining performance as the escaped captive who becomes leader by default when a spaceship crash lands on a planet inhabited by vicious nocturnal aliens. The concept behind the story is not completely flawless but it doesn’t detract from what turns out to be one hell of an exciting ride and whilst it was not quite as cheap to make as others on the list, it is relatively small when compared to the budget of films made in Hollywood and there is a definite low budget feel that permeates through the films desolate landscapes. Intelligent sci-fi films involving aliens are few and far between and Pitch Black’s original take on the idea is a great addition to the genre, it’s just a shame that it’s sequel The Chronicles of Riddick failed to deliver.
6. Dark Star – Approx $60,000
I doubt there would be many other genre lists where a film crafted by students whilst still at college would feel so at home but Dark Star is the perfect example of a successful low budget sci-fi film, with it’s off-beat comedy, hilarious dialogue, and home made special effects this is one impressive debut. It is no surprise that the two minds behind Dark Star, Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter, went on to work on Alien and The Thing respectively, two of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. The world would be a lot worse off if it wasn’t for the ambitious college students who brought us Dark Star, and it should be an inspiration to all aspiring film-makers out there, the sky’s the limit!
5. Timecrimes – Approx $2,600,000
Time travel is one of my favourite sub-genres of sci-fi, and whether it is tackled by blockbusters such as Back to the Future and Twelve Monkeys or smaller independent features, it never fails to boggle the mind (in the best way possible of course), and none more so than in the innovative Spanish film Timecrimes. When a middle aged man spots something strange beyond his garden fence his curiosity prevails and he is soon caught up in a time travelling conundrum that threatens his very existence. This is a very intelligent thriller, and although it requires a lot of thinking, it manages to hold up extremely well, indicating that the Director had spent a lot of time on crafting this sci-fi gem
4. Silent Running – Approx $1,100,000
Following on from working in the Special Effects department for Kubrick during the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Douglas Trumbull went on to direct his debut feature film Silent Running, which was a huge influence on another film in this list, Moon. In a future where all plant life is extinct on Earth, an astronaut faces a difficult decision when he is ordered to destroy the last remaining fauna that he has been taking care of on his spaceship. Choosing to disobey the order, he attempts to keep the gardens alive with the help of his only remaining companions, three tiny robots. Heartfelt and poignant but at times very thrilling, Silent Running is a classic sci-fi story full of interesting ideas that deserves a wider audience.
3. Moon – Approx $5,000,000
Yet again, another debut film, there seems to be a pattern emerging here. Duncan Jones, or Zowie Bowie if you refer to him with the name given by his very talented father David Bowie, created this highly original film starring the always excellent Sam Rockwell as a lone astronaut in charge of a mining operation in a space station on the moon. It’s surprising how compelling a film can be when it is driven by a single human actor, and its a testament to Jones that he managed to write and direct this extraordinary sci-fi film. With the succesful release of Source Code, Jones is destined for great things and we can only hope that he continues to provide us with original and creative films.
2. Primer – Approx $7,000
I picked this film up on a complete whim, drawn in by the clever marketing ploy on the case that described the film as ‘Donnie Darko for grown-ups’ and boy was I glad that I did. Primer holds the accolade of the film with the lowest budget on the list but that doesn’t hinder its impact, as it is the story that is key here, not the visual effects, with its twisty time lines leading to some seriously complex results. A number of friends spend their spare time constructing a working time machine and before they realise the danger of what they have created things start to go horribly wrong. It is not a film that can be watched only once, there is so much going on that it demands repeat viewings but it is sequenced so well that no matter how much you try and unravel the plot it all fits together perfectly. Shane Caruth has not made another movie since Primer debuted in 2004 and there is a number of articles floating around the internet that hint at his return. Let’s just hope he doesn’t end up build a working time machine before his second film is finished.
1. The Terminator – Approx $6,400,000
It is hard to believe that the man who introduced the world to the sumptuous visual delights of Pandora in Avatar was also responsible for bringing us the gritty realism of The Terminator, and it is a key indicator that budget size does not always mean a better film, with Cameron’s debut still remaining the more impressive movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the unexpected star of the film as he plays a cyborg sent back from the future by Skynet, a global corporation of robots that has taken over the world, to kill Sarah Connor, the soon to be mother of the man who will challenge Skynet’s global domination. It sounds like a crazy idea, but Cameron pulled it off with a style and vigour that was arguably not seen in a sci-fi film until its sequel came along seven years later. Essential viewing for everyone.
There are some amazing sci-fi films that didn’t quite make my list, and I could easily have expanded it to include another ten. Have I made any glaring omissions? What is your favourite low budget sci-fi film?
Tom Bielby is a long time film fan and aspiring film writer. HE writes his own blog named The Film Bantha
Have you seen these films? Any other low budget films you would add? Comment below…