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Why Low Budget Sci-Fi Movies Are Consistently Among The Genre’s Best

Image from Moon movie - Low Budget Sci-Fi Movies

The best sci-fi movies don’t always come with massive production budgets.

Now, we could debate the term “massive” all day long, but I’m talking about movies that cost more to make than most of us earn in our whole lives – a lot more. Movies like Jurassic ParkThe Matrix, and Blade Runner, with respective budgets of $105 million, $95 million, and $70 million (adjusted for inflation) were downright inexpensive when compared with blockbusters like the behemoth Avatar, which cost the equivalent of $266 million today, but I’d still argue that those are some gigantic numbers. Now, arguably, those are also some of the most popular sci-fi movies ever made, but does that mean that great sci-fi flicks necessarily need to cost so much? I think nothing could be farther from the truth, so let’s take a look at a few low budget sci-fi movies that back me up.

Some examples of great low budget sci-fi movies.

First up, James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence, which is a shining example of just how much you can accomplish with 8 actors, 5 crew members, a single location, 5 days to shoot, and a first-time director. More to the point of this article, Coherence only cost $50,000 to make, an amount you could easily confuse with how much money Hans Zimmer probably made for scoring the first 15 minutes of The Dark Knight. Other movies have been made about parallel universes becoming entangled with our own (The One, for example) but I can’t think of any as memorable as the creepy, smart, gripping 89 minutes that were Coherence.

Moon (2009) and Silent Running (1972) are two of my favorite sci-fi movies that take place off of Earth. Both of these movies were more than 100 times as expensive to make as Coherence, but in the film industry, spending less than six million dollars still plants you firmly in the low-budget category. By contrast, 2014’s Interstellar cost $165 million, and the slightly more recent space travel flick The Martian also ran up its fair share of costs, totaling more than $108 million.

I saved the best example of terrific, low-budget sci-fi films for last, and of course I’m talking about Primer, Shane Carruth’s 2004 time travel odyssey. There are some aspects of Primer that hint at its low budget, but it was nonetheless good enough to take the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. So just how low was the budget? Not $700,000…not $70,000…but $7,000. Some filmmakers spend that on a camera.

Now what, other than my opinion, marks these films as among the best in the sci-fi genre? The truth is, you could only answer that for yourself. For what it’s worth, they’ve all either won or been nominated for some pretty prestigious awards, been well-received, and remain on innumerable “best of” and “top ten” lists around the interwebs. Primer also has a cult following to rival that of Firefly. For my part, I think it’s less about critical reception and more about the number of goose bumps you get while watching the movie – every one of these all give me a big fat dose of the feels in one form or another. Even if none of those movies are on your own “top ten sci-fi movies” list, each one is easily as good as numerous other films that cost ten or more times as much to produce. So, the question is…

What’s with the diminishing returns on big budget sci-fi flicks?

First of all, low-budget films are more user-friendly, with “user” referring to actors, writers, and directors. When you have to interrupt shooting every five minutes to check in with the big-wigs at a major production studio, the end result takes some hits. Joss Whedon described the situation well when he said that making The Avengers gave him an “impersonal feeling,” and that he wanted to move on to “something small that could be made passionately.”

M. Knight Shyamalan felt the need for a similar tactic when his $130 million After Earth turned out to be a movie everyone wanted to forget they saw. His scaled back the budget for his next film, The Visit, by about 97%, and it turned out to be his best received work in over a decade. These and plenty of other anecdotes point to the reality that big budgets often cramp a director’s style. But since there are also a lot of good sci-fi movies that do break the bank, it’s safe to assume that there’s more than just one factor at work here. I don’t claim to know what they all are, but at least one of them is this:

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

In this context, a “thing” is an action scene. The more money being thrown at a movie, the more obligatory helicopter chases and blown-up buildings we should expect to see. Now, I love sensationalized chaos and catastrophe as much as the next guy, but there is a point at which it becomes entirely forgettable – boring, even – and it’s at that point that it begins to take away from a film rather than add to it. Ass-kicking and explosions are all well and good, but only to the extent that they further the story and help build a connection between the characters and the viewer.

I’m not suggesting that blockbuster action and emotional appeal are mutually exclusive – just hard to pull off. One recent example of action that was integral to character development in a big-budget movie was when Hulk went off the rails and got a bunch of bystanders hurt (and presumably killed) in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This scene (and the character arc it contributed to) was about more than “Hulk smash,” it was about letting the viewer into the lonely, tough, emotional world of Bruce Banner, where he struggles intensely with identity and responsibility.

Sometimes, action constitutes the logical way to move a plot along. More often than not, though, it’s just violence and destruction for the sake of violence and destruction. When that’s the case, it tends to make a movie less memorable. On the other hand, films with fewer (or no) “action” scenes (read: less expensive films) don’t have to struggle to make said scenes deliver the emotional goods.

There are numerous ways you can go about enjoying some fantastic science fiction for kids with your little (or not so little) ones. I’d figured to begin with the most obvious of these – sci-fi movies. It’s a given that many of our favorite science fiction movies are intense, suspenseful, sometimes scary, and chock full of other thematic elements (namely violence) that are intended for mature viewers only. But what about when you want to include the whole family?

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Oh yeah, there’s also the whole “audience” thing.

Movies with big budgets (think Spiderman 3 – $258 million) are typically being aimed at an extremely wide audience. There has to be an element of appeal for all of those viewers, so quantity becomes as much an issue as quality (also evidenced by the typically lengthier running times of big-budget films). In addition, there tend to be a lot of people involved on the production end, and you know what they say about making broth with too many cooks. When a movie gets made for “everyone,” it can’t help but be made for nobody in particular.

Meanwhile, filmmakers who aren’t weighed down by the expectations of you, me, my seven uncles, my seven uncles’ work buddies, and a multi-billion dollar Hollywood studio get to turn out passionately made works of artistic vision. It’s a vision that tends to be appreciated by a few at first, and gradually by many as its virtues are spread by word of mouth.

Are there other reasons that low budget sci-fi movies seem to capture our hearts and minds more than the typical gazillion-dollar internationally-released blockbusters? Probably. Well, definitely – but these seem to stand out from the rest. Despite the seemingly inverse correlation between dollars spent and enjoyment provided, I’ll continue to look forward to all upcoming science fiction movies with as little bias as I can muster. I’m no budgetist, after all.

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