The Thinking Girls' Guide To Science Fiction Film

Here's a theory: The trajectory of science fiction in film is best told through the Aliens series. Sure, sci-fi existed before then, but none of it had blockbuster potential until Star Wars and Star Trek came and uprooted the entire genre (and, as such, became genres in and of themselves). But Ridley Scott's initial, chill-inducing Alien told a truly terrifying story in a terrific and thoughtful way — it made money as well, raking in $80,931,801 in the U.S. alone, a significant chunk in 1979. Then, in the '80s, producers realized that science fiction had true blockbuster potential (see: Scanners, Cocoon, and Terminator). With a much-inflated budget, Aliens was popcorn fodder, in its purest, most entertaining form, with amazing action sequences, a simple plot, and lots of big machines. When the '90s rolled around, things became a little darker and quirkier, and directors turned to science fiction for experimentation, like The Matrix, 12 Monkeys, or The Fifth Element. (Though, it should be noted that Alien 3 may be the darkest of all of the Alien movies, but David Fincher vocally hated the studio's edit, even though the tone was similar to his later film, Fight Club.) Alien: Resurrection, of course, indicated a typical choice for what was a reboot prototype: an ensemble cast, a character emerging from the dead, and most importantly…a critical flop. (Ed. Note: Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed this film, the same guy who helmed Amélie. Weird, right?)
Which brings us to Prometheus, Scott's return to the series, and a perfect example of the state of massively financed science fiction in the 2010s. Alien helped popularize the idea that science fiction could be both a thinking person's genre and a massive blockbuster — but that modern incarnations, like Prometheus, seemed to slap together beautiful visuals with vague lessons in humanity. That does not a good story make. Chalking up the entire Alien narrative to "wanting to meet your ambiguously motivated maker to find the quote-unquote meaning of existence" made diehard fans feel a bit like this. The bloated budgets of today's sci-fi movies seem to only lead to very expensive disasters, either critically, box-office-wise, or, usually, both. (Examples: See Dredd, Cloud Atlas, Book of Eli, Oblivion, After Earth, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, I Am Legend, or Predators. Some of those did okay, but not one stole the hearts and minds of viewers like, say, Alien.
(Please note: There are exceptions to this rule, but they either need to redefine the way we watch movies, like Avatar or have Steven Spielberg involved, like Minority Report or Super 8.)
Yet, even with this dire landscape laid out for the thinking science fiction fan, all is not lost: There are a new crop of amazing films which serve to both entertain and illuminate. The key difference is, they have no money. A belted budget forces directors to show less action, rely on emotional tension instead of expensive reveals, and most importantly, tell stories that are about real, tangible issues instead of creating some vast comment on the nature of life as expounded by, say, Will Smith. In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, science fiction author and goddess Ursula K. Le Guin explains that science fiction is a "thought-experiment," and "a thought-experiment is not to predict the future, but to describe reality, the present world." Of course, there are still science fiction films that are just made to dazzle you, like Pacific Rim, or Gravity, but they are smart enough to stay in their lane and not aim to teach us a Lesson with a capital "L". In fact, some of the best independent film being made today is science fiction.
So it may be possible to make the claim that sci-fi is best when the budget is thin — or at least sans box office expectations and studio interference. Perhaps large studios have something to learn from scrappy filmmakers. Either way, the most exciting indie movies today turn to science fiction to help tell a story, one that feels both topical and timeless. Le Guin herself believes the duty of the science fiction storyteller is to dramatize a current "trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, and extend it into the future." Perhaps science fiction works best as a commentary on modern society, with just a twist of imagination?
With Elysium hitting theaters this weekend (a film we have been quite excited to see) and reviews coming in as lackluster, perhaps its time to rethink the sci-fi blockbuster, and, like quirky dramas, reclaim the genre for the film buff. Here are our favorite small budget indie picks we'd put up to Scott's Prometheus any day.
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Photo: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures.
District 9
Year Released: 2009
Budget: $30 million
Box Office Revenue: $210 million
District 9 was proof that good sci-fi — really good sci-fi — isn't about some abstract future with no bearing on our current lives. That seems obvious if you're familiar with some of the genre's founding texts, but too often movies today are made just for the sake of being made, with nothing real to say. Blomkamp worked with a small budget and very few effects, relying on steady character development and sheer intrigue, to great effect. However, even a visionary like him can struggle when faced with the mixed-bag blessing of big money (and a big-name actor like Matt Damon), as early reviews of Elysium already suggest.
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Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Another Earth
Year Released: 2011
Budget: $175,000
Box Office Revenue: $1,781,194
Brit Marling's film about the discovery of another earth was the sleeper hit of 2011. There was nothing glitzy about her film. The most fantastical element was watching the newly discovered Earth loom in the sky. Marling managed to humanize the sci-fi genre. Her stunning "this could maybe happen" storytelling is fictional enough to get lost in, but told in a way that forced its viewers to question whether or not they could, given the opportunity, right their destiny that's been thrown off course due to an innocent mistake.
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Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Europa Report
Year Released: 2013
Budget: Not Listed
Box Office Revenue: $22,243 in its opening weekend
This is 2013's small-budget answer to the big sci-fi blockbusters, Elysium and Gravity. The pseudo-documentary/found footage style film has the polish of a blockbuster, but it plays out like a tight-budgeted film (this is a good thing!). Focusing on the first human trip to Jupiter's moon Europa with the hope of discovering life-sustaining organisms, Sebastian Cordero uses deep spatial exploration — something fairly common in science fiction — as a metaphor for our technological progress. Earth hasn't changed much, but our knowledge and abilities to extend that knowledge have. The sparse, dismal world these astronauts live in is not glamorous, nor are there any grand predictions. What Cordero is really doing is exploring our relationship with technology and how abandoned we actually are despite our connectedness.
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Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Year Released: 2008
Budget: $25 million
Box Office Revenue: $170,764,033
Cloverfield's success lies in Matt Reeves' decision to cast relatively unknown actors and actresses (the biggest name Reeves included was Lizzy Caplan who was riding high off Mean Girls). It was the first movie to deal with 9/11 without directly referencing the event — but still tapping into and vocalizing the emotions any New Yorker felt at the time. It's a monster movie that doesn't employ the usual scare tactics, and actually doesn't show the monster until the penultimate scene — thus sidestepping the risk of ending up with a distractingly corny creature. The suspense is in what you don't see, which considering Reeves' deeper meaning, is a jab at the government.
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Photo: Courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Year Released: 2010
Budget: $500,000
Box Office Revenue: $5,639,730
Made on a tiny budget thanks to the fact that Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able are a real-life couple, this movie tracks a pair of Americans as they move along Mexico, avoiding giant, ominous creatures. A bit like the District 9 of immigration, a group of aliens crash landed near Mexico and are generally unproblematic, except for one season of the year, when the US erects a border and those below the American territory suffer. The duo struggle to make it north before the walls close. But, without their passports, they have to take a dangerous and illegal route. Most characters in this film are real people found when shooting, giving the entire experience a truly genuine feeling.
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Photo: Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Robot & Frank
Year Released: 2012
Budget: $2,500,000
Box Office Revenue: $3,325,038
Jake Schreier's cleverly directed artificial intelligence story is like Wall-E without the planet's destruction. It takes our ever growing dependance on technology, gives it a "brain," and forces it to coexist with the generation it completely missed. Technology is as much a character in this film as it is a tool — which isn't too far off from where we are today.
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Photo: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Year Released: 2012
Budget: $12 million
Box Office Revenue: $127,075,175
A broody Dane Dehaan stars alongside Michael B. Jordan in this coming-of-age tale that imagines what normal, everyday American teens would do with superpowers. What starts as a buddy movie takes a turn for the darker when powers become abused and feelings begin to be hurt. The hand-held camera technique requires a bit of a suspension of disbelief, but this story of teen angst on mutated overdrive is one of the most refreshing takes on the superhero genre in decades.
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Photo: Courtesy of Zentropa Entertainments.
Year Released: 2011
Budget: $9,400,000
Box Office Revenue: $18,044,073
Alright, so this isn't a small budget film per se, but Lars von Trier has a weird way of making a big budget flick feel like a small one. Its two-plus hours of bored, wealthy newlyweds and their families debating whether or not the world will end. It is not so much a doomsday flick as it is a mirror to our own wasted, Xanax-happy, nihilistic tendencies. The two character studies contrast each other in ways that are relatively predictable, but von Trier's made it painfully beautiful. It's easy to get lost in its richness, but there is no sense of escapism. The film feels rather much more like a trap. In the end, it doesn't matter which character you believe, or what you hope will happen, because von Trier breaks down the fourth wall of filmmaking, and blatantly says your opinion doesn't matter; you don't have control, and von Trier wants you to deal with that.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Year Released: 2009
Budget: $5 million
Box Office Revenue: $10,676,073
Some people would argue that the reason sci-fi movies often have big budgets is because you need that money to make believable effects. Moon is proof that that's not true. It takes place on (you guessed it) the moon, but much like Melancholia, it's a character study that deals with humanity's resilience in extreme isolation. Besides, the heartbreaking final scenes, and the revelations about the dark future of labor and corporate greed are more affecting than any sweeping, explosion-fueled twist ending.
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Photo: Courtesy of FilmDistrict.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Year Released: 2012
Budget: $750,000
Box Office Revenue: $4,413,188
Science fiction with a comedic mask is tricky — and something you rarely see. Derek Connolly's quest for time travel has cleverly managed to lace scientific information with witty banter. It's skeptical science fiction that asks the questions we all silently think watching movies. The title itself is a snarky slap in the face to films like Back to The Future. You want to travel in time, escape your current state of affairs, and maybe right your past or change your present? Go for it, but it's not all fun and games.