Science fiction can, and should, be about reimagining social possibilities, not just blowing shit up in space; however, if you can reimagine social possibilities while blowing shit up in space, I am all for that. – lol my thesis
Early in the millennium I started giving up on big budget sci-fi films, only watching them later on DVD and being almost always disappointed. I’m one of those elitist bastards who think that good sci-fi is fiction of ideas, be them scientific, social or otherwise. If I read, watch or otherwise consume sci-fi and after that I feel only entertained, I feel something is missing. That has been almost exclusively the case with the big budget sci-fi, which have been mostly just CGI-destruction orgies or what-a-twist gimmicks. Pretty, but frankly, rather vapid.
In 2013 I got back on the horse and started watching more films in general. I started catching up with what the indie sci-fi scene has to offer – and I was blown away. There is currently an awesome selection of quality indie sci-fi out there that blows the big budget stuff out of the water with the strength of their story and ideas.
What follows is a totally subjective list of indie sci-fi films I’ve seen in the last year that genuinely restored my hope and enthusiasm for sci-fi films as a whole. What is in common with these films for me is that whereas I’ve forgotten most of the big budget sci-fi films by the time I’ve exited the theater, these have stayed to haunt me for days or months.
Also, on the level of the plot, these have been human-sized stories. You don’t have to save the fucking world every time. You can make a perfectly good sci-fi films on a small scale and with some goddamn nuance – actually, those are usually far far better, smarter, more interesting and more true than the run-of-the-mill shit where an A-list actor blows up the aliens, saves the world and gets the girl. (Consequently, if I had to pick up one film that represents everything I hate and hold wrong about big budget sci-fi, it would have to be Oblivion.)
Astronaut Lee Miller is alone on the International Space Station, when something happens on Earth, and he gets stranded. For quite a while. And that’s the only thing one can tell about the film without spoiling it.
This is a film that is not predictable or a particularly easy watch, but it’s extremely beautiful and impressive as hell. When the credits rolled, I was so choked and overwhelmed it took me a while to get a word out, and I can’t honestly remember when a film did that to me. Put some time aside for watching this.
A scientist comes up with a technology to enter the memories of people, which is promptly used to probe an addict’s mind to figure out if he committed a murder. Things go awry and the scientist gets stuck in the criminal’s mind, with no way out.
On paper the plot doesn’t sound too impressive, but what carries this film are the multifaceted characters, the nuanced strong performances by the actors, and the thoughtful lingering way the plot is advanced. A beautifully told story through and through.
Sound of my Voice
A sceptic journalist and his girlfriend infiltrate a cult which claims their leader, a young woman called Maggie, is from the future. Instead of getting a quick exposé they get pulled in to the sessions arranged for the faithful.
Another slow, thoughtful and atmospheric film with no easy answers.
It turns out that there is a duplicate Earth in the solar system, a small blue spot that is approaching our Earth. This is the backdrop of the story of Rhoda Williams, a young gifted student who is driving home drunk after being accepted to MIT, and a talented composer John Burroughs, who cross paths in a tragic car crash.
Another Earth is a story of what-ifs and chance encounters that change your life.
Years ago massive aliens appeared on Earth around US-Mexico border area after a deep space probe crashed on re-entry. A photojournalist, operating in the area and hungry for a story, receives a call from his employer, who asks him to escort the employer’s daughter to safety through the infected zone.
The couple do not embark on a daring mission to free the Earth from the aliens by blowing up something.
The first ever manned mission lands on Europa, the ice-covered moon of Jupiter, one of the most potential locations of extraterrestrial microbial life in our solar system. Europa Report is hardish sci-fi with a terrific atmosphere, technology that feels real enough for a sci-fi film of this sort (unless you are a massive nitpicker), and again a great slow paced story that is a joy to follow.
Trollhunter is definitely the lightest film of this bunch – not exactly a comedy, but a dark fantasy that plunges deadpan into the surreal idea of the traditional trolls of Norway’s folk tales being real. The story is told through a group of student filmmakers who start to follow a hunter. They suspect him of being a bear poacher, but soon they find out that he’s a really really big game hunter.
I have already written about The Cosmonaut in length, but in a nutshell it’s an art sci-fi film made in the tradition of old Soviet sci-fi a’la Tarkovsky, and a love story centered around a cosmonaut lost in space. So, not an action packed romp to be watched with a six-pack of beer.
There are some films that fell out of this rather arbitrary “seen by me in the last year or so” timeframe, such as Moon, Cube, Primer, Pi and so on. Attack the Block was also a really fun watch, although it was pretty straightforward action, and Timecrimes was an entertaining “let’s make a convoluted time travel story” film, but out of purely subjective reasons they didn’t really fit into this bunch.
I’m not really sure if I’ve missed all the interesting indie sci-fi films before, or are we genuinely living in a new time where smart and interesting scripts are finding a home with indie sci-fi makers instead of having to suffer through the indignities of the Hollywood and network sausage machines. Be it as it may, I’m very happy with the state of affairs as it is now!
If you have further suggestions on films in this vein, please drop them in the comments!
This little blog post got a bit more publicity than I anticipated, hitting the Reddit front page, which promptly hugged it to death for a while – apparently my hosting solution had some difficulties handling 1,75 million page loads in a couple of hours all of a sudden. I got lots of positive feedback but also deserved critique, so I decided to write a bit more about where I’m coming from with this.
First of all, I’m obviously not saying all big budget sci-fi is bad, or that it’s bad to be entertaining. I loved stuff like Pacific Rim, it was entertaining as hell and the action was awesome. It was like eating a bucket full of cotton candy. Then again, that is my problem with the big budget sci-fi films: when I go to see one, on average that’s all I can expect, a bucketful of cotton candy. Sure, there have been some exceptions. Looper was an interesting take on time travel and Children of Men was thought provoking and I really liked Cloud Atlas (which was based on a novel), but usually whatever sci-fi flick is in the cinema is an A-list guy blowing up CGI-aliens, saving the world and getting the girl – with a twist, of course.
The last big budget sci-fi film that has stayed with me was probably Gattaca. Inception had an awesome premise, but come on – you get into peoples’ dreams and what you do there is… have a firefight? Sure, some sci-fi films may have a ham-handed social messages a’la Avatar (“capitalism bad, tree pretty”), or whatever Elysium tried to say (did anyone crack that code…), but they don’t really leave a lot to chew on. Additionally, films are dumbed down in all the weirdest places, since apparently the greatest disaster that can befall a film is that one paint-chip eater in the audience doesn’t get some point. I’d say the “the machines use humans as batteries instead of computing power, because the latter is somehow too difficult” in Matrix is a poster child for this.
I grew up reading sci-fi from Clarke through Stanislav Lem to Heinlein, and lots more. What defined that early experience of sci-fi for me was a certain wonder of discovery that came with the stories – new places, new ideas, new ways of seeing things that left my brain buzzing. It was not just a childhood nostalgia thing, since in the later years I’ve really enjoyed books from such writers as Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville etc. that have done exactly the same. They can tell awesomely entertaining stories that don’t need to be stupid – you can blow shit up in space while blowing up the reader’s mind with new concepts at the same time. Of course you have much less space to tell a story or sell a concept in a film than in a novel, but short stories manage it perfectly well.
When it comes to sci-fi right now, in my opinion the most interesting storytelling happens in TV series and indie films, in addition to books, of course. I’m hoping there will be some sort of generation change in the ranks of film execs some time soon, and the new cadre wouldn’t be so quick to underestimate the audiences and so scared of causing a controversy.