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The Interesting Indie Sci-fi Flicks That Restored My Hope for Sci-Fi Films as a Whole

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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

The Cosmonaut

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.)


Love

love-poster

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.

IMDb – Website


Extracted

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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.

IMDb


Sound of my Voice

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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.

IMDb – Website


Another Earth

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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.

IMDb – Website


Monsters

monsters-poster

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.

IMDb – Website


Europa Report

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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.

IMDb – Website


Trollhunter

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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.

IMDb – Website


The Cosmonaut

The Cosmonaut poster

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.

IMDb – Website


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!

ATTENDUM

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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.

gattaca-posterThe 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.

childrenofmen-postreI 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.

27 Comments

  1. Thank you for compiling an intriguing list of indie sci-fi films. Out of your list I’ve only seen ‘Monsters’ and ‘Europa Report’ – both very fine movies. I would also submit to you that socially conscious sci-fi I also being explored through the media of web series and short films. Filmmakers seeking more creative control are turning more toward the web. I highly recommend the digital series ‘HPlus’ which is an ambitious project almost eerily prophetic in its commentary on our relationship to connective technologies: http://www.hplusdigitalseries.com/

    Again, thank you for putting together such a distinguished list!

  2. I loved Europa Report and Extracted and will check out some of the others on this list. Have to disagree with Mosters though…It was like watching paint dry to me. Thanks for the recommendations!

  3. Yes !,
    these films are the only reason i still consider watching movies as a hobby

  4. “Her” is one hell of an exception and should have been given a nod my friend :)

  5. Great Sci Fi is hard to find.

    You provided a succinct list of sci movies that i plan to check out. Thanks alot for your writings!

  6. Great list.

    I’d add Primer, Upstream Color, Safety Not Guaranteed, Sunshine, Moon, and Melancholia to your list.

  7. Great list. Haven’t seen any of these. Thanks for putting it together.

  8. Great List! Would also recommend The Man From Earth (bunch of people talking in a cabin- cant get more indie than that!) and the hilarious FAQs About Tim Tavel

  9. Thanks, I’ll be adding some of these to my list!

    Here are some other small sci-fi movies that are already on my list (i.e., haven’t seen but look good): Snowpiercer, Ink, 2046, and Mr. Nobody.

  10. ‘Science fiction can, and should, be about reimagining social possibilities,’
    NO NO NO NO NO…. this is just what it shouldn’t be about. It shouldn’t be ‘character driven’, and it shouldn’t be about ‘the human condition'; it shouldn’t ‘explore human relationships’ or aim for social significance. It should be escapist, and about imaginative and novel alternatives to our common realities. I thought Monsters was good. Of course Trollhunter is a comedy. How absurd to say it isn’t. Sunshine was great. Moon tedious, I agree that most of the blockbusters suck, I will look out the recommendations, but they’d better not try to be ‘significant’

  11. I think you are completely wrong about Oblivion. It’s a rare example of a big budget, star packed Hollywood film that *is* proper sci-fi. There was far more plot and character dev than blowing shit up. The good cinematography was just a bonus. Don’t write it off just because Tom Cruise stars in it (I almost did).

  12. Fantastic list. Put a smile on face to see TrollHunter up here – brilliant little film. Nothing you’ve seen before. I Monsters gets a lot of flack, people complaining it’s not about what it should be about, missing the point of of the film entirely!

    I’d perhaps Looper into the mix too. First original sci-fi film had in a long too.

  13. You missed out “the man from earth” one of the absolute best

  14. I picked up Monsters for a few bucks in a bargain bin or an op shop somewhere a couple of months ago. Didn’t know anything about it, just read the cover and thought it looked interesting, plus it’s only a few dollars right? Ended up being such a good buy. I really enjoyed it. Fascinating watch. There is hope for the sci-fi film industry yet.

  15. The Sound of my Voice and Another Earth were both written by the same woman, who happens to star in both as well. She kept getting offered rolls as blond victim #2 in cheesee slasher/horror movies so she decided that she had to write to get roles that she wanted.

  16. Everyone forgets Iron Sky, it’s so good! Nazi’s on the moon, not a brainy sci-fi but solid B-movie stuff.

    Gravity was dumb, half the movie is sandra bullock gasping for no reason, europa report was shmeh, it was a great thought experiment of “if we sent some people to jupiter and didn’t tell them how the spaceship worked, why aren’t they having more sex?” because seriously, nobody tethered themselves to anything in either movie, which just introduces unnecessary tension ;)

  17. Ryan:

    “I think you are completely wrong about Oblivion. It’s a rare example of a big budget, star packed Hollywood film that *is* proper sci-fi. There was far more plot and character dev than blowing shit up. The good cinematography was just a bonus. Don’t write it off just because Tom Cruise stars in it (I almost did).”

    I didn’t knock it off because of Tom Cruise, I knocked it off because it was an “a-list actor blows up the aliens, saves the world and gets the girl, with a Twist in the story in the middle, with pretty CGI all around”-film. Also the Twist as particularly ham handed, with one character basically spending a couple of minutes reading bullet points and explaining the story. That sort of stuff really doesn’t work for me.

  18. You should have added “The man from Earth” as well and maybe “Moon”. Although I am not sure whether Moon was not from a major studio.

  19. Tim Staffell:

    “‘Science fiction can, and should, be about reimagining social possibilities,’
    NO NO NO NO NO…. this is just what it shouldn’t be about. It shouldn’t be ‘character driven’, and it shouldn’t be about ‘the human condition’; it shouldn’t ‘explore human relationships’ or aim for social significance. It should be escapist, and about imaginative and novel alternatives to our common realities.”

    “Reimagining social possibities” doesn’t really equal “relationship drama”. Gattaca was about reimagining social possibilities. In Time was that too. Hell, so was Starship Troopers. Historically sci-fi has worn many hats. One is the sci-fi of big ideas and wonderful inventions, about which I wrote a bit in here: Bad Characterization in The Scifi of Big Ideas – Who Gives A Crap, Really?. Then you have the action adventure with rayguns bolted in, which the vast majority of big budget sci-fi seems to be nowadays. There is the exploration of new worlds and realities, and then there is the sci-fi of social possibilities. Sometimes sci-fi has been the only way to write about or criticise difficult social or political phenomena, and there was a strong tradition of just that in for example the Soviet Union and the former Eastern Bloc. In the west you don’t have to look further than Star Trek and the racial issues.

  20. The guy who did Primer has made another movie called “Upstream Color” that is well worth watching.

  21. Great recent SF indies (in my view, all better than the ones you mention):

    Upside Down (Canada/France)
    The Arrival of Wang (Italian)
    The Door (German)
    Cargo (Swiss)

    And yes, of course, Iron Sky (Finnish/German)! :-)

  22. “(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.)”

    Your list has some terrific small films, but this is such a hipster attitude…. Oblivion had some genre cliches but it was a beautiful, lovely film with a terrific performance by Andrea Riseborough and a very solid romance underscoring the whole story.

    I feel like you’re discarding it because it follows some big-budget conventions, but if you give it a real chance it is a worthwhile watch.

  23. Just came back from the Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, where my film Senn had its east coast premiere. Other films to look out for when they hit wide release from the fest are The Search for Simon and Point B.

    http://sennition.com

  24. Huh:

    Sorry, your message got stuck in the spam queue for some reason. And no, I disliked Oblivion because it had a bland “blow up the aliens and save the world” plot with a genuinely massively clumsy exposition right after a very predictable twist. And no, I don’t overanalyze films as I watch them, or even afterwards – I like to experience stories as they come and I’m very much capable of skipping over little plotholes or other silliness if the film as a whole is good. It takes some effort from a film to make me “fall back into the movie theater seat” and when it happens, it annoys the heck out of me. The three films that have done it in the last years are Prometheus, Oblivion and Elysium.

    So yeah – if wanting a nice three course meal now and then instead of perfectly nice burger lunches is hipster attitude, then I guess I’m guilty of that.

  25. This is worth a lighthearted look! :)
    Grabbers.

  26. This has ben an interesting discussion. Maybe not everyone will agree, but an interesting ultra-low budget sci fi film you should check out is David King’s Purge, released by Troma Entertainment and available on Amazon at:
    http://www.amazon.com/Purge-Sarah-Breen/dp/BOOAWE4DNE
    Made for less than AUD$50,000, it has a very unconventional story and uses many unconventional techniques to tell it. No rockets, robots, rayguns, explosions or car chases, just a character in struggling to take up her ‘rightful role’ in a dystopian society where people are created by genetic engineering companies and programmed for roles in life.

  27. Nice list. Touches on a lot of good ones. Some of my faves.

    Serious Sci Fi:
    *Moon
    *Another Earth
    *Children Of Men
    *Timecrimes

    Funny Sci Fi:
    *Safety Not Guaranteed
    *FAQs About Time Travel

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