Low-budget scifi movies may have had their heyday during Roger Corman’s rise to B-movie greatness in the 1950s, but they’re still going strong today—proving that you don’t necessarily need lavish special effects to tell a really great story. Here are our favorites from the past few decades.
Director Mike Cahill (I Origins) and star Brit Marling (The Sound of My Voice, Netflix’s The OA) co-wrote this tale of guilt, grief, and cosmic second chances. Marling plays a brilliant woman named Rhoda who makes a terrible, tragic mistake: causing a car accident that kills a woman and her unborn child, leaving the woman’s husband, John (William Mapother), physically and mentally devastated. Rhoda makes another terrible mistake when she first tries to set things right, seeking out John but failing to tell him who she really is. But possible redemption comes from an unlikely place: the “mirror Earth” that looms above—represented by a very simple but effective visual effect—where the people and places are identical to those on our planet, with the key difference being that certain crappy life decisions may never have transpired.
This cult horror-scifi comedy from Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, Phantasm) features quite a few outrageous special effects, as well as a cameo from Paul Giamatti, but it was still made for less than a million bucks. Based on David Wong’s novel, it’s about a pair of buddies who experience increasingly bizarre hallucinations and circumstances (alternate dimensions, aliens, etc.) when they encounter a new street drug that’s nicknamed “Soy Sauce.” Eventually, the fate of the world hangs in the balance—and along the way, there’s also an evil supercomputer, a heroic dog, and a monster that cobbles itself together from a freezer full of meat.
Filmed in black-and-white using period-appropriate video cameras, writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s offbeat and intricate study of a computer chess tournament is set in 1980—and if you didn’t know any better, that’s when you’d think it was made. It was actually made in 2013.
Authentic nerds (not Hollywood nerds) converge on a bland hotel to determine whose program will achieve chess supremacy, though the backstage dramas and micro-dramas outside the competition provide most of the real interest. Though Computer Chess is mostly an awkward comedy, it ventures into scifi when it begins to suggest that one team’s artificial intelligence software is way, way more self-aware than most anyone realizes or is willing to admit.
Another black-and-white entry, The American Astronaut manages to meld the genres of scifi, Western, and musical. Writer-director Cory McAbee, who once described his work as “Buck Rogers meets Roy Rogers,” also plays the title character—an intergalactic cowboy/rare-goods dealer who becomes entangled in a scheme to deliver a man to the all-female planet of Venus (but it gets way more complicated than that)—and his band, the Billy Nayer Show, provided the tunes. Unsurprisingly, the end result is something completely unique, enhanced by the film’s use of hand-painted, lo-fi special effects in most cases.
Before Gareth Edwards did Godzilla—and then achieved his lifelong dream of making a Star Wars movie with Rogue One—he worked as a digital effects artist and applied those skills to his first feature, Monsters. As the title suggests, it’s a monster movie, but it’s uniquely set in a world where humans and aliens have been co-existing on Earth for a number of years, and while the tension and fear may not have deflated, the novelty has. Strangers (real-life couple Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) team up to re-enter the US from Mexico, but the trip is complicated by a border that has become exponentially more hostile. Edwards, who also wrote the film, did the cinematography, and did the production design, makes the most of a budget that’s just a tiny fraction of what he’d get for his future blockbusters.
Lonely, technology-averse, and intermittently forgetful retiree Frank acquires a companion robot from his well-meaning son, and soon realizes his new sidekick would be the perfect partner in crime, literally. Robot & Frank is a poignant study of aging, but it also does an incredible job making a robot character (and it is a real, developed character) believably blend into its otherwise fairly typical indie-film landscape. A winning cast (most prominently Frank Langella as Frank and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot, though a different actor actually wears the suit) further elevates this inspired effort from first-time director Jake Schreier and first-time screenwriter Christopher D. Ford.
In Alex Rivera’s thriller, it’s a future in which illegal immigration between Mexico and the US has been completely outlawed (thanks to a border wall...). However, since the US economy would collapse without a steady stream of people willing to work for nothing, would-be prospective citizens toil in grim factories where they’re physically plugged into virtual reality machines that control robots doing labor stateside. Within this uneasy mix, we meet a man who dreams of hacking into a massive corporation to restore water to his region; a woman who peddles uploaded memories; and a drone pilot who has a crisis of conscience. Sleep Dealer is obviously a politically-minded tale that’s really about globalization, but it also manages to be completely thrilling at the same time.
At the very end of a three-year solo stint on the Moon, the man overseeing an automated mining facility (Sam Rockwell)—who has only his AI (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for companionship—realizes he’s not as alone as he once thought. He also starts to suspect that his corporate employers are not as benevolent as he once believed. Director Duncan Jones (Source Code, Warcraft) is working on another film set in the same universe as Moon, called Mute, which will also have scifi elements though it’ll be set on Earth this time; eventually, he hopes to do a third and make it a trilogy.
College kids on a road trip take a detour to track down their nemesis, a mysterious hacker who lures them to an alien encounter, after which they’re whisked to an apparent government facility that’s experimenting with alien technology. On humans. Including them. Aside from its imaginative plot, which keeps you guessing until the end (and even then leaves you with a great “Huh?” image), it’s production design that evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey and supporting turns by Laurence Fishburne and Lin Shaye that make The Signal especially memorable.
Following in the footsteps of Gareth Edwards, director Colin Trevorrow made his feature debut with this budgeted-under-a-million indie before taking on Jurassic World and Star Wars: Episode IX. An intriguing magazine ad seeking a time travel companion (“this is not a joke”) piques the interest of a trio of Seattle journalists (Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and Karan Soni), who track down the man (Mark Duplass) to see if he’s a nutcase or the real deal—or, as it turns out, kinda both. The script (by Derek Connolly) was inspired by a real (but fake) ad that once ran in Backwoods Home Magazine, a fact which helps ground the film’s quirkiness—as do its performances (Plaza is perfect) and its portrayal of time travel as something ordinary people might explore for their own deeply personal reasons. And yes, there are Star Wars jokes.
Yep, another one with Mark Duplass. Charlie McDowell’s debut feature—filmed mostly at co-star Ted Danson’s house—is about Ethan and Sophie (Duplass and Elisabeth Moss), a married couple who try to salvage their relationship by going on a weekend getaway. Things soon get very, very surreal when it becomes apparent that everything is not what it seems, especially not Ethan and Sophie, who become entangled in their very unconventional therapy session. (No spoilers here, but of course there’s a twist.) Duplass and Moss are ridiculously good in a movie that requires the most nuanced acting to make it seem believable—which they totally do.
In rural Ohio, construction worker and family man Curtis (Michael Shannon) becomes dangerously obsessed with building a storm shelter in his backyard. As the movie (written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who also made last year’s excellent Midnight Special with Shannon) progresses, it’s made clear that Curtis isn’t your run-of-the-mill doomsday prepper; he believes he’s receiving clues that a weather-borne apocalypse is nigh. But are these signs real, or just paranoid reverberations of a deeply troubled mind? Take Shelter waits until the very end for its big reveal, but it serves up a definitive answer.
This is the gold standard of all independent, low-budget movies about time travel. Shane Carruth (who wrote, directed, edited, scored, produced, and co-stars) famously spent just $7,000 making his mind-bending tale of two guys who accidentally invent a time machine. But Primer is so much more than something that can be reduced to “big ideas on a tiny budget.” As the movie progresses, the invention lurches from amazing discovery to destructive force, as timelines overlap and intersect and a wedge forms between the two friends. It gets confusing as hell, for both the audience and the characters—but you never lose the sense that Carruth knew exactly what wanted to do, every step of the way.
A dinner party among friends (and a few frenemies) gets weird when a comet passes overhead and knocks out the power. When members of the group venture out to check on the neighborhood, they realize that the comet has opened doorways between parallel dimensions, each containing different versions of themselves, all attending their own dinner parties. Naturally, realities begin to crisscross, a situation that has particular appeal for Emily (Emily Baldoni), whose personal and professional lives are both on a downward spiral—in her reality, anyway. Filmed in director James Ward Byrkit’s own home, Coherence makes great use of improv and some simple but effective props (glow sticks, photographs, a ping pong paddle) to weave a thoroughly mind-bending “what if?” tale.