How Low Can You Go?

monsters-sign-small.jpgScifi movies are usually the realm of big-budget blockbusters – think of Avatar, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But can you make a credible/entertaining science fiction movie on a low budget?

My caveat here is that I’m talking about the Hollywood system, i.e. movies that get a release, however wide, in theatres. Otherwise the answer would be a resounding yes! See our own Jim Munroe’s Infest Wisely as an example.

I can point to a few examples, recently, of movies that have tried to have it both ways – spend the little bucks and get the big bang. It’s a weird paradox to even expect mini-budgets from a system that thrives on spectacle, smart writing be damned, but people keep trying.

I just watched Monsters, and my first reaction: not found footage thankfully! Monsters is the story of two Americans caught in an infected zone in Mexico, the infection is an alien one and the Americans are desperate to keep it out. Cue the crushing allegory! And cue lots of “Hey, if only we get back to America, everything will be fine!” So the writing is a little on the obvious side (or maybe the OBVIOUS!! side), and that’s unfortunate, since a good script is what a little movie like this can rely on in the absence of spectacular effects.

monsters-sign-big.jpgAlthough I must say, Monsters is not too bad on the FX. Gareth Edwards, the writer/director/FX guy/everything else, filmed this on the cheap, then added lots of mysterious/frightening shots of the titular alien monsters in the night-time. You hear that, Skyline? In the darkness! (I also just watched Skyline – see below :). And no found footage whatsoever – while the comparisons to Cloverfield are inevitable, there is no shaky cam, no bizarrely obsessive camera guy, and so on.

I kinda liked Monsters. It reminded me a bit of Fish Tank, a British working-class realism piece from a year or two ago. You’re not sure where it’s going, since the tiny budget lets the film-maker do whatever they please, and you’re not sure if the movie will actually pull off anything… worthy, but the experiment is interesting along the way. See Nick’s Flick Picks for some good points about Monsters.

As mentioned, I also took a look at Skyline – less of a film festival darling, and more of a industry-connections flick, and one that cost about $10 million by all accounts. The script is about 10 million times worse than Monsters, and the effects suffer for the daytime setting: the eye has too much time to linger, and then the brain has too much time to formulate annoying questions. Skyline tries to ratchet up the emotional quotient by making the aliens go after humans in a rather direct body-horror type of way, which makes about as much sense as ever, namely zero. The alien lifeforms in Monsters don’t seem to care too much about sucking out our brains – I suppose a more accurate title like Accidental Biological Infestation wouldn’t have the same zing to it. A more accurate title for Skyline would be… I dunno, maybe No Brain Cells Left for Aliens to Munch Upon.

There’s a long history of ultra-low budgets in SF cinema. See this interesting list on Den of Geek. The number one movie on the list is Moon, which I didn’t particularly care for. Moon felt like a weird mish-mash of fable and SF, and not in a good way. The commenters point out the absence of Dark Star, which is a gem. I’d like to revisit Primer at some point.

I’m thinking back as well to my piece on Gilliam, The Cost of Creativity. Gilliam’s career is one of wild ambition, matched with crazed showdowns with the studios who control the big bucks that could fund his visions. Had he pared down the scope of his scripts to something like Monsters or even low-budget horror darling Paranormal Activity, maybe he would have escaped a lot of heartbreak and filmed many more movies. Of course, Gilliam would not be Gilliam if he could pare something down!

I do find it intriguing to speculate, however, what the possibilities will be in, say, twenty years. One guy on a computer can already create an alien invasion, albeit a very dedicated guy. A couple of decades of adding hand-me-down technology from Hollywood (James Cameron’s next two Avatar movies or Pixar’s movie-producing tools) to something like Xtranormal, and movie-making will be a very different place than it is now.

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