Contrary to what Hollywood and their bloated, CGI-laden star vehicles might want you to think, science fiction is all about story. A well-placed shadow, a sound effect, a music cue, these things can be enough to create a sense of other-worldliness that can transport you from this mundane, corporeal plane to somewhere – else. And because these movies are based on great character and story, they work whether you’re a sci-fi nerd or not.
Not to say that indie sci-fi movies don’t look amazing, btw – they often boast some of the most inventive design regardless of budget, and often rely on in-camera (physical, rather than digital) effects that feel real in a way CGI just doesn’t.
Here are some recommendations of relatively recent and upcoming indie sci-fi movies that you should see. An asterisk indicates it was included in KCRW’s First Take screening series.
Young Ones 10/17
Space Station 76 9/19
The One I Love (On VOD 8/1 and in theater 8/22)
A couple goes on a weekend away to repair their relationship and is confronted with the question: if you were a better version of yourself, would you still be you? Starring mumblecore king Mark Duplass and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, who actually looks a little like an alien come to think of it.
I Origins (Opened 7/18)
From the director of “Another Earth” (another indie sci-fi film), and featuring its star – the otherworldly Britt Marling. This one spins a tale about discovering scientific proof of a widely held metaphysical phenomenon. Logically and dramatically flawed, it still raises some though-provoking questions – and the occasional hair on the back of your neck.
Coherence (Now Playing)
A one-set, star-free story of a dinner party that turns into a puzzle after a mysterious meteor flies overhead. In a way, it asks some of the same questions of identity posed by the previous two films – but this is the most successful – and the creepiest - of the three.
Sleep Dealer (2008 – recently rereleased on VOD)
A future where we get all the cheap immigrant labor without all that messy immigration – “cyberbraceros” plug into a network and do the work remotely. An interesting way into the immigration problem that was timely when the movie came out a few years ago and is only more timely today.
The History of Future Folk* (2013)
One of my favorite films of last year is about aliens who come to destroy the earth, but decide to play bluegrass instead. Variety called it “close encounters of the charming kind.” You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll stomp your feet, you’ll believe mild-mannered banjo-playing extraterrestrials can save our planet.
Europa Report* (2013)
The story of a mission to one of Jupiter’s moons in search of the origins of life. Fully-drawn characters and storytelling that’s as tight as a space capsule translate into a rip-roaring ride into the unknown!
Upstream Color* (2013)
Shane Carruth’s surreal sophomore effort is a masterpiece of sound, editing and mood. The story of a woman forced into an altered consciousness and obsessed by its after-effects (kinda), this is a movie that enters your pores rather than your eyes and ears. Like Donny Darko, it makes more sense every time you watch it. Also, check out his ultra-low-budget first film Primer.
Take Shelter (2011)
From IMDB: “Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.” Not a perfect film, but worth seeing for Michael Shannon’s wonderful weirdness alone.
District 9 (2009)
Maybe the least indie of these indies, this brilliant film is half rip-roaring action flick and half laser-like social commentary. This $30 million studio reject made over $200 million worldwide.
A blue-collar astronaut begins to unravel after being left alone for too long on a lunar work station. Or is he becoming aware of things he simply can’t accept? A psychological thriller of the highest order, with an overlooked tour-de-space solo performance by Sam Rockwell.
Code 46 (2003)
Michael Winterbottom is a director who likes to try things, and this was his foray into science fiction – the story of an illicit love affair in a future tightly controlled by the government.
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Essentially a YA movie and only really indie in spirit. But you gotta love that Jon Favreau relies almost solely on in-camera effects to create a magical movie that feels as retro-futuristic as the game that’s the springboard for the action. Watch the “making of” doc to get a whole new appreciation of this really fun film.
Donny Darko (2001)
The quintessentially indie sci-film continues to entertain new audiences and repeat viewers more than a decade later.