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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

indie SF movies

“Science fiction” and “indie” don’t go together in the minds of many moviegoers … or in the minds of many filmmakers, either. Which is probably why there’s a relative dearth of non-Hollywood-produced SF films. When “sci-fi” means “big-budget,” as it usually does, that eliminates the small filmmaker from the equation. But that doesn’t have to be the case, as the British SF film Sunshine, opening in the U.S. on Friday, July 20, demonstrates. Though it has a comparatively large budget — rumored to be around $50 million, which would put it on the low end of the range for studio films — it’s all about the indie-SF ethos: character over plot and with an emphasis on true science-fictional speculation. This ain’t no movie about blowin’ up aliens with laser guns: it’s about thinking on how humans may be affected when we go out into space for the long haul.

If that’s your cup of sci-fi tea, then check out these few indie SF flicks for more smart exploration of rediscovering what it means to be human in a strange new world:
Code 46 (2004): Another British flick, from one of my favorite filmmakers, Michael Winterbottom, this near-future drama wonders how our romantic and sexual relationships will be impacted by widespread genetic engineering. [my full review]

Until the End of the World (1991): When I first saw this European production, from German director Wim Wenders, back in 1991, I called it the first film of the 21st century, and it’s still ahead of its time. It posits a new kind of human: transnational and introspective, for whom “who we are” is more related to how well we know ourselves and how well we communicate with people like around the globe.

The Final Cut (2004): A joint Canadian/German production from Jordanian-born filmmaker Omar Naim, this quiet, powerful movie explores how history on the whoel and memory on an individual level change when memories can be edited and altered. If we are the sum of our experiences, what happens when we’re not stuck with those experiences?

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990): How much of who we are is tied up in our freedom, our self-determination? In a dystopian near future in which religious fundamentalists control all aspects of American society, one woman forced into a slavery of breeding struggles to regain her humanity.

The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988): Perhaps the most imaginative time travel movie ever made, in which a band of peasants escaping the Black Death in 14th-century England journey to modern-day New Zealand. Seeing our world today through the eyes of those who don’t understand what they’re seeing is a startling experience.

Finally, it’s not a movie, and it’s not even available on DVD in the United States, but if you have the technological wherewithal to watch non-Region 1 DVDs, don’t miss the short-lived BBC series Star Cops. Only nine episodes of this near-future crime drama set in high orbit and on the Moon were ever produced — they aired in the summer of 1987 in Britain, and later on PBS here in the States — but every one is a wonder. It’s easy to believe that this is exactly what the first law-enforcement agency in space will be like.

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  • Really looking forward to seeing Sunshine this weekend.

    Code 46 was really good, though it pains me to think that we are moving toward a future when even a single screwup on your part (even if it isn’t your fault) can result in you being sent al fuera (banished from “civilization”). It was very cool to see Shanghai and Dubai used, rather than the typical Seattle/NY/LA/SF/Chicago/London locales of science fiction. As someone said, we’re so unfamiliar with some places right here on Earth that they seem like science fiction.

    Until the End of the World was cool when I first saw it and when HDTV was still not available at a consumer level, but it doesn’t hold up quite as well now (IMHO). Great soundtrack, though, and good performances from Sam Neill and Solveig Dommartin. (Didn’t care for William Hurt’s character at all.)

    The Final Cut was also really good… Robin Williams does some of his best work when he suppresses his natural mania. Jim Caviezel was chillingly good as the renegade cutter. The idea of a documented life, where everything you see, say, and do is recorded for posterity is a little too BB for me, though.

    And I absolutely loved The Handmaid’s Tale. The book was really good, but seeing it depicted so accurately on screen (yes, I know that changes were made, but the story is essentially the same) really blew me away. (It didn’t hurt that a lot of the movie was filmed in Raleigh, where I lived at the time.)

    As I look through your list, one theme strikes me from all of those movies: There is much to fear in the future if we allow technology to get out of control and if we allow ourselves to become slaves to the system, interchangeable and disposable parts who are too easily discarded.

    Still, good list of movies! Hopefully someday we can add Neuromancer to the list (although I’m sure it’ll end up being big-budget if it’s ever made).

  • MBI

    Gattaca, perhaps? I don’t know if it’s low-budget enough, but it’s certainly a sci-fi flick based on ideas rather than images.

  • MBI, I thought about mentioning GATTACA… it’s definitely good science fiction, but not really an indie. I think it would fall into the same bucket as Blade Runner (although of course it doesn’t compare to Blade Runner in terms of impact) in that they are both SF films that take the subject seriously and ask a lot of questions about what it means to be human (or not).

  • MaryAnn

    *Gattaca* is awesome and definitely one of the best movies ever made that’s genuinely science fiction, but it is a studio film. Which is amazing in itself…

  • You might put Children of Men in the same category as Gattaca. The studio sure tried to bury it like they didn’t know what the heck it was talking about… a sure sign of an “indie” heart in a mainstream body.

    How about the time-travel movie Primer from a few years ago? That one is definitely off the reservation.

  • MaryAnn

    Yes, *Primer* goes perfectly into this category.

  • Crrrrrrrrrrap.

    Just found out that Sunshine is not opening in any of the theatres here in the Charlotte area today.


  • MBI

    “The studio sure tried to bury it like they didn’t know what the heck it was talking about… a sure sign of an “indie” heart in a mainstream body.”

    Eh, I wouldn’t say that. It sure didn’t get buried, it got produced like any other prestige picture. I was able to see it in theaters pretty easily.

    “*Gattaca* is awesome and definitely one of the best movies ever made that’s genuinely science fiction, but it is a studio film.”

    I would not have guessed.

  • MaryAnn

    *Children of Men* was very poorly marketed: that was the studio’s mishandling of it.

  • Cthulhu

    Isn’t it interesting how Children of Men was marketed so differently on both sides of the Atlantic.

    Here in the UK it was praised for depicting a Britain that’s not all that far away in some respects, and it won a couple of Baftas as well. I guess it helped that P D James wrote it & he rarely writes anything duff…

    Then again, it’s his only stab at “speculative fiction” as he calls it – he doesn’t write “science fiction” apparently…then again, what fiction isn’t speculative in nature???

    Hey, who cares – it’s a great sci fi film because it makes you think by asking awkward questions…

  • Hey Cthulhu: P.D. James is a woman. ;-)

  • Rykker

    Cool… someone mentioned Primer.
    I’m not discounting the films listed in this post; Primer is just the only one with which I’m familiar. I’ll be checking out the others that I can find.
    Thanks for breaching this subject, MaryAnn.

  • Cthulhu

    D’oh – that’s the last time I ask Mrs Cthulhu about an author without verifying her answer on Wikipedia…


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