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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Saturday, December 06, 2014

entry arrow7:08 PM | Low Budget Sci-Fi

Somebody ought to invent a fitting term, something nice and cozy, for sci-fi films that are undeniably low-budget but have an immense imagination to them they go beyond their monetary restrictions. I'm talking about something in the caliber of Shane Carruth's Primer (2004), a wonderful film which literally took the idea of time travel to the driveway, and ran away with our imagination. Has there been anything else like it? Perhaps Vincenzo Natali's Cube (1997), which brought a thriller quality to mathematics? Perhaps, to some mystical extent, Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998)? There's Neill Blomkamp's mysteriously overpraised District 9 (2009) -- but this odious film is less sci-fi than just a monster movie featuring aliens from outer space becoming a lazy allegory for apartheid. Perhaps Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) is a perfect example of what I'm looking for, but this film explores its science with a hefty Hollywood budget so it's almost a given that we get a huge return in terms of pictorial spectacle. But what about those filmmakers who barely have enough to cover craft services? I'm talking about small films that dare to play around scientific mysteries, and somehow manage to bring spectacle for a much lesser price tag.

I'm thinking about this because, for some reason, today was spent watching films released in 2014 that somehow managed to do this. I'm quite surprised at the bounty.

There's Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, which is really a domestic drama with a Twilight Zone twist involving familial dopplegangers. A husband and a wife are going through a rocky patch -- they don't communicate well and the passion is virtually gone -- and so, upon the recommendation of their therapist, they go on a vacation in a country cabin, where soon each one encounters a completely realised version of their partner's better self. Its Solaris meets Scenes From a Marriage, and McDowell -- after a fashion -- manages to stretch the conceit well enough towards an unexpected ending. The narrative juggling act veers dangerously close to tedium sometimes, but the film manages to catch itself in time with every swerve.





Which is what exactly happens as well in James Ward Byrkit's Coherence. This one ostensibly begins as a story of eight friends gathering together for dinner on a night when a comet just happens to graze the earth's atmosphere. Dinner talk soon turns to convoluted terror and madness as the friends realise that their neighbourhood -- perhaps an effect of the comes passing -- has suddenly become a patchwork of the same house where alternate versions of themselves go through the exact same dinner in parallel timelines but with divergent details. The comings and goings of the characters, as each one seeks answers to the puzzle they find themselves living in, are an act of cinematic narrative chaos -- but for some reason, it works. It made me consider its most tantalising thought experiment: if you stumble on an alternate world, and your alternate self is enjoying the dream life you never had, would you be willing to kill your alternate self to take its place?





There is nothing neat and ordered in William Eubank's The Signal as well -- but not exactly for the same reasons. This one is a genre-bender that goes from a road trip movie involving a couple and their best guy friend, but then swerves towards horror film territory without warning, and then, in equal measure, swerves to another kind of film: a sci-fi mystery involving aliens and robot technology, set in a sketchy laboratory somewhere in the wasteland of Area 51. Or so it seems. And then it ends with the same majestic and mysterious power as Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998). The way I have described it now seems to make the film senseless -- but it is surprising in the way it makes sense and in the chances it takes with its stakes. Its genre-bending seems almost organic.





All in all, a splendid, unexpected day spent in science fiction. I wonder what other movies from this year, and of this persuasion, that I've missed out on...

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