Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse
Katie Rife and Tamika Jones

More so than any genre except for horror, science fiction is defined by its special effects. In Japanese, the relationship is explicit, as science fiction is one of a loose collection of fantastic genres referred to as tokusatsu—literally, “special filming” or special effects. For many people, it’s just not a science fiction movie until the spaceships land (or attack, as the case may be), or the mad scientist’s unholy creation breaks out of the lab, or the miracle machine comes to life with bright bolts of VFX lightning.

So, then, what’s an aspiring sci-fi filmmaker to do? Hold out for the day when an emissary from Hollywood arrives on their doorstep, $100 million check in hand? That’s a fantastic tale in itself. Luckily, there is a way forward. They can look to literary classics: Dystopian literature like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, while arguably missing the “science” element of sci-fi, point toward a path where human beings are the source of the intrigue. Time travel is another sci-fi trope that can be accomplished with little more than a box with the words “time machine” written on it, if the acting and the script are convincing enough. And there’s always that old standby for any filmmaker hoping to squeeze a lot of movie out of a little bit of money: trapping the characters inside a single location.

1. Primer (2004)

The quintessential example of how to do sci-fi without special effects, Shane Carruth’s ultra-low-budget 2004 debut Primer takes place in a world so overwhelmingly bland—think guys in khakis and faceless suburban motel rooms—that spaceships from Mars or the space-time continuum suddenly ripping open would come across as more laughable than awe-inspiring. Instead, Carruth relies on dense technical jargon and an increasingly fractured timeline to create a sense of irrevocably altered reality, leaning in to the inherently, maddeningly complicated and contradictory nature of time travel. [Katie Rife]

2. Alphaville (1965)

Obsession with American genre movies and disregard for the rules of how a movie “should” be made are two signatures of France’s revolutionary nouvelle vague movement, signatures that leave their mark all over Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi/noir hybrid Alphaville. Made at an especially prolific time in Godard’s career, Alphaville not only tells a sci-fi story without using special effects, but also without sets: The film was shot using only found locations in Godard’s beloved Paris, whose impersonal, streamlined modernist architecture actually stands in quite well for the near future. It even borrows a main character in pulp-fiction hero Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who appeared in pulp novels by British writer Peter Cheyney three decades before Godard sent him on a mission to destroy the fascist supercomputer Alpha 60 and restore the pleasure and pain of human emotion to the dystopian space ‘burg of Alphaville. [Katie Rife]

3. La Jetée (1962)

Told almost entirely through a series of photographs, Chris Marker‘s revered sci-fi short La Jetée is set in post-apocalyptic France, and follows a nameless prisoner as he is sent back and forward in time in order to prevent the nuclear fallout that destroyed civilization from ever occurring. Much like the title of the film, the prisoner is focused on one pertinent location, forever tied to a haunting pre-war childhood memory: himself and a mysterious woman standing on a jetty as they witness a man dying. It is this memory, and his obsession with understanding it, that ultimately seals the man’s fate. Special effects aren’t needed when one has Marker’s mode of unique storytelling; with only black and white photographs of the woman, the survivors living below ground, and a perfectly crafted score, Marker tells a story of hope, fear, pain, and obsession—just to name a few. [Tamika Jones]

4. The Face Of Another (1966)

If The Invisible Man never took his bandages off—and was a spiteful, jealous asshole, to boot—then he’d be something like the main character in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s existential sci-fi film The Face Of Another. Like Alphaville, the look of The Face Of Another is heavily influenced by modernist architecture, which here represents the emotional prison Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) finds himself trapped in after being horribly disfigured in an industrial accident. Unlike Alphaville, The Face Of Another flirts ever so slightly with makeup, although they’re nothing more complicated than you might find in your average Halloween store. The trick to the radical procedure Okuyama undergoes in an attempt to seduce his own wife (and, if all goes according to plan, shame and abandon her afterwards) is that it makes him look exactly like another person, eliminating the need for special effects aside from a straggly fake beard and the occasional patch of latex. [Katie Rife]

5. Coherence (2013)

In the intimate space of a dinner party, it may seem like the outside world no longer exists. And in director James Ward Byrkit’s 2014 sci-fi horror hybrid Coherence, the small group of friends who gather for dinner on the night a comet passes over Los Angeles are indeed oblivious to everything going on outside their door. But they’re very much not alone. Filmed on a shoestring budget with zero room for special effects, Coherence uses its lo-fi aesthetic to its advantage, filming outdoor scenes in grainy near darkness to enhance the sense of confusion and utilizing mundane items like ping-pong paddles and handwritten notes to ingeniously freaky effect. [Katie Rife]

6. The One I Love (2014)

In Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, married couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie’s (Elisabeth Moss) relationship is in trouble. Plagued by infidelity, a lack of communication, and overall not being what the other partner needs, the couple’s therapist seemingly innocently suggests that they go on a lavish retreat to work on things. But what happens when they arrive at the guest house proves to be a game changer. The special effects, such as they are, are simple and seamless, and coupled with the bright, saturated colors in the film, form a surreal atmosphere that brilliantly mirrors how Ethan and Sophie feel as the events begin to unfold. [Tamika Jones]

7. Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012)

2012’s other romantic sci-fi indie, Safety Not Guaranteed, sprung for some visual effects for its climactic sequence, but Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist writer Lorene Scafaria’s take on the sub-subgenre needs little more than a fade to white to convey the end of existence as we know it. The rest of the film is full of people talking about the end of the world—and, more specifically, characters played by Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley falling in love amid the panicked decadence that grips humanity in the face of the coming apocalypse—without actually showing it, thus eliminating the need for special effects. [Katie Rife]

8. Resolution (2012)

With respect to Aaron Moorhead, who has a background in visual effects and did the effects for the film, Resolution, his first film with creative partner Justin Benson, is so light on special effects that they practically don’t exist. (We’re talking a couple of filters and a final shot distorted in post.) And besides, the movie, which centers on a guy named Peter (Peter Cilella) who hikes out to a remote cabin to force his friend Chris (Vinny Curran) to go cold turkey on a number of dangerous, highly addictive drugs, is so smartly conceived, and builds its sense of altered reality so cleverly through naturalistic dialogue and context clues, that it could have gone without effects completely and still have had the same impact. Benson and Moorhead later returned to the same patch of land for 2018's The Endless, so clearly they think something spooky is going on up in those central California hills. [Katie Rife]

9. Extraterrestrial (2011)

Like Resolution, Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial technically does use some special effects, particularly in the final shot of the film. (Here, it’s a matte painting of a spaceship hovering over the Spanish city of Cantabria.) But the film still offers a lesson in how to make an alien invasion movie without actually showing the aliens. Basically? Turn the focus onto something else, like the competition between three men to woo a woman (Michelle Jenner’s Julia) who, for all they know, is the last woman on Earth. Keeping them in the same location for most of the film is also helpful. [Katie Rife]

10. Never Let Me Go (2010)

Presaging the dystopian YA sagas that became ubiquitous in the middle of this decade, Never Let Me Go, adapted by intellectual sci-fi darling Alex Garland from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, takes a dystopian sci-fi concept, looks at its far-reaching, deeply disturbing social implications, and says, “but what about the horny teenagers?” To be clear, this film is a lot weepier than The Hunger Games or any of its ilk, and also a lot more stylish. But the way it takes the idea of clones being raised to adulthood simply for the purpose of having their organs harvested—a secret that’s given away in the first half hour of the film—and turns it into a love triangle between Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley (again), and Andrew Garfield is very much in the same spirit. [Katie Rife]

11. Ladyworld (2018)

As we’ve seen in Coherence, Extraterrestrial, and Resolution, the event that complicates an indie sci-fi producer’s budget sheet is often as simple as the characters leaving the house. Amanda Kramer smartly sidesteps this problem in her as-yet-undistributed film Ladyworld by simply trapping her characters inside after a massive earthquake strikes during a young woman’s birthday party, causing her house to sink into the ground and blocking all the doors and windows so none of her guests can leave. The end of the world may or may not be happening outside, but inside friendships are being tested—which, as anyone who’s ever been (or known) a teenage girl knows, can be an apocalyptic-level event in itself. [Katie Rife]

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