10 Notable High Concept / Low Budget Sci Fi Films

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10 Notable High-Concept / Low Budget Sci Fi Films [Creative commons: CC0 Public Domain]

One of the most difficult things to do in film is to complete a feature for under $5M.  What’s an even bigger accomplishment is to develop a “High Concept”, Sci Fi feature for under the same production budget.  Extra kudos (and amazement) goes to any of the high concept Sci Fi films that are able to do it under $1M.

It’s more commonplace for films in the horror genre to capitalize on low budget filmmaking, and even interweave a plot that may have a high concept.  However, low budget sci fi films have started to reclaim their rightful place as the high concept/low budget stalwarts.  When attempting to do a film of this nature with limited budget, creativity and fresh originality become a huge factors.

Aside from just making a film an essential ‘bottle episode’, you have to get pretty creative to tackle high concepts.  A common trend among these movies is that a majority of the film’s budget usually goes into post production rather than the actual shooting of the film.  This has been a winning strategy for most films keeping the quality at a level that audiences have become accustomed to.

The following is by no means a complete or exhaustive list of high-concept/low budget sci fi films.  Rather, it’s merely a sample list of some notable films in this genre with relatively low budgets.

Moon (2009) – IMDB Listing
Production Budget: $5M – Source

This one squeaks in just under our arbitrary limit of what we consider “low budget” at $5M.  However, every cent of the budget winds up on the screen as this film goes into the madness Sam Rockwell portrays as a lonely moon miner.  The movie soundtrack is also top notch.  Like many of the other films on this list, it was the launching pad (see what I did there) for director Duncan Jones to go on and direct Source Code and Warcraft.  

THX 1138 (1971) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $777,777 ($4.4M adjusted for inflation) – Source

George Lucas before he was “George Lucas” had his humble beginnings with this sci fi feature.  His high concept of a sterile, dystopian future had elements of George Orwell’s 1984.  Mr. Lucas had some success after this debut effort with American Graffiti and then a little indie film called Star Wars.

The Signal (2014) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $4M – Source
How do you make a large scope/high concept sci fi film for under $5M?  One good way is to make it a personal story.  Add in film star Laurence Fishburne, a compelling concept, a twist ending, a budget under $5M and you have a film worth noting.  While it was not the best of movies and had its fair share of flaws, it still accomplished a high concept sci fi film on a low budget.

Pontypool (2008) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $1.5M – Source
This one is a little more of a thriller/horror/suspense film than a true sci fi film, but I had to include it because of its high concept, relatively low budget and tangential, philosophical sci fi elements.  It’s reminiscent of the War of The Worlds radio broadcast, and goes to show what can be done in the theater of the mind.  It’s one of the best films on this list and Stephen McHattie is absolutely stellar as Grant Mazzy.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $750K – Source
This one barely qualifies as a sci fi film, mostly because it was much more of a romantic comedy.  However, it did have a general time travel, high concept which was sci fi themed.  It also had a few known TV stars (Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza and Mary Lynn Rajskub) as leads, and the movie was ultimately good enough to land the director (Colin Trevorrow) his next project directing Jurassic World.

Monsters (2010) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $500K – Source
Director Gareth Edwards creates a groundbreaking sci fi feature on a relatively low budget considering the scope of the film.  Edwards relies on the actors’ improvisation for sizable segments of the film and an implied environment.  Edwards is also very talented at special effects and did all of the effects himself on his laptop computer.  He was able to leverage this movie’s success to eventually direct Godzilla, and then Star Wars: Rogue One.

Dark Star (1974) – IMDB Listing
Production Budget: $60K ($313K adjusted for inflation) – Source

Before he made his epic classics Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Thing, John Carpenter directed this trippy sci-fi film about a crew in deep space who encounter an alien shaped like a beach ball. The crew then have to consult with their dead, but frozen Captain on how to deal with the alien.  It’s an interesting look into the early career of a seminal director.

Turbo Kid (2015) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $50K*(This is the only budget information I could find, and this was just for the film’s promotion.  I’m sure the production budget was much higher.) – Source
This film is buckets of awesome.  Take an 80s theme in a post apocalyptic world, a totally rad synth soundtrack, add some over-the-top gore and blood, mix in a kid on a BMX bike with a stack of comic books and you have Turbo Kid.  The Producers were able to raise the film’s promotion budget within 7 days on Indiegogo, and they even got Michael Ironside to star as the bad guy.  This was an impressive debut effort for the Canadian Writer/Director team of François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell.

Pi (1998) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $68K – Source
All directors have their start somewhere.  Darren Aronofsky had the good fortune of writing and directing Pi as his first feature effort.  He of course went on to direct much larger and well known films such as Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan and Noah.

Primer (2004) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $7K – Source
Much like the famed El Mariachi, it’s hard to believe this film was done for just $7K.  It’s hard to believe you can produce any feature film for just $7K for that matter.  This film was very ambitious in scope and had a high concept of time travel by a few Silicon Valley geeks.  However, given its very limited budget, it was hard to pull off any sort of real FX payoff.  However, they still get an “A” for effort for stepping up to this great challenge.


Honorable Mentions

We couldn’t squeeze all the notable high concept / low budget sci fi films into our list of just 10 movies, so here are some honorable mentions.

Time Lapse (2014) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: Unknown budget, but almost certainly under $5M
Here is a creative way to turn a sci fi film into a really effective indie thriller.  Time Lapse plays with the very common “What would you do if you could tell the future” theme in time travel movies.  However, the uniqueness of this film is that there is a machine that just lets you see the future.  So what would you do?  Bet on sports?  Play the lottery?  See what happens with this group of friends as they find out.

The Man From Earth (2007) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $200K – Source
This indie has some familiar faces gathered at a country house as they discuss a thought experiment “What if a man from the upper Paleolithic survived until the present day?”  It’s a common technique for getting around having a high budget of showing things to just have people sitting around talking about things.  So is it really a sci fi film if nothing really ever happens?

Synchronicity (2015) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: Unknown budget, but almost certainly under $5M
The film’s Director, Jacob Gentry has another sci fi film (The Signal) that landed on our original 10 notable films list.  While Synchronicity was a decent sci fi film, The Signal was somewhat more creative on a limited budget.

Ink (2009) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $250K – Source
Ink is more of a fantasy/horror film than a sci fi film, it had just enough sci fi elements to qualify.  It had an interesting story of dream abductors, but overall the production was uneven.  It fluctuated from great production quality to almost amateurish which winds up pulling you out of the moment.  However, it’s still worth checking out.

Coherence (2013) – IMDB Listing 
Production Budget: $50K – Source
Coherence is another indie film that uses the common indie trope of gathering a bunch of people at a house for an event.  These versions of films commonly come off as bound by their limited budget instead of unleashed creatively by it.  However, where Coherence does things in a much better way than The Man From Earth did is they had larger events actually happen like mysterious crash, power outage, people abducted from the party, etc.  They didn’t just sit around talking about what could happen like in The Man From Earth.