When most people think of science fiction, they think of aliens, spaceships, and lasers. In other words, big-budget special effects. But there have been a lot of great movies that were made with a low budget, and proved that people are the real center of all magnificent science-fiction. Here are five movies that were made with less than a million dollars, but dazzle on the screen.

1. Primer (2004)
Synopsis: Two engineers working in their garage accidentally create a time machine, and must grapple with the technical and moral implications of their discovery.
Budget: $7,100
Why it's great: It doesn't get more low-budget than this movie. Shane Carruth wrote, directed, starred, edited, and even scored the movie all by himself. The low-budget actually works in Primer's favor. Usually time machines are mysterious objects that dazzle with special effects. With Primer, we see what a real time machine would probably be like. This movie is a surprisingly realistic and scientifically accurate portrayal of time travel, and has some great twists that will keep you guessing. Then you'll want to watch the movie again to figure out what you just saw.

2. Monsters (2010)
Synopsis: A photojournalist and his boss' fiance struggle to get from an alien-infested Mexico back to the US. Along the way, they fall in love.
Budget: Less than $500,000
Why it's great: Gareth Edwards not only wrote and directed this monster movie, but he also produced the special effects. He used guerrilla film techniques, shot in locations without authorization, and often using local people as actors for most of the roles. The movie succeeds by portraying a believable world dealing with an extraordinary event such as an alien invasion. It feels and looks real, and focuses more on the two main characters making their way through an unfamiliar world. And yes, the monsters are pretty cool.

3. Cube (1997)
Synopsis: Five people find themselves trapped in a maze of identical cube-like rooms, some filled with death traps, and must find their way out.
Budget: $365,000
Why it's great: Even though it's technically the same cubical set over and over again, there is a genuine fear of the unknown each time the characters enter a new cube. This movie is horrifying in the gruesome deaths, but also in the way it shows what depths people are capable of in their fight for survival. Cube ruthlessly breaks all our preconceived notions by setting up character archetypes, then shocks us by what directions they take.

4. Pi (1998)
Synopsis: A mathematician stumbles across a number that could be the key to extraordinary wealth, spiritual enlightenment, or madness.
Budget: $60,000
Why it's great: There aren't many movies about mathematics, but Pi will make you wonder why. A dark psychological thriller, this movie focuses on obsession and conspiracies over spaceships. Yet it's a powerful film about a single man who finds himself the target of religious zealots, Wall Street tycoons, his own determination to understand how his discovery affects the universe.

5. Mad Max (1979)

Synopsis: In a dystopian future Australia, ruthless gangs roam the roads, and a policeman nicknamed Mad Max seeks revenge for the death of his family.
Budget: $566,200
Why it's great: It's hard to believe this modest movie spawned a blockbuster series. Mad Max was followed by Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. At only $380,000 in Australian dollars (which would be about $566,200 in US dollars or $1,870,954 USD adjusted for inflation), Mad Max had such a low budget that they could only afford one leather jacket for Max to wear. Yet the movie captured a sense of nihilism and desperation, and ushered in a post-apocalyptic genre that is still flourishing today.

Any other sci-fi movies that you know of which have low budgets but high entertainment?
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Alex J Cavanaugh said...

We forget Mad Max was made on a shoestring budget. Monsters was awesome and I really dug Cube.

DEZMOND said...

CUBE was an extremely original film back in its days, and I didn't know MAD MAX was so cheap, very interesting!

Reid Kemper said...

"Primer" is so confusing but good.

Knowles2 said...

I am with the rest, surprise that Mad Max was so cheap. 

With today technology, I expect a lot more movies like Monsters. Cheap, effective and very good. I am surprise Moon is not on the list that was made with a very small budget. (They had students do the special effects for free)

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Haven't seen Pi but completely agree with the other choices above - Monsters in particular is really inspiring and I'm sure this is the future of cinema.

Moon was another fantastic low budget film but I think it came in at $5 million. 28 Days Later was also made for $5 million. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, was made for $15,000. Just a thought...

Will said...

Another Earth (July 2011) was made on a $200,000 budget according to the Wiki page on the movie.  Maybe not the sort of movie that most people think of when they hear "science fiction" but I liked it very much.

Monkey Migraine said...

I was going to include "Moon" but that actually had a budget of $5 million. Practically a big budget studio production compared to these movies.

monkeymigraine said...

Sounds like it should be on my list. Never saw "Another Earth," but the trailer looked interesting.

monkeymigraine said...

Was going to include "Moon," but discovered the budget was $5 million. Practically a bloated studio production compared to these movies.

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey said...

My own list would have included 1974's Dark Star, $60,000, directed by John Carpenter and created by his fellow film-school students at USC.  It's a black comedy about ennui-ridden astronauts who, after years locating and destroying "unstable planets," are just going through the motions.  It features ingenious special effects despite its shoestring budget.  You also get some great laughs, a few plot twists, and a dynamite country song, "Benson, Arizona."  Plus a chance to see the early work of filmmakers who would do significant work on the SF, horror, and fantasy blockbusters of the Seventies and Eighties.

monkeymigraine said...

That is an excellent choice that flew under my radar. Great movie, indeed, and very influential. (spawned the Alien movie, for a start)


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