Netflix and other VOD services are a great resource for smaller, more thoughtful genre films. Right now, Netflix Instant (US) has a great selection of independent and low budget sci-fi films, so let’s take a look at which ones you should queue up on the ol’ tube.
Shot mostly on soundstages in New York City, this low-budget space travel thriller accomplishes a lot with very little. Starring Daniel Wu, Sharlto Copley (District 9), and Michael Nyquist (John Wick), the film is presented as a pseudo-documentary about the first group of astronauts to travel to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that could have life-sustaining seas underneath its icy crust. Impressive production design and clever wire effects really sell the film’s near future reality, and the film’s tense atmosphere will have you gnawing your fingernails. Fans of Sunshine and Interstellar should find plenty to like about Europa Report.
Before he went on to direct 2014’s Godzilla and the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Gareth Edwards made this incredible little movie about a photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) escorting his employer’s daughter (Whitney Able) through an interspecies war zone in Mexico. Also set in a near future, the film’s alien monsters appeared mysteriously in Mexico after the crash landing of a NASA probe. The film’s two leads were a real couple during filming, and their chemistry is clearly visible on screen. Composer Jon Hopkins provided a haunting and beautiful score for the film, and Gareth Edwards did all of the film’s impressive visual effects on his home computer. The film was such a critical success and cult hit that a sequel was made, albeit without Gareth Edwards. The first film is essential viewing and if you haven’t seen it yet, please do so.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth is a living, breathing film studio. Not only did he produce, write and direct one of the smartest and most beautiful time travel films in decades, but he played the lead, composed the musical score, and edited the damn thing himself. Shot on a shoestring budget of $7000, Primer is an astonishing triumph of indie filmmaking. It’s not exactly a thrill-a-minute popcorn flick, and that’s where the disclaimer comes in: this is a talky, highly technical and often confusing story about a group of young engineers who find a way to travel through time to play the stock market. The filmmaking on display is terrific, but even with the subtitles on, it’s still not always clear what characters are talking about.
Because his follow-up to Primer fell through, we waited nearly ten years to for another Shane Carruth film. Luckily, Upstream Color was worth the wait. The film is about Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young woman who is assaulted by a man who forcibly infects her with a parasitic worm. The worm releases chemicals that make her highly suggestible, so the man easily convinces her to empty her bank accounts for him. When she wakes up after the worm has been removed, her life is in shambles. Then, she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth), with whom she shares an immediate and deep connection: he was also a victim of the same crime. In stark contrast to Primer‘s talkiness, Upstream Color often relies solely on visual storytelling and montage. It’s not nearly as focused on technical dialogue as Carruth’s previous work, but it sometimes feels just as opaque. That doesn’t keep it from being stunningly beautiful, though.
World of Tomorrow
This animated short, recently nominated for an Oscar, is one of the most delightful and wondrous things in the sci-fi section of Netflix right now. Animator Don Hertzfeldt is known for his darkly hilarious stick figure animations, which he did the old-fashioned way until he created one of the strangest couch gags ever to be featured on The Simpsons. Now, with World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt has fully embraced digital animation and all its quirks. This 16-minute short is a funny, sweet and heartbreaking exploration of what happens when Emily (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s four-year-old niece) is contacted by her adult clone, who lives 227 years in the future. The less you know going in to this one, the better, but I think it’s one of the most original sci-fi shorts I’ve seen in many years.