2018: An (Upgraded) Low-Budget Sci-Fi Odyssey

When you think of powerful elements in “Science Fiction” films, you think of special effects. The two have a relationship so strongly symbiotic that it is practically a prerequisite to expect a CGI-fueled popcorn flick when you hear the abbreviation Sci-Fi.  But this is only natural as conflated budgets in Star Wars. You sort of expect something big and grandiose to require something equally grandiose coming out of some producer’s wallet. Special effects are trendy. They’re this unique visual treat in an era where any actual pizzazz for the eyeballs are seldom seen. Not only that, but the genre hasn’t existed as long as say Comedy or Horror, meaning that there’s a lot more room for exploration and an abundance of opportunity to explore curiosities and create genuine original content. There’s tons of stories of people stumbling upon superpowers, but what about some alien goo taking over a lonely spaceship? The material being used has ample opportunity for expansion, which is why it’s an exciting genre to discuss. Science Fiction is all about new. It is constantly toying with “what ifs” and that makes for interesting, fresh content onscreen. But even though the possibilities are endless, sometimes the genre can feel tired, or rather tiring. Movies like Star Trek can start out really strong and interesting, only to rely on it’s computer-generated madness by the third film, making the whole experience feel a bit overdone. And sometimes, the creative opportunity is like this metaphorical Pandora’s Box that you can open to haphazardly and create nothing but chaos. Think John Carter. Even the Alien series began to lag after countless films and attempts at originality. When you end up scaling the film to be bigger and bigger than ever before, it ends up having a mind of its own and going the way of a Pluto Nash or a Battlefield Earth, both of which have decent premises, which ultimately run away from them at the speed of light. It’s hard to control something so grandiose. For those who defend Elysium or Annihilation as pristine genre entries, please notice that they tried hard (almost too hard, in my book). All that effort is just as laborious for the viewer. It’s quite rare that you can execute something so abstract and so grand and stick the landing perfectly. It’s been done only a few times before – Blade Runner, Star Wars, The Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are a few of those that really came onto the scene with something so complex and yet accessible. Everyone else seems to be chasing that dream while hoping endlessly that their “original” idea will be the next operatic entry into the Sci-Fi world. But you don’t really need the bells and whistles that people expect from a Sci-Fi movie to make it good, interesting, and worth watching. In fact, sometimes it’s better to not have those things and default to something a little more low-key and story focused. As cool as robots, aliens, and galactic warfare is – they aren’t prerequisites for what makes a good film.

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Ew, no. Just no. This is the exact place where it becomes too much. I mean, you can’t cram an entire mythology into one movie! It’s too much. John Carter also struggled to decide what exactly it wanted to be. I’m a fan of the old sword and sandals as much as the next guy. I’m also a fan of westerns, romances, historical fantasy, and sci-fi, but not when they’re all haphazardly combined together in the same pot. Unless of course it stars Channing Tatum, then it’s okay!

In 2009, I was lucky enough to have my eyeballs witness a film called Moon (in a theater mind you!). It was the directorial debut of now mildly-famous Duncan Jones (he directed the atrocious Warcraft movie) and a strong entry into the low-budget Sci-Fi genre. It starred Sam Rockwell as an astronaut/researcher who works on the Moon harvesting rocks, when he one day runs into his doppelgänger. For what it was as a film, it was incredible. The story was thrilling, the performances (which was almost a one-man show by Sam Rockwell) were outstanding, score was simple but effective, and the visual design was outstanding. The most impressive part was how a lot of the look of the film was achieved. Practical effects, which have seldom been in use since the early years of the millennium (thanks George Lucas), were a huge part of making Moon look real. To create these effects, miniature models of the astral environment were constructed. The detail that went into this work is super cool and extremely effective in creating something interesting and engaging. It’s actually the same methodology George Lucas used in Star Wars over thirty years prior and it goes to show why it’s so effective.

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When you look at this frame from Moon, you may imagine the size of a soundstage needed for something like this. Which is why it’s that much more impressive that the entire set is miniatures. One of the cooler, lower-budget options for making cool effects on the cheap is to make the cinematic world look however the heck you want  – just on a small scale. That is, after all, how they did the original Death Star and that thing turned out iconic!

As far as we’ve come with computer animation, there’s still something artificial about it. When you look at Moon, you wonder where on earth they could have filmed that? The simple beauty is that it was in a studio, like the rest of the film! Another innovative aspect of the film was the inclusion of Sam Bell’s (Sam Rockwell) doppelgänger as the foil to the original Sam Bell. It created a cool, interesting effect while showcasing Rockwell’s range, and keeping the crew of the film as slim as possible. Looking at it, you can imagine that it was difficult to achieve and required numerous takes to get right. Still, if done right it seems a lot less expensive than computer generating another human. If you watch the film, you’ll notice too, that through the use of clever angles and camera tricks, the time where the audience is looking at two Sam Bell’s is minimized! And for the few moments they do share together onscreen, the camera manages to stay suspiciously still. The film took skill, execution, and some serious follow-through, but it wasn’t impossible. If anything, it was inspiring. It was everything Duncan Jones needed to make a successful film and nothing more. And the budget for that film? A measly five million dollars. They somehow managed to spend fifty million dollars on films like Did You Hear About The Morgans and it ended up like trash, but with five million dollars, they accomplished a masterpiece. It’s really brilliant!

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The brilliance of Moon lies in it’s minimalism. Simple sets, a single actor, and an uncomplicated, yet engaging script. It really demonstrates how something as expansive and vast as outer space can be accurately captured with just a few elements. After all, space really is a whole lot of nothing, which leaves ample room for many filmmakers creative interpretations. Also – freakin’ Sam Rockwell man. That guy has been Oscar material this whole time and only now is getting recognition? Damn.

Recently, I saw a film called Upgrade. It was a poorly-marketed, low-budget, sci-fi thriller that cast a bunch of no-names (and really only one ‘good’ performance). Despite all that, it was good. I mean, really good. It gave the audience just enough without having to try too hard. The film follows a man named Grey Trace (wow, just wow) who gets in a terrible accident and, in order to live a normal life, has to turn his body over to an artificial intelligence implant known as STEM. With the implant (gifted to him by an anonymous, ominous-looking tech bro), he is able to operate at a superhuman level. Think something in the ballpark of Robocop meets The Matrix. So it feels not to different than a superhero origin story! Except there’s one big BUT in this case: he doesn’t have full authority over his own body. In order to become his automatic Ninja-self, he has to let the reigns over to this AI mind, which ultimately has a HAL-esque mind of it’s own. This comes with a plethora of consequences (as one might imagine) which really hinder our hero’s MacGuffin quest to track down the people who injured him initially. The world of Upgrade isn’t as crisp and stylistic as Moon, but that’s not to say it’s not wholly impressive in it’s own regard. The few large-scale exterior shots we see are, in fact, digitally made and some of the effects have a bit of a cheesy quality to them. But not distractingly so. If anything, filmmaker Leigh Whannell knew how to sprinkle in those computer effects in a way that ended up looking fairly seamless. That being said, the film is still nothing short of impressive. There’s a lot to be said for making the rest of the film simple, but stylish. STEM, the artificial intelligence unit doesn’t require anything more than some (impressive) robotic acting by the main character. It’s something that you as a viewer don’t notice right away, but to truly convince your audience that a man is being controlled via an AI implant convincingly is no small feat! Yet it’s a basic enough concept, it doesn’t require much for us to buy into it. It’s not like they’re trying to reinvent the anatomy of the human brain (I’m looking at you, Lucy). They’re simply saying, here’s a machine, you don’t need to know how it works, just know it can make this guy a modern Bruce Lee. And that’s it! On a surface level, Upgrade is an action-packed popcorn movie which follows a man who’s trying to live a simple life, but is constantly stalked by the looming menace of technology.

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Oh look it’s Tom Hardy! Kidding, it’s Logan Marshall-Green. AKA Grey Trace from Upgrade. But no joke, this guy is one hundred percent your bargain bin Tom Hardy. I bet he’s over the moon that he had an offer like this. Still, for what we’re getting the guy really killed it with his performance. It took a lot of control over one’s body to give a performance so convincing. I hope he gets to do more.

On a deeper level, however, it’s so much more than that. The film is the most self-aware movie I’ve seen in a while (yes, more than Deadpool). The opening title sequence, which was one of the more novel title displays I’ve seen in years, was announced via a robotic voiceover (which we later learn is STEM) and omits the use of any piece of text whatsoever. The very first time we see our hero onscreen, he is repairing a classic car in his workshop, using his bare, greasy hands to fix up the vehicle. This sets him up as the modern Luddite, resistant to the greater, tech-obsessed world he’s forced to live in. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more inevitable that this guy can run all he wants, he needs tech. So much so that it physically becomes apart of him. STEM acts as this parasite that works to take over his body until there is nothing human that he still has to value about himself. Throughout the film, Grey (I’ll admit, the name gets worse every time I type it) becomes increasingly dependent on STEM to keep him afloat, and in doing so, sacrifices some of his own autonomy. It’s a bit of a Shakespearean level tragedy as we see this leathery, sweat-of-one’s-brow guy transform into a sad, millennial teenager, dependent on tech to navigate home from the grocery story. Ultimately, it kills him.

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Well Upgrade wasn’t perfect! And this guy may have been a cheesy, noticeable flaw. This is the (kinda) villain of the film: a tech-bro yuppie startup CEO who designed STEM. Sure he’s got pie-in-the-sky ideals for innovation that would never be approved for human testing, but he’s changing the world! There’s like six thousand of him scattered around Silicon Valley. Strangely enough, he reminds me of Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin – for those of us that haven’t erased those films from our memory.

The film is layered and loaded with tons of these subtle metaphors. It has the richness of an epic, but with the budget of a first-time filmmakers rom-com. It’s impressive and says something about what it takes to make a good sci-fi movie. You don’t need CGI overloading your screen to inspire a good film. As fun as Ant-Man and the Wasp and Pacific Rim Uprising are, they’re expected, manufactured fun. They provide a level of entertainment which will successfully stimulate your senses, but at a relatively high cost. That’s good and fine, but for some of the slower-paced audiences out there, something a bit more low-budget may prove that a good story can make a film of any budget succeed. When it comes to Science Fiction, it’s not likely that we’ll come across something as grand and groundbreaking as 2001: A Space Odyssey was, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t be surprised. So when it comes back around, go see Upgrade and try to enjoy it for how it was made. Judge it not next to Sci-Fi behemoths like Blade Runner, but rather next to other kitschy high—budget Sci-Fi films like Planet of the Apes, which do a whole lot more but manage to say a whole lot less. As we continue our saunter into the future with self-driving cars, gene editing, and drone package delivery (as well as Amazonian dominance) taking over, there will be no end in sight to where Sci-Fi may take us. It’s a true playground of cinematic innovation and in many ways, the filmic final frontier.

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