There is a topic closely associated with the science fiction genre, and it is not the Martians or time travel: it alludes to its own nature and refers to the fact that it is a genre of ideas. That is, a good idea alone can sustain a science fiction story. Needless to say, if that cliché has survived for decades, it’s because… it’s true. This movie compilation comes to demonstrate it very amply: a handful of stories that hardly need special effectss to captivate us with surprising ideas.
Our rules for the compilation are based on not having radically given up on selecting films that have special effects, but that in all cases they are cornered in a place that is not too relevant. Namely, in the following films there may be minimal special effects… but of course they are not the essential piece of the gear.
La Jetee (1962)
Basically known for being the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s magnificent ’12 Monkeys’, ‘La Jetée’ is also one of the most famous experimental films in history. Narrated exclusively through still photos and a voiceover for less than half an hour, Chris Marker tells how after an apocalyptic world war, a group of scientists decide to send a prisoner back in time to avoid the conflict. An evocative and nostalgic wonder, capable without the need of futuristic imagery of introducing us to an obsessive world around the sole memory of the protagonist and his beloved seeing how a man dies on a dock.
Lemmy vs. Alphaville (1965)
If anyone was capable of making a sci-fi movie with absolutely no special effects, it was Goddard., one of the great reducers of cinematographic language to its pure essence, without unnecessary artifice. To do this, he converted real scenes from Paris into those of his film, and did not need to build complex sets. In addition, also in a way very akin to his belief in the evocative power of popular culture, he used Lemmy Caution, a character from British police pulp literature, as his hero, although this time he had before him a somewhat more fantastic mission than usual: to destroy to the evil computer Alpha 60, giving humans back their ability to experience emotions.
Events in the IV phase (1974)
With tweaks limited to a minimum and all based on simple color and image manipulations, the legendary cinematographer Saul Bass directed his only film here, a curious beauty with a documentary tone. It narrates with a rhythm and a sense of suspense that many masters of the genre would already want the relentless rise of a community of ants after a strange cosmic phenomenon. It all starts when two variants of ants from an Arizona valley come together to face their natural predators.
Mad Max (1981)
Perfect proof (the whole saga is, actually, although obviously with time and the increase in media, the esthetic paucity of its beginnings has been abandoned) that to mount a good post-apocalypse you only need some aesthetics between punk and BDSM copied from ‘2000 AD’, a lot of specialists very little attached to the idea of staying alive and a hopeless script that describes a bleak future set in Australia, that is, an area that already seems post-apocalyptic. And not to spend a penny on effects, hey.
1997: Rescue in New York (1981)
Science fiction is a genre of ideas, as we said at the beginning and all the films in this article make it clear, but of course it is also a genre of setting. With very few elements (charismatic characters, accurate script, half a dozen very cheap sets) John Carpenter crafted a believable, bleak and influential future in this futuristic presidential rescue thriller.. Serpent Plissken became one of the genre’s most relevant antiheroes and Carpenter earned a well-deserved reputation for being able to single-handedly create iconic fantasy films with very little means.
We momentarily betray our own rules with a film that does have some modest special effects, but they are so punctual and anecdotal that they do not take anything away from the almost theatrical approach of the film: a single stage (which simulates to be a network of infinite cubes) and a group of people locked in and trying to get out. The oldest argument in the book of arguments, in a Kafkaesque intrigue that was extraordinarily successful thanks to how he knew how to bend to his own very synthetic proposal.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Two decades after its premiere, ‘Donnie Darko’ continues to be a brilliant piece of modern fantasy. The end of adolescence and the difficulties of integrating into society are the underlying themes of a film that tells how a teenager (the great Jake Gyllenhaal) begins to have strange visions and perceives that the inevitable end of the world is near. Richard Kelly would never shine as high as in this one, his debut, a masterful film isolated from all kinds of fashions and trends, like Donnie Darko himself.
There is no more transparent example of how complex and sophisticated science fiction can be done with a total of zero special effects than Shane Carruth’s debut. A handful of actors and a few very accessible settings (motel rooms, garages), but also a very complex script about time travel and that can leave the most seasoned viewer scratching his head. Constant paradoxes and a fragmented and labyrinthine narrative better reflect the deconstruction of reality that time travel entails than any high-budget effect.
Forget about me! (2004)
Perfect Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Kirsten Dunst star in this piece of everyday science fiction that is part of the duo of films written by Charlie Kaufman (this one and ‘Being John Malkovich’) that they use science fiction as a mere excuse to delve into the twists and turns of the human mind and into very abstract concepts (memories in this one, identity in that one). Here the visual inventiveness of director Michel Gondry, always based on mechanical trickery, provides the perfect counterpoint to Kaufman and the daring story of a couple who go through a scientific procedure to erase their memories of the other person.
The Timecrimes (2007)
Nacho Vigalondo’s first film is still the best example of his virtues as a creator of science fiction: innovative and daring concepts that are staged in a very simple way, often from the eyewitness point of view: ‘Alien’ was an invasion from within a flat, and ‘Colossal’ a movie of giant, ground-level monsters. ‘The Timecrimes’ proposes time travel in the middle of a forest, with the viewer lost in a centrifuge of paradoxes that continue to function like a shot… and without special effects.
The Man from Earth (2007)
A modest production, not very well known, that came to Spain behind the scenes and in DVD format a few years ago, and that is worth tracking down and discovering. Part of the last script signed by a classic (Jerome Bixby, who wrote episodes of the classic incarnations of ‘Twilight Zone’ and ‘Star Trek’) and with very modest means and intentions, tells the story of a man who has survived for 14,000 years due to a quirk in his body that prevents him from aging. A group of university professors discuss with him the scientific and philosophical implications of his mere existence.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Another film with almost no special effects whose focus is on a very different point: the curious relationship that is set between a journalist and a hypothetical time traveler (wonderful Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass), who could be a genius or paranoid. Indie romantic comedy modes for a story that delves, in part, into why time travel has become one of the sci-fi tropes that has most fascinated viewers in recent times.
The important thing about time machines and trips to another dimension is not the props, but the concept, and this splendid mix of horror and science fiction makes it clear: a group of friends meet for dinner when a comet passes over Los Angeles and their perception of space and time begins to distort. A very ingenious proposal that we recommend you approach without even having seen the trailer.