Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Lo-fi sci-fi

Over the last few years there has been a slew of low-budget films making it into mainstream cinema. With shared characteristics such as improvised scripts, use of locations instead of sets and an emphasis on personal relationships over plot, these movies have been pigeonholed more by their film-making techniques than their subject matter. The exact edges of the movement are hard to define, but this somewhat generalised sub-genre of independent film has come to be known as mumblecore.

Although some pointers exist to help with identifying these movies, I find the simplest way to know a mumblecore film is to see if Mark Duplass is in it.

In some States in America it is probably illegal to make mumblecore without this guy

But this is predominately a sci-fi blog so it's neither Mr. Duplass nor mumblecore that I want to discuss. It's the science-fiction offshoot of the genre, often referred to as lo-fi sci-fi, that is of real interest to me. (The horror sub-genre, containing films like V/H/S (2012) and, arguably, The Blair Witch Project (1999) is known as mumblegore.)

But the term lo-fi sci-fi is still somewhat misleading. Not just because some of the traits that most characterise the mumblecore parent genre, such as the improvised scripts and lack of real plot, can be absent from the often tightly vectored science-fiction counterparts, but also because the term 'lo-fi' has a tendency to be used interchangeably with 'low budget', thus opening up a wealth of movies that I would argue do not belong.

Nonetheless the genre is definitely out there, and no matter where you draw your demarkation lines it appears to be growing. Here are five films, well worth watching, which characterise the movement most accurately for me, eschewing the heavy use of special effects, set pieces, alien invasions and outer space, and instead relying on what it would actually feel like to be immersed in the chosen science-fiction conceit. 

I, Origins (2014)
If you see one film off this list, etc. etc. That's why I put it first. (Though don't be fooled into thinking the other four on the list are in some kind of order. I'm just not that organised.) A beautiful film that covers a range of fascinating themes, but is ultimately centred on a scientific discovery (to do with eyeballs) that would cause a paradigm shift in the way we think.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Mark Duplass is in it, so it absolutely must be mumblecore. Based on a perplexing, real-life classified ad that appeared in the US a few years before the new millennium, this film follows a group of fictional journalists as they try to uncover the truth behind the ad's time travel claim.

The One I Love (2014)
Mark Duplass is in this one too. Twice. This list is practically writing itself. A couple, struggling through a breakdown in their relationship, go on holiday together to a mysterious country retreat. But is what they discover there a type of ground-breaking therapy or something much darker?

Primer (2004)
Primer is kind of the dad of this genre. Or mum if you prefer (though its distinct focus on male characters makes me want to go down the masculine route). Like The Blair Witch Project it's probably a little too old to be true mumblecore, but all the hallmarks are there (low budget, real locations instead of sets, naturalistic dialogue etc.). In attempting to build a computer in their garage, four friends accidentally create a time travel device. A cursory glance at almost any other movie made about this subject would tell you never to mess with time travel, but clearly these guys didn't have time to watch too many films. Wouldn't be much of a story if they did. The resultant chaos is so confusing it will hurt your head and have you looking for charts like these on the internet, but that just makes it even more compelling.

Coherence (2013)
What could possibly go wrong at a dinner party among close friends? Now that I think about it, quite a lot. But what happens in this intriguing and suspenseful film is probably not what you'd expect. This highly rated movie is a testament to what can be achieved with a minuscule budget and just a few days of shooting.

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