Science fiction has always been synonymous with big-budget filmmaking. George Méliès brought audiences the very first fantastical space-faring film in 1902 with A Trip to the Moon for a staggering 10,000 french francs. Although that’s only a paltry sum of around $33,000 in today’s dollars, it was an unheard-of expense for filmmaking at the time.
Movies have come a long way since 1902, but in Hollywood, sci-fi is still nearly synonymous with big budget. It’s true that the demands of science fiction filmmaking often require large sums of money and any lack of funds are made apparent to the viewer. However, there are some sci-fi movies over the years that have broken the mold and look great without the breaking the bank.
Here is our list of the 15 Best Low Budget Science Fiction Movies.
15 District 9 (2009) - $30 million
District 9 is definitely pushing the upper boundary of what most would consider “low budget,” but what earns it a spot on this list is that it's a $30 million movie that looks like it cost upwards of $150 million.
Coming from a then-unknown director, Niell Blomkamp, and produced by box office king of the 2000s, Peter Jackson, District 9 made a big splash on arrival. The movie presented a dystopian near-future that uses aliens in South Africa as a metaphor for apartheid.
Blomkamp might not have brought any large scale movie production experience to District 9, but with a strong background in special effects he was able to maximize efficiency and avoid a budget inflated by R&D. Other costs were also kept to a minimum due to the decision to use mostly unknown actors, and to shoot in South Africa during ongoing riots against refugees from Zimbabwe. Together, those factors all played into maximizing realism and minimizing expenses.
14 Cloverfield (2008) - $25 million
While travelling in Japan, J.J. Abrams came to the realization that America doesn’t have its own Godzilla. Sure - we had King Kong, and sometimes borrow Godzilla for a romp in New York City, but there is no definitive stateside monster. Abrams set out to birth that beast with Cloverfield.
Cloverfield kept to a low budget by pursuing actors that hadn't yet made a name for themselves, and utilizing the found footage style. The cinema vérité (aka: "shaky cam") technique not only worked to add an air of authenticity, but also greatly diminished much of the ultimate cost of shooting the film.
A good chunk of the footage was actually shot by actor T.J. Miller (an unknown at the time), which helped reduce a lot of the overhead related to shooting. The shaky, blurry, and often out-of-focus style also allowed massive savings on effects. The studio got by with a lower level of CGI sophistication because the camera rarely records a solid glimpse of the creature.
13 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - $20 million
Director Michel Gondry got the idea for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from a friend exasperated with another friend’s constant complaints about her boyfriend. The friend eventually lost his patience and asked her if, given the option, would she erase the bad boyfriend from her memory?
If Jim Carrey had demanded his normal pay, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would have been almost twice as expensive, since he was commanding a full $20 million up front in 2004. Passing on the big bucks turned out to be a smart move, since the role ended up becoming one of his most respected dramatic performances.
Gondry also saved a massive amount of money by using practical effects and camera tricks in favor of more complicated or digital effects. Gondry’s effects were mostly illusions of the camera, lighting, and forced perspective. Kate Winslet even referred to him as a "visual genius" because of the way he was able to perform all sorts of wizardry. By using light, camera angles, and pieces of glass, Gondry created complex illusions such as having a character fade into or pop out of a scene.
12 Ex Machina (2015) - $15 million
Entering the scene as one of the most compelling surprises of 2015, Ex Machina is the product of writer/director Alex Garland's long obsession with A.I.. It has easily and quickly earned itself a well-deserved spot right next to many more costly sci-fi classics.
Garland wanted to retain as much creative control as possible, so he sought to keep the budget to a minimum. The movie was shot digitally but without the use of any blue screens or other effects-heavy shots. The character of Ava was created by filming two takes of all of Ava's scenes, excluding her from the second, then rotoscoping the robot body over most of actress Alicia Vikander.
Ex Machina also found massive savings in its tiny cast. The majority of the movie is just Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, with just 10 total actors listed in the credits.
11 The Terminator (1984) - $6.4 million ($14 million adjusted for inflation)
James Cameron was inspired to write The Terminator after experiencing a fever dream in which he was being chased by a killer robot. Since he already harbored the desire to make a slasher-style horror movie, Cameron put his nightmare down on paper. It became the screenplay for The Terminator, and the screenplay for our nightmares.
In 2016, it's hard to even think of The Terminator as a low budget movie. Its success has put it towards the top of the best sci-fi movies of all time (although some of that is due to its more expensive sequel). If it wasn't for the decision to use Arnold Schwarzenegger - who commanded a far smaller price tag than he does today - as the T-800, it's highly likely that The Terminator wouldn't be remembered today.
10 Chronicle (2012) - $12 million
As a young filmmaker, Josh Trank was inspired to create an anthology of viral prank videos featuring kids using telekinesis. When he fully developed the novel idea, he realized he actually had an entire feature length movie on his hands.
Trank had a lot of prior experience with creating special effects, so he was able to significantly cut overhead by planning out the effects and being able to succinctly communicate needs to the effects company. This helped to avoid what he referred to as the cost of "figuring it out."
9 Attack the Block (2011) - $11 million
Writer and director Joe Cornish was inspired to write Attack the Block after he was mugged in South London. Ten years later, he was recreating the scene for Attack the Block. The film extrapolates on the real-life mugging when an alien crashes to the ground and interrupts the crime.
Attack the Block used mostly no-name actors, although John Boyega has since made a name for himself (see Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Cornish and crew were also very thrifty when it came to set design. All of the apartment scenes shown in the movie were filmed in the same two apartments. Crew just redecorated the rooms when needed.
The aliens themselves were also fairly frugal, although they don't necessarily look like it. The principal photography involved actors donning gorilla suits with animatronic jaws, with just a little digital touch up to add an otherworldly quality.
8 Europa Report (2013) - $10 million
Europa Report is an example of the kind of hard science fiction that isn't very common in the genre these days. Writer Philip Gelatt wanted to create a science fiction movie that didn't totally scratch out the word "science" from the equation, so he set out to create a story with as much scientific realism as he could muster. Consulting heavily with companies like NASA and Space X, the production team sought to create the most plausible space travel movie.
While most hard sci-fi in recent years, such as Gravity and Interstellar, have gone the route of sweeping scenes formatted for IMAX, Europa Report does the opposite. Instead, it emulates a documentary style as if the movie is from the future, created by blending “declassified” found footage with popout interviews.
7 28 days later (2002) - $7 million
With 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle revitalized the zombie movie genre. Which is fairly ironic, considering the the “Rage Virus”-infected running "zombies" in 28 Days Later wouldn't pass the sniff test with most zombie enthusiasts.
Much of the money-saving in 28 Days Later comes from the intimate story telling. It's a simple story about a handful of people in an already overrun UK. The small scale of the story meant that the normally far less budget-friendly elements of zombie movies can be entirely avoided in favor of a character drama set in a post-infection world.
6 Moon (2009) - $5 million
Written specifically for actor Sam Rockwell, Moon is a cerebral story about an astronaut on a 3 year solo mission. Written and directed by Duncan Jones (the son of David Bowie), Moon is intended to be a throwback to the sci-fi of the late 70s or early 80s - particularly Alien.
Like many other lower budget movies, Moon benefited greatly from Jones’ familiarity with special effects. A small cast, short shoot, and smart use of miniatures over more expensive effects all ensured Moon was made for the bottom dollar.
5 THX 1138 - $777,777.77 ($4.4 million adjusted for inflation)
After seeing a similarly titled short student film by George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola requested that Lucas provide a screenplay to turn it into a full length movie. Lucas originally balked, claiming he couldn’t write a screenplay. After eventually caving, Lucas provided Coppola a draft. Coppola read it over and said “Boy, you were right, you can’t write a screenplay.” Fortunately, Walter Murch was brought in to polish Lucas’s draft into an excellent script.
THX 1138 is a bit of a pioneer in its documentary style (a style that would be utilized by many low-budget sci-fi movies in the future). The style was chosen partially for budgetary reasons, but also because Lucas wanted it to appear like an actual visual documentation of future events.
In order to create a believable futuristic world on a small budget, the use of real sets was maximized. To give them a futuristic look, the practical sets were often filmed at abnormal angles and creatively lit. Many props were also real-world objects adapted to have a futuristic use - a practice that would become even more prevalent when Lucas made Star Wars.
4 Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) - $750,000
Inspired by a classified ad seeking a time-traveling partner, Safety Not Guaranteed is a warm story about friendship loosely wrapped in some sci-fi time travel concepts. Colin Trevorrow’s directorial debut earned him enough credibility for Universal and Lucasfilm to hand him the reigns for Jurassic World and Star Wars: Episode IX.
Safety Not Guaranteed may not have been particularly lofty in any of its sci-fi objectives, but that doesn't make the budget any less impressive. The movie found most of its monetary efficiency in its especially rigorous shooting schedule, filming in 32 locations over 24 days.
3 Monsters (2010) - $500,000
At this point, we're really beyond "low budget" and have pushed into the area of "micro budget." Gareth Edwards really dropped jaws with his half-a-million dollar monster movie that looked like it could have cost $100 million.
The true value of Monsters likely isn't even represented in the budget. Since Edwards wrote, directed and shot the movie himself, then did all the effects work himself on his computer in his bedroom, Monsters' savings come mostly from Edwards simply doing all the work himself. Sometimes, the best way to keep a low budget is to have one person do the job of several.
2 Upstream Color (2013) - $50,000
Marking the second outing of filmmaker Shane Carruth, Upsteam Color is an abstract movie that revolves around some loose sci-fi concepts. What's amazing about it is it bears great resemblance to movies like Terrance Malick's Tree of Life or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but for less than 1% of the cost.
Like Gareth Edwards, Shane Carruth keeps his costs down by wearing many hats, but he takes it even further. Carruth is credited as a Writer, Director, Producer, Composer, Cinematographer, and Camera Operator. Upstream Color doesn't cut any corners to achieve its unbelievably low budget. Carruth just sacrificed his own sleep wherever necessary.
1 Primer (2004) - $7,000
Primer is Shane Carruth's first movie, and has developed a cult following as one of the most intricate time travel movies ever made. To this day, people are still perfecting diagrams of the various timelines represented in Primer.
The crazy thing about Primer is that Carruth, who previously worked as a mathematician, didn't know how to make a movie. He had no familiarity with the process of finding a producer, obtaining backing, hiring crew, or any of that. He just set out to make a movie from scratch, learning the ropes on the fly, while wearing every hat possible. His mom also provided catering, which - at a budget that low - could have potentially been a large percentage of expenses.
There’s a plethora of reasons the budget might be kept to a minimum for science fiction. Sometimes, it’s because the concept is a gamble, other times it’s because the filmmaker wants to retain as much creative control as possible. Either way, mini budgets don’t necessarily result in a minimized impact.
Do you have any favorite inexpensive sci-fi movies not on this list? Let us hear about them!