We normally associate science fiction with things like spaceships, robots, aliens, killer computers, star-children, massive mutants of the post apocalypse and other concepts that defy our dull world. Science fiction is a genre that is entirely built on things that are literally out-of-this-world, concepts and ideas that do not exist in our day-to-day existence.
Which is why, when you come down to it, science fiction films tend to be really, really expensive. That's also why those really, really expensive science fiction films tend to be fairly stupid. When you spend that much money, you've got to play it safe and appeal to as broad an audience as possible. That must be one of cinema's greatest ironies: a genre that operates entirely on intelligence concepts can only get made if you dumb it down.
That's why it's always interesting to seek out the sci-fi offerings at film festivals. When you strip away that Hollywood budget, a science fiction film has to operate entirely on ideas (which are free in a monetary sense, but crazy-expensive in the "talented filmmaker" sense). Well, at least that's usually the case.
SXSW 2012 showcased two low-budget science fiction films that couldn't be more different than one another in tone, intention and execution. Both do a pretty amazing job of summarizing exactly where indie science fiction is at this very moment. That summary is defined by this question: if you make a science fiction film for pennies, do you aim for the sky and try to match the blockbusters or do you embrace the dense, lo-fi brilliance that makes something like Primer such a joy to watch?
Extracted belongs to that latter school of indie science fiction, placing wild sci-fi concepts into a world that is very much our own. You can imagine the discussion between writer/director Nir Paniry and his producers: "We spend most of our budget building the machine that lets our hero explore the memories of others and then we can use my sister-in-law's pool, my uncle's warehouse and the magic of Final Cut Pro do the heavy lifting!"
In all seriousness, Extracted is Exhibit A in the lesson of crafting cheap science fiction. When a scientist builds a machine that lets him enter and explore the subconscious, he doesn't expect to find his consciousness trapped in the memories of a junkie criminal and his body comatose. After years of being trapped in this man's mind, he happens upon a possible escape route.
Inception comparisons are inevitable, but this is much smaller, far more different (and, to be perfectly frank, not as smart or as confident) film. By using everyday locations to represent the memories our hero is trapped in and by letting him travel between them without any special effects fanfare, Extracted is able to sell its fantastical concepts for the price of a standard indie drama. Although its science is wonky at best and its plotting inconsistent (the film feels like it reaches a conclusion before launching into another 45 minutes of story), it's a solid debut, a film very interested in its characters and their relationships. If Extracted doesn't doesn't answer any big questions, it should be given credit for asking a bunch of 'em, all of them thoughtful and interesting. It may not explore its scientific concepts in any real depths, but it does a terrific job of exploring how these scientific concepts effect the people who come into contact with them. Arthur C. Clarke would't approve, but Isaac Assimov certainly would.
Timo Vuorensola's Iron Sky, on the other hand, wouldn't get the approval of either. Although also a low-budget (by Hollywood standards) production, Iron Sky couldn't be a more different film than Extracted and it represents the closest an indie science fiction film has come to replicating the glossy look of a studio blockbuster. Like a studio blockbuster, it spends its running time playing to the cheap seats, showcasing stunning special effects while bombarding the audience with painfully unfunny comedy and stilted, amatuer-hour storytelling (made all the worse by a handful of Dr. Strangelove references, which should give you an idea what kind of the movie the filmmakers think they're making).
The plot sounds ripe for a tongue-in-cheek serial adventure riff in the same vein as the wildly underrated 1980 Flash Gordon: in 1945, Nazi soldiers fled the Earth using an experimental spacecraft and hid out on the moon. In 2018, they launch a full scale invasion of Earth. It's a silly premise, but the film's insistence on playing the whole thing as a straight-up parody turns out to be a poor decision because every single one of the film's jokes land with a hollow, painful thud (okay, one about Finland is pretty funny). The makers of Iron Sky sure hope you like Sarah Palin gags and uncomfortable racial humor, because that's pretty much all it has to offer. To call this an SNL sketch stretched to a painful 93 minutes would be giving Iron Sky too much credit. This is the cinematic equivalent of a MadTV sketch.
The sad truth of it all is that Iron Sky looks great, especially for a low-budget film. By utilizing social media to crowdsource much of the visual effects work, Vuorensola and company have managed to create a movie that can stand toe-to-toe with the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The look of the film is often astonishing; the designs of the Nazi spacecraft and the Nazi spacesuits are wonderful, and if Iron Sky was an extended trailer or short film, it would undoubtedly secure everyone involved in the film instant work in LA (hell, it sill may).
But then the characters open their mouths. For a movie that feels so inspired in its aesthetics, Iron Sky is just plain sloppy in its storytelling, meandering from gag to gag, switching between slapstick and satire indiscriminately and not understanding the basis of what makes either style work. It's tone deaf comedy, not much smarter than your average Adam Sandler joint. And, much like your average Adam Sandler joint, Iron Sky takes a serious turn in the third act and suddenly asks you to start caring about the plight of its characters and the stakes of the story in a real, dramatic way. It's like this overlong MadTV sketch decided it wanted to become Battlestar Galactica in the home stretch. It's tonal whiplash and -- quite frankly -- it's insulting. Iron Sky never remotely earns its dour, pessimistic ending.
What can we learn from these films? Extracted may be built on ideas like science fiction should, but it's still a small, inconsistent little movie. Iron Sky is a revolutionary step forward in what visual effects can accomplish in the indie arena, but it's dearth of things to say is almost shocking. Is it too obvious to hope for a future where indie sci-fi can merge these two camps?
Yeah, it's obvious…but it's also the right thing to hope for.