The sci-fi genre has always been a mixed bag of high-budget spectacles and low-budget camp. Due to the far-fetched premises inherent to the genre, even the most special effects-laden flick runs the risk of coming across as silly, while a strong premise and creative practical effects can carry even the lowest budgeted sci-fi film. None of the films on this list are Starship Troopers or The Matrix, but they demonstrate how a good concept can overcome budgetary limits.
There’s something admirable about making a sci-fi film on a small budget: it takes passion and enthusiasm on the filmmaker’s part to attempt creating work in a genre that’s known for its dazzling special effects, and sci-fi is a genre that even a film with tons of money behind it can fall flat on its face on-screen.
To make a film in this genre armed with only a script, a handful of actors, and sheer determination–and produce a decent genre picture out of it–is almost a miracle. Here are some sci-fi films–some campy, some clever, and all relatively obscure–from the radical 1990s that made the most of what they had to bring to the screen their far-out sci-fi vision.
1. Circuitry Man (1990)
In a grim post-apocalyptic world, the surviving population is forced to live underground. To cope with this horrible circumstance, people plug into computer chips that have mind-altering effects.
A female bodyguard comes into possession of a suitcase full of these narcotic chips and–accompanied by a pleasure android–makes the dangerous trek from Los Angeles to New York City to sell them. But she’s chased by a sinister man simply known as Plughead (due to the multiple outlets he has installed in his head) who wants the chips for himself, all while she contends with mutant leeches and the inhospitable environment of the outside world.
Made for just a million dollars, Circuitry Man is a low-budget affair that transcends its limitations with a well-executed story and an original premise. Now looking back, it has a certain low-budget charm and was prescient for including elements that would appear in later sci-fi films of the decade like Johnny Mnemonic and A.I.
2. 964 Pinocchio (1991)
A sex slave cyborg that can’t maintain an erection has its memory erased and is thrown out by its owners. If that completely insane sentence hasn’t already piqued your interest, maybe the rest of the film will. This bizarre cyberpunk story follows 964 after another homeless android finds him and takes care of him, trying to bring his memory back.
While his original owners search for him, 964’s caregiver experiences some sort of breakdown of her own and begins to torture Pinocchio. Meanwhile, his original owners’ goons are sent out to retrieve him but 964 experiences his own breakdown at this point and escapes. What follows is not only difficult to explain, but the ending is so esoteric that it’s difficult to discern whether it should count as an actual ending or not.
This movie is a bit of an endurance test for the viewer: there’s minimal dialogue, a number of disturbing scenes, and the cinematography and editing often comes across like an edgy film student’s project.
But there’s a lot to recommend, as well: the jerky physicality of the malfunctioning Pinocchio 964 and cacophony of disorienting visuals and noises are affecting, leaving the viewer guessing as to where this bizarre movie is headed. Decidedly not a mainstream affair, this Japanese sci-fi flick is still recommended for those with a taste for the outré.
3. Hardware (1990)
A robot is found in the irradiated wasteland; its head is bought from a junk dealer and given to a girlfriend as a present. The two lovers speculate as to the robot’s origin, fearing that it was built by the government to eradicate the human population, which has already been depleted by warfare.
After she mounts it as a sculpture, the head comes to life and begins repairing itself, eventually going on a rampage, destroying everyone in its path. While eventually destroyed, an announcement comes over the radio that the robot will begin to be mass-produced by the government.
Based on a story that first appeared in the magazine 2000 A.D., this low-budget sci-fi thriller makes the most of its limitations, with inventive cinematography, editing, and by presenting a believable post-apocalyptic world. Starring Dylan McDermott, the film was a surprise hit in the United States, where it debuted at #6 on its opening weekend. Its aesthetics and storyline still hold up today, taking a page from Mad Max in creating a future that’s built on sand and heat and metal instead of high-tech comfort.
4. Nemesis (1992)
In the future, where cybernetic augmentation and illegal androids are commonplace, an injured bounty hunter (Alex) who’s been repaired through cybernetic implants dives into the underground world of a group of revolutionaries who are trying to stop a larger plot to replace human leaders with android replacements. As Alex further infiltrates the rebellion group, he ends up fighting for the resistance and finds out a horrible truth about himself.
Made on a tight budget, Nemesis is a surprisingly skillfully made sci-fi flick that’s filled with interesting ideas, accomplished special effects, and an intriguing story. B-movie director Albert Pyun (who helmed such low-budget “classics” like Cyborg, 1990’s Captain America, and Dollman) creates an entertaining cyberpunk story that’s carried by its concept rather than its budget.
While currently out of print, it was successful enough at the time of its release to spawn two sequels. Reflecting the obsession with the potential of technology in humanity’s future that sci-fi film made in the decade had, Nemesis is a solid, entertaining film from the early days of the 1990s.
5. Fortress (1992)
Released in 1992 and set in 2017, Fortress follows the imprisonment of a couple sent to prison for getting pregnant with their second child–and although their first child died, a strict one-child policy has been enacted and any further procreation is outlawed in this dystopian sci-fi film. Both are sent to prison, in this case an underground facility. John has his memory erased while the woman is held until she births the child, who now is owned by a giant corporation and will eventually be turned into a cyborg.
Not a terribly ambitious movie, but a fun one, its cast is engaging in a story that manages to smash together several reliable tropes of the sci-fi genre to great effect. The underground prison is appropriately effective as a nightmarish place while the concept of the prison itself–where murderers and “breeders” (people who have more than one child) alike are held–evokes the sort of totalitarian state that’s long been established as a potential nightmarish future for humankind.