The Lo-fi Sci-fi Revolution

In All, Movies by Kyu

I just saw 2013’s Coherence and at this point I am prepared to declare that we are undergoing a minor cinematic movement in the science fiction genre. Call it “layman’s sci-fi” or “ground level” or maybe just “lo-fi” if you want; the point is that movies like Coherence, Triangle, Upstream Color, Under the Skin, The One I Love, and Another Earth all in one way or another bring the spirit of independent film to science fiction stories, focusing on the primacy of the experiential over the explicative in a way that hasn’t been done before.

(There will be SPOILERS for all of these movies at one point or another, although I’ll try to stay away from anything too specific.)

Most people haven’t seen any of those movies–they’re all very indie–but they’ve probably seen the one major studio film to import some of these ideas from the independent sphere: Rian Johnson’s Looper.


Looper has the best fan art.

So what sets these films–and Looper–apart from traditional Hollywood science fiction?

1. The sci-fi element is fundamentally unexplained.

Looper doesn’t bother to tell us how time travel works; it doesn’t even bother to explain the rules so that they make sense to us. All we get (and all we need to know) is that the future sends people back in time, and that knowledge of the future can be used in the present to change it. I call this the Drinking Straw principle, after Bruce Willis’s line in the diner:

I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

All of the science fiction movies I’m discussing here take this idea to extremes, but perhaps the best example is the sci-fi/horror movie, Triangle (2009). (My original Killtoberfest review of this film can be found here.)

Triangle is about a group of friends (and newcomer Jess) who take a yachting trip out into the Atlantic. After their ship capsizes in a sudden storm, the group drift until they find and board an eerily empty cruise ship. While searching the ship for help, the group finds themselves under attack by an ax-and-shotgun-wielding maniac in a mask. Here’s where the science fiction comes in: the maniac turns out to be a version of Jess from the very near future, the violence her attempt to free herself from an apparent time loop.

The word apparent there is very important. Nobody ever discusses this time loop; Jess has more information than the rest of the group, and even she doesn’t necessarily understand everything that’s happening. Nowhere in the film is any statement remotely as clear as Bill Murray’s description in Groundhog Day:

I quote that not just to play up the difference between two very different films’ treatment of the same subject matter, but to point out that the genre methods I’m talking about here aren’t necessarily better or worse than traditional Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy treatments. Groundhog Day is a fantastic, wonderful film that requires the clarity that it has in order to tell a story about a character who changes and grows. Triangle, on the other hand, is doing something very different–involving us deeply in the horror of broken time (all those shots of cloned objects like video game glitches), a mood that relies on the unease of the unexplained. Jess’s attempts to free herself from the time loop have the feel of a shifting nightmare, where the solution to an illogical problem is always just out of reach.

So what causes the situation in Triangle is unknown. Likewise, what exactly happens to the men in Under the Skin is unclear, and the precise mechanic at play in Upstream Color is the subject of no monologue or clear demonstration. In each case, we’re left to deduce or assume or theorize based on visual representations or even editing relationships, as when Under the Skin cuts from reality–

to abstraction–

Or when Upstream Color cuts between its protagonists and a pair of pigs they are somehow tied to:

These films encourage us to make connections without dictating that we do so, without rigidly defining what those connections are. They want us to think, and through having to think, to come to feel more strongly what the characters are going through.

Contrast this with mainstream sci-if–Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion, Inception, Back to the Future, the Terminator movies. At one point or another, out comes the chalkboard.

In these lo-fi sci-fi flicks, this doesn’t happen. But why? What lets them take this direction?

2. The characters are not scientists, but ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.

William Hurt’s inventor in AI: Artificial Intelligence

Hollywood films prize clarity, at least on a certain level; movies like Interstellar fall squarely within that tradition, but so do many other big science fiction films. Typically the protagonists are (or are working with) experts. In movies like Back to the FutureEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jurassic Park, and AI: Artificial Intelligence, the inventors of the sci-fi technology are major characters; in other films, particularly those dealing with aliens, the main characters are or are working with scientists, the people most equipped to deal with what’s happening. Sphere is the prototypical example, with its cadre of specialized scientists summoned to explore an alien ship discovered deep underwater, but plenty of others come to mind–Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, The Thing, Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, going all the way back to Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune, which follows a group of astronomers on a trip through space. In still other films, the heroes are professionals, or otherwise experienced at dealing with their sci-fi world. Harrison Ford knows his way around robots in Blade Runner, the protagonist of A Scanner Darkly is a narcotics officer with a full understanding of the effects (if not the origins) of Substance D, Tom Cruise in Minority Report is the top cop in the pre-crime pilot program, the dream thieves of Inception are the best in a very small field, and although Neo is a Matrix neophyte, Morpheus might as well be the patron saint of exposition. For all his bluster about how “no one can be told what the Matrix is,” he does an awful lot of telling.

So this is a very common thing–these stories tend to take a direct route, finding characters who are in exactly the right place to explicate or confront or question the science fiction element or system that the movie is about. Why? Because Hollywood movies often require this kind of scope. Even excellent and otherwise subtle works are often about people who might save the world (Children of Men) or bring down the dystopia (V for Vendetta) or discover a foundational truth about their existence (Soylent Green). In this lo-fi movement, however, this is not the case. Two examples will suffice here.

First, 2014’s The One I Love, a weird romantic dramedy about a very unusual house. In this film, a 30-something couple in a troubled marriage, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), are sent by their therapist to a special, personal weekend retreat, a remote pair of lakeside houses. To their surprise, they discover that when one of them enters the second house alone, they discover a doppelganger of their partner, a double who is, apparently, everything they wish their partner was. Ethan’s “Sophie” is less anxious and more eager to please (even making him the bacon that actual Sophie disallows), while Sophie’s “Ethan” is cooler, more attentive, and more open about his feelings (even apologizing for actual Ethan’s previous infidelity). In a way, dealing with their mirror images and confronting the oddity of the house together turns out to be a very effective form of counseling, bringing Ethan and Sophie closer together (although the movie is more ambiguous than I’m suggesting here).

But those emotional ramifications are only possible because Ethan and Sophie have no real idea what’s going on. There are hints throughout the film that their doubles are not quite what they seem, but Ethan and Sophie don’t even know what could be causing this effect. Is it natural, supernatural, technological? The movie is unclear, and the protagonists have no way of knowing. They’re not scientists, they’re not experts. They liken their situation to that of characters in The Twilight Zone, which often featured ordinary people who found themselves dealing with the surreal and the unexplained. This is an effective way of bypassing the mechanics of the science fiction in favor of the emotional consequences of experiencing it. There’s a very freeing sensation that comes when Ethan and Sophie, having discovered this odd property, decide not to worry about why and simply explore it. Nor, in the end, is the movie about what the outside world might make of such a place. The scope is limited to Ethan and Sophie and how they feel and how their marriage might change as a result of their experiences, and the film is all the stronger for it.

Another example is the movie that sparked the idea of this movement for me, 2013’s Coherence. This is a very low-budget indie project that makes a virtue of limited resources. From a house, a handful of actors, and some glow sticks, Coherence builds a fascinating, eerie little story. It starts in unassuming fashion, with a dinner party shot in typical indie cinéma vérité style, handheld footage and overlapping, semi-improvised dialogue. The characters, a set of friends and lovers, are again, not scientists of any kind, but actors, New Age thinkers, working professionals, etc. Part of the point of the film is that when something odd does happen–when a comet passing overhead opens up some kind of expanded probability space, with a duplicate/alternate house filled with alternate versions of the characters coming into existence just down the street–that the characters are essentially incapable of processing this experience well enough. Without electricity, without the internet or cell phones (all knocked out by the comet’s effect), they’re always one step behind or more–even compared to their doubles down the street, who seem to come to certain conclusions about their experience sooner, or find more clever solutions. While everyone tries to muddle through, or gets caught up in paranoid fears about their own inner demons (Nicholas Brendon is excellent here as a man afraid that, in this situation, he would be the first to resort to violence against himself), only one character has the foresight to improvise a better outcome for herself, regardless of the cost. It’s hard to say if that’s the right thing for her to do, or if any of them do the right thing, or what the right thing even is here, because there is no authority in the room to pin down exactly what’s happening and how they should behave. Like many of these films, Coherence is an opportunity for the audience to see homegrown empiricism in action, to watch a situation develop in real time as characters try to understand it right alongside the viewer. Again, the result is a greater immersivity, and ultimately a stronger emotional reaction to the story.

3. The emotional experience is primary.

Hollywood is a machine designed to excel at certain things. Special effects. Production design. Star performances. Indie films don’t have those luxuries; they have to make do with lesser or unknown actors, minimal production design, little to no special effects. But what they have instead is a greater emphasis on the powerful emotions of a highly specific story. They don’t always appeal to everyone the way broad Hollywood narratives do; but to those who get them, independent movies can build a much deeper, more powerful connection than any studio blockbuster. That’s the advantage of these lo-fi sci-fi movies–in a way, their lack of explanations and their use of ordinary characters is a way of clearing out all the information of a story so that the emotion can shine through. No movie in recent years exemplifies this more than Upstream Color.

The second film by the multi-talented indie filmmaker Shane Carruth, Upstream Color is even more impressive than his debut feature. That film, the mind-bending time travel story Primer, flooded the viewer with information and exposition; its two main characters were engineers and the inventors of the technology on display, which they promptly lost control of in the course of misusing it for personal gain. Although stylistically Primer falls in line with these lo-fi films I’m describing, it’s far too literal and intellectual to really fit. That’s what’s so fascinating about writer/director/composer/editor/actor (he does it all, folks) Carruth’s sophomore film: Upstream Color is the exact opposite, a totally subjective, emotionally-driven experience. In Primer you’re never quite sure what’s happening; in Upstream Color, the puzzle is why something is happening. The character actions are clear, but their motivations aren’t, and this is ultimately because they’re being guided by a surreal mechanism that only the audience can begin to understand.

The editing is restless in this film, always jumping ahead, eager for you to catch up. In essence the whole movie is one long montage; it never stays in one place long enough for you to catch your breath, but sweeps you along downstream. Questions proliferate–Why Walden? Who is the man with the calm voice? Why is she so upset? Why does he love her?–but the proper way to watch the film is to relax and realize that all of these questions are, at heart, one question that you are responsible for ultimately answering: what is the connection between what I’m seeing and what I’ve seen? The sci-fi element here, a cultivated drug that induces both suggestibility and psychic links, is the commonality, but it’s also an excuse the movie uses to meditate on the nature of connection itself, how love and fear and anger and caring are as ultimately inexplicable as they are powerful. Emotions are chemicals, too, but that doesn’t explain the hold they have over us, that bone deep need to get away from what frightens us and cling to the people who feel like home. These connections are like the paper chains that the characters are compelled to make over and over again: fragile, easily forged, but deeply meaningful.

As with Upstream Color, all of these lo-fi movies are about far more than their literal plots. Just what is actually going on in Under the Skin is entirely subsumed by the question of how the main character is adapting to her new environment. The same goes for Coherence, which is as much about secrets and lies as it is about scientific oddities, and the way Triangle concerns itself with the impossibility of truly solving emotional conflicts. More often than not, the dominant experience in these movies is simply horror. The mind’s natural response to the breakdown of physics is uncertainty and paranoia. That sense of things happening that you don’t understand, that things are spiraling out of control, is powerfully disquieting. But other emotions can supplant that reaction; Coherence and Another Earth are primarily about regret and second chances, while The One I Love‘s strangeness sort of boils down to the weirdest couples therapy ever. The point of these movies isn’t to solve the situation, but how the characters are changed by their experience. And how you, the viewer, is changed by sharing it. Rather than being swept up in an epic Hollywood narrative, we’re given the equivalent of a short story–a limited perspective, a focused arc, conclusions which emerge suddenly and organically from the situation. These are small movies, but they don’t feel minor. Not at all.

What do I think is causing this little groundswell of lo-fi sci-fi films? Certainly there may be some influence going on between them. (I can’t be the only one who watches movies like Primer and Looper and feel like they’re pointing the way forward, towards sci-fi that assumes its audience is intelligent, that favors complex, sometimes elliptical narratives over straightforward stories and overexplained situations.) But I think the overall trend reflects the democratization of technology, and I mean that in both the social and technical sense.

On the technical side, the base cost of filmmaking has dropped dramatically. You can make an entire movie on the iPhone in your pocket without sacrificing too much quality. You can cut it on freely available, open source nonlinear editing programs. With enough time and practice, you can make your own digital special effects, doing with the click of a button what once took dozens of people, weeks of work, and thousands of dollars. A movie like Coherence is not out of the question for any talented filmmaker, former cast members of Buffy the Vampire Slayer notwithstanding; all you need is a house and some willing actors and a clever script and you, too, can make a no-budget movie powered by ideas and emotions instead of explosions. From that perspective, the question isn’t why independent filmmakers would try for lo-fi techniques and narrative restraint; it’s why wouldn’t they.

Shane Carruth and co. on the set of Upstream Color

At the same time, these movies reflect the social democratization of technology–the fact that everybody has an amazing piece of advanced technology in their pocket, and that that device is a product. The vast majority of us have gone from laymen to users, in that we don’t necessarily understand how our phones and computers and such work but we understand how to operate them. There’s this sense of, I don’t need to know how quantum mechanics works, I can get by just knowing that when I push this button I go back to the home page and when I swipe here this happens and so on. That kind of knowledge lends itself well to this version of cinematic storytelling, where it doesn’t matter why something is happening so long as we understand on a base level the character options–the “rules” that are really just observations made in real time. When I hold this button the icons quiver. When the time loop gets stuck, items are duplicated; the sync between dinner parties isn’t perfect; the house works when you go in through the door but only if you’re alone; etc. We don’t have to understand what’s happening in order to make sense of it and how it affects us and how it feels to experience it.

In a way, we are all ordinary people in extraordinary situations, living in a brand new world of instant global communication, anonymous hackers, and virtual environments. Our technology has become commonplace, something we take for granted, merely the backdrop to the emotional realities of our everyday lives. It’s that notion that our movies have begun to reflect and explore, and they have become more personal and more exciting as a result. I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.