There may have been a time when sci-fi and fantasy was considered too low-brow or a genre on the fringes. But that time is long gone, especially when it comes to films and not least in 2018 – when eight out of the 10 highest-grossing films in 2018 worldwide (so far) are SF/F movies.
But what gets lost amidst all the big blockbuster hype and superhero hits are the little gems, movies made on budgets that aren’t anywhere in the vicinity of big Hollywood productions, with better stories to tell that oftentimes don’t get their due. Here are five such films, in no particular order, that you may just have missed and which deserve a watch.
The first directorial effort by the writer/creator of Saw and Insidious, Leigh Whannel, Upgrade is a cyberpunk-ish throwback in many ways to sci-fi films of the past, but at the same time a different take – not least by way of body horror – on the cautionary tale of augmented humans and of humans vs AI. Logan Marshall-Green plays Grey Trace, a man left completely paralysed after a mugging by unknown people who end up killing his wife. On cue, he’s given a chance at revenge by his wife’s employer, a famous tech inventor who offers him a chance to be normal via an embedded AI chip called STEM that will act as his auxiliary brain and control his motor functions. So begins an action-filled tale of revenge that sees Trace trace his wife’s killers with STEM on his side (and inside him). Be warned, there will be blood.
Sorry To Bother You
Quite possibly the most under-rated sci-film of 2018, Boots Riley’s directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You is a dark comedy, a scathing satire and a dystopian tale, all at once. It’s hard to tell whether the setting is an alternative world or the near-future of our timeline and therein lies the power of this film as we follow Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield) who does what anybody desperate for any job would do, lie on his résumé to get a job as a telemarketer in a world where work has dried up and the only hope seems to be a company called WorryFree which is selling what is basically a new form of (corporate) slavery and where people sign-up for reality shows where they get beaten up and humiliated on screen, in return for 15 seconds of TV fame. With his new-found career going nowhere until he discovers his true power – in the form of his ‘white voice’ – Cassius is soon on his way upwards as a ‘power caller’ which brings him to the attention of a wealthy entrepreneur who offers him a better future (and he’s not horsing around!), while alienating him from his colleagues who’re striking for better wages, and his artist girlfriend. A commentary on race and class, the nature of art, identity and ethics, a takedown of capitalism, mass media & marketing, a surreal look at the absurdity of modern & corporate life, Sorry To Bother You manages to be all of this and more without taking itself too seriously or forgetting to deliver the laughs.
From the director of the critically-acclaimed hit, Train To Busan, comes this unusual superhero film that takes a different look at the superhero origin story and what makes a hero. Having abandoned his wife and little daughter years ago, Seok-heon is a small-time security guard at a bank who gets by with supplementing his income with petty theft. His estranged daughter, Roo-mi now runs a successful restaurant in a market, just one amongst the many small businesses in an area that a mob-run real estate company has its eye on. A forcible eviction turns violent in which Seok-heon’s wife is killed and thus brings him back in touch with his Roo-mi, who has no love lost for him. At the same time, Seok-heon starts to develop telekinetic superpowers after drinking spring water that’s been affected by a meteorite. Trying to win his daughter’s back and to do the right thing, Seok-heon uses his new-found abilities to ally with Roo-mi and her fellow shop owners against the criminal organisation that has taken away their livelihood. While it has its epic action sequences and a climactic showdown, the film is at its core a tale of a man seeking redemption, a father trying to do right by his daughter. Heart-warming and bittersweet sprinkled with lighter moments, Psychokinesis is refreshing in its very human portrayal of a ‘superhero’.
Proof that a good sci-fi film doesn’t always need a big budget, but a good concept and story, The Endless, directed by – and starring – Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, is a loose sequel to their 2012 film Resolution, but one that nonetheless stands on its own a self-contained story about two brothers who return to a UFO death cult (or a harmless commune) they walked away from years ago, after receiving an intriguing message via a videotape from the group. Seeking answers – and closure – the brothers soon find themselves caught up in unexplained phenomena including time loops and a mysterious entity that is beyond dimensions and which seems to be able to control space-time and its rifts thereof. A mind-bending movie in which twists and turns abound, The Endless is a movie that will have you seeking out other people who have seen the movie to discuss ‘what just happened’.
By far the finest fantasy film from India in recent years, Tumbbad weaves in elements of horror to portray the nature of greed – be it of human or gods – in an immersive, engaging and atmospheric manner not often seen on Indian screens. Partly based on the stories of Marathi writer, Narayan Dharap, helmed by debutant director, Rahi Anil Bharve and starring Sohum Shah as the greedy and intrepid Vinayak, Tumbbad is a story of a fallen god and the depths to which men will fall.
While the film is set in pre-Independence India, Tumbbad’s story begins aeons ago when Hastar, the first-born god of the mother goddess gets too ambitious and greedy which leads to the rest of the gods to turn upon him. Hastar is only saved when the goddess takes him back into her womb, saving him with a promise that he would be forgotten forever, never known to have existed and never worshipped. Except for one family in Tumbbad, a place cursed by the very gods to be forever and incessantly whipped by torrential rain, to which Vinayak belongs to. Having heard tales of Hastar and more importantly of great treasure, Vinayak, eager to rise above the abject poverty he is born into, becomes obsessed with finding the gold that Hastar holds, a treasure that is said to exist in Tumbbad an obsession that he passes on to his son later on, albeit without the dangerous caveats that only he knows too well. A thriller told in three chapters with each part delving succeeding deeper into the mystery of the treasure, Tumbbad boasts of a great story with an original mythos, a well-written script well shot by cinematographer Pankaj Kumar, great art direction with its attention to detail, a score by Danish composer Jesper Kyd (Hitman, Assassin’s Creed, Borderlands) that accentuates its many gloomy moods, and a cast of well-cast supporting characters that include a (needless to say, greedy) moneylender, a mistress, a long-suffering wife, a son eager to win the approval of his father, and a forlorn fort.
And that brings us to the end of this week’s New Worlds Weekly, with a reminder that the latest NWW giveaway – where three winners can win their choice of four great Indian SF books – is still on and will be until the end of the month. I hope to see you here again on FactorDaily next weekend for yet another edition of this column. Live Long and Prosper!
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