Smart people who make movies with low budgets know you need some good ideas to cover up the lack of spectacle. This works well for comedy, because it is always killed by big budgets – films like Tropic Thunder destroy themselves with too much money, and no amount of cash was ever going to make Evan Almighty better than one minute of Withnail And I.
Horror is another good idea for films with limited funds, and that lesson was driven home by the extraordinary – if belated – success of Paranormal Activity. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to scare people, you can do that by showing nothing. Horror films with an abundance of CGI are just tedious, a dark room with something slightly wrong in it is infinitely scarier than any over-rendered demon.
Science fiction is a bit harder to do on a budget, but it can be done. It is easier to do special effects than ever before, and there have been a plethora of science fiction films with cheap CGI. They tend to be sunk by their own limitations, but every now and then, they hit the mark.
One strand of films with low budgets and high ideas has produced some really satisfying work: films about time travel.
They don’t need a huge amount of special effects, travelling up and down the timeline can be as mundane as sitting inside a workshop, or walking into the loo at the local pub. Often, the special effects are in the head as plots twist and turn around a concept that is literally impossible to understand.
On television, Doctor Who has managed to show all of time and space for decades on the budget of four quid and an oily rag, and while that was sometimes quite obvious with wobbly sets and wobblier acting, it still managed to spark the imagination of its audience.
As a calling card for smart young film-makers, low budget time travel films give them a chance to show off how clever they can be, even if they occasionally over-reach.
Donnie Darko worked very well as a showcase, helped by a genuinely creepy atmosphere, some great performances and some new reasonably new and satisfyingly fucked-up ideas about the way the universe works. For a primary example of too much money, look at Kelly’s follow-up film – Southland Tales. It was sadly unloved long before it was even released, as the extra money saw indulgences run riot.
Back down at the lowest of budgets, there is Primer, where time travel involves sitting inside a shed for eight hours. It’s a thoroughly grey movie full of mumbled technical explanations that somehow manages to be one of the most accurate depictions of an altered state of mind captured on film.
It starts out boring and barely understandable, and then the story starts looping in on itself over and over, and it really is like tripping off your nut. People who take drugs in movies often see a whole bunch of pretty colours, but they don’t capture the confusion of being really, really high.
Nothing makes sense, but is still totally familiar. Everything is significant, from the ties the characters wear to the things they listen to on headphones. And then it’s all over, and you’re not sure what happened, but it feels indescribably important.
It’s a pretty hard film to get into, but rewardable in all the ways good, cheap science fiction can deliver.
For another example of cheaparse time shenanigans, you could do worse than watch Patrick Meaney’s beautifully bizarre internet-based series The Third Age. It’s a satisfying slice of multi-time paranoia that wears its influences on the sleeve a bit too much, but manages to get a lot out of its obviously meagre budget. While there is little in the way of physical time travel, the series has no problem with making its characters become mentally unstuck in time.
The idea of travelling back into your own past and mucking around with it isn’t confined to any one culture, and has shown up in films produced all over the world. One of the most effective movies of this type to be released in the past several years is Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes.
A Spanish production that features people over-reacting in a way European people on film usually do, the story sees a fairly hopeless sap stumble into a series of experiments that keep him looping back and forth over the past few hours. A typically intricate jigsaw puzzle of a film that takes a few dodgy logical leaps to keep the timeline flowing, Timecrimes is also an entirely satisfying and weirdly creepy experience. Dressing up as your own hooded antagonist and attacking your past self might keep the structure of time intact, but it’s also a wonderfully weird narrative hook.
They keep on coming, these cheap, nasty and lovely time travel films. Unsurprisingly, there have been a few that have gone for laughs, such as Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel.
This British effort isn’t entirely satisfying, but is charming enough, with that Irisdh bloke from the IT crowd, the Scary Movies girl and Shakespeare from that Doctor Who episode keeping the time travel tribulations flowing. It’s not the type of film that bothers with any real explanations, but loves playing around with a paradox and features one genuinely great giant mutant ant gag.
Like all these films, it gets hideously complicated by the end, but generally all ties together. It’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is, but at least it tries to be clever in the first place.
And that might just be the most appealing thing about low-budget time-travel films. They try so hard to be impressive and rely on their own smarts to do so. When the big blockbusters seemed determined to lower their intelligence levels by as much as humanly possible, making the effort to mess around with the audience’s heads as much as possible can only be applauded.