The beauty behind a great low budget sci-fi film is that it doesn’t have the luxury of money behind it to potentially mask its shortcomings with whiz-bang action and special effects. A low-budget sci-fi must rely purely on its story while using clever filmmaking techniques to build a sense of mystery surrounding the world and characters it’s presenting.
Updated on September 12, 2020, by Richard Keller: These days, filmgoers expect their sci-fi movies to be summertime blockbusters. They want huge stars and enormous special effects. However, not all science fiction is like that. Several more low-budget sci-fi films are better than those blockbusters.
15 A Boy And His Dog (1975)
Before he donned his white linen suit, Don Johnson was a teenager in A Boy and His Dog. Based on a story by Harlan Ellison, the film was made for $400,000 back in 1975. It didn’t gain commercial success during its initial premiere. However, it made up for it in subsequent video and DVD releases.
In the film, Johnson plays Vic, a young man trying to survive in a post-nuclear Southwestern U.S. He’s joined by his dog, Blood. Together, they discover an underground population that seems homey at first. However, it turns out to be bloodthirsty. There’s a vein of black comedy in the film.
Available on: Hoopla, Tubi, Shout TV
14 Mad Max (1979)
It only took $300,000 to turn Mel Gibson into a star and launch a multi-billion dollar sci-fi franchise. Yet, it was hard to tell if Mad Max was science fiction or not. It certainly didn’t have the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of its sequels.
As the movie moved ahead, filmgoers began to see Max lived in a society that was breaking down due to the lack of fossil fuels. The circumstances would be darker in later films. In turn, those would lead to dozens of apocalyptic-themed music videos.
Available on: Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play
13 The Ice Pirates (1984)
Robert Urich didn’t make many theatrical movies in his lifetime. However, the ones he did make drew a good audience. Case in point, the 1984 sci-fi comedy The Ice Pirates.
Made for only nine million dollars, the movie about space pirates who dealt in the rare commodity of ice cubes made a profit. Urich, who was good at comedy as well as drama, played his role in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. It’s probably why The Ice Pirates remains a cult classic.
Available on: Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, Fandango Now, Vudu
12 Deep Impact (1998)
Deep Impact premiered the same summer as Armageddon. However, while the latter was designed to be a summer blockbuster at $140 million, Deep Impact kept things quieter at a fairly low $75 million.
The film, which featured an all-star cast, was hard science fiction mixed with a little conspiracy theory. The government’s actions and how the public responded was much more realistic than how the space cowboys reacted in Armageddon. Also, unlike the Bruce Willis venture, Deep Impact didn’t have a real happy ending.
Available on: Amazon, Vudu, Google Play
11 The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Ashton Kutcher took on the dramatic role of an unwilling time traveler in this film. It was undoubtedly a change for the actor after years of playing the lovable dunce on That 70s Show. It may be why The Butterfly Effect, made on a $10 million budget, earned almost $60 million at the U.S. box office.
In the film, Kutcher plays Evan Treborn, a college student who can travel back in time after reading segments in his journal. During those times, Evan attempts to change numerous traumatic moments that affected him and his friends. The Butterfly Effect is an interesting and sometimes creepy film that viewers have to intently watch to keep up.
Available On: Hulu, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube
10 Circle (2015)
The sci-fi thriller Circle sees a group of 50 people wake up in a round room with no recollection of how they got there and unable to move from a stationary position. It’s soon discovered that the room is killing them off one-by-one every two minutes, with the people eventually figuring out that they hold the power over who lives and who dies.
Circle presents the terrifying dilemma of holding a person’s life in one’s hand and then having to choose whether they live or die based on character. It’s a film that places the audience in an awkward position, but is all the more riveting for it, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats throughout.
Available on: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Vudu
9 The Endless (2017)
The Endless follows two brothers, who after uncovering an old videotape with a cryptic message from their past, decide to follow the message and revisit the events surrounding their escape from a UFO death cult as kids. Their journey sends them down a twisting path as a strange mystery unravels before them, making them question their beliefs.
The Endless is a slow-burning low-budget sci-fi thriller film with ambitious ideas. It’s one that demands the full attention of its audience, as it enters territory that’s not easily explainable. Much like the film’s protagonists, the audience is thrust into a world of mysterious events as they try to figure out the truth of what’s real and what isn’t.
Available on: Netflix, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Vudu, Hoopla
8 The Discovery (2017)
The underrated Netflix Original sci-fi drama film The Discovery sees a world in which life-after-death has been proven to exist. This knowledge sends the world into a tailspin, as people begin to take their own lives for a chance to reset and start again on the other side. The scientist at the forefront of this discovery is visited by his son, who along with a mysterious woman, attempts to figure out the deeper meaning behind this scientific breakthrough.
The Discovery features one of the more unique premises to come from a sci-fi film of late, with contentious themes that are prime for debate upon completion of the film. It’s a gloomy film that asks viewers to look introspectively and reflect on their mortality, making it a rare film that can connect with its audience on an emotional level.
Available on: Netflix
7 Prospect (2018)
Prospect follows a father-and-daughter team on an expedition to harvest riches on a remote alien moon when they discover that they’re not the only ones roving the landscape. The daughter is forced to take matters into her own hands when the journey quickly turns into a fight for survival.
Prospect is a perfect example of a film that builds a sci-fi world on a small budget and manages to pull its audience right into it. Its strengths lie in the relationship and character-building between the father and daughter while offering the right amount of thrills and suspense. Its story is one with universal themes that would have worked just as well in any setting.
Available on: Hulu, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Vudu, Kanopy
6 Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Not all low-budget sci-fi films are full of doom and gloom and such is the case with Colin Trevorrow’s quirky dramedy, Safety Not Guaranteed. It follows three magazine employees who answer a strange classified advertisement from a man who is looking for someone to travel back in time with him.
The sci-fi aspects in this one are modest at best and it works better as a coming-of-age story with a heartfelt, character-driven story. The film focuses on more profound themes relating to time travel, such as missed opportunities and second chances, while doing so in a witty and clever style.
Available on: Crackle, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Vudu
5 Sound of My Voice (2011)
A mysterious cult is the focus of the indie drama Sound of My Voice, which sees a pair of documentary filmmakers attempt to go deep within the cult and oust its enigmatic leader, who claims to be from the future. However, they too become at risk of falling under her spell.
Cults in movies always make for an intriguing subject matter, as audiences often wonder what drives people to join them and become so entrapped by their charismatic leaders. Such is the theme in Sound of My Voice, with its sci-fi spin adding even more mystery to the stigma behind cults.
Available on: Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Vudu
4 Another Earth (2011)
A romance sci-fi film with profound themes, Another Earth follows a man and woman come together through tragedy on the same night a second Earth is discovered in the solar system. The pair forge a bond over their common, tragic events, though an opportunity to visit the second Earth will cause them to question their relationship.
Another Earth can feel like a slog to get through, but offers a lot to think about and reflect on long after the credits have rolled. The film is one that has appeal over multiple genres, making it a good choice for romance lovers, indie lovers, and sci-fi lovers.
Available on: HBO Max GO, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Vudu, and DirecTV
3 Predestination (2014)
Predestination follows the journey of a time-traveling police officer whose mission it is to stop potential killers before they can commit their crimes. His final mission will be his greatest test yet as he aims to track down a criminal who has eluded him for a very long time.
The film features plenty of sci-fi movie tropes as related to the time travel sub-genre, but it doesn’t feel cliché at all. There’s a captivating mystery element running through the film that keeps audiences engaged, with a twist that will shock viewers, making Predestination one of the more compelling, yet underappreciated sci-fi films of the 2010s.
Available on: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Vudu, AMC Theatres, Flix Fling
2 Coherence (2013)
Coherence follows 8 friends at a dinner party who begin to elicit some disturbing behavior following an astronomical anomaly. Their relationships are tested and their wits pushed to the edge as they try to figure out what has caused this troubling turn of events.
This little-known gem is an excellent example of minimalist filmmaking, relying on its small cast of well-developed characters and a suspense-filled story to engage its audience. Films that are set in a single location like this one are hard to pull off, so it’s a testament to the filmmaker’s abilities to hit the mark in such a gripping and entertaining fashion.
Available on: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Crackle, Vudu, Hoopla, Kanopy, Sundance Now, Popcorn Flix
1 The Man from Earth (2007)
If there was ever a film to achieve excellence in minimalist filmmaking, then The Man from Earth would be it. In the film, a scientist invites his colleagues to a cabin in the woods for a night, where he reveals to them that he is a 14,000-year-old immortal being that’s lived through many of human history’s evolutionary phases. The revelation sparks a discussion between the group that covers themes on philosophy, religion, and science, as they come to grips with what they’ve just heard.
The Man from Earth features expert storytelling with an engaging subject matter that will have audiences peeled to the screen. The film revolves around a group of people having a discussion that’s so profound and thought-provoking that it makes it a lot more enthralling than any sci-fi film with a bigger budget.
Available on: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Microsoft Store, Vudu, Hoopla, Tubi
NEXT: 10 Sci-Fi Masterpieces You’ve Probably Never Seen