More so than any genre except for horror, science fiction is defined by its special effects. In Japanese, the relationship is explicit, as science fiction is one of a loose collection of fantastic genres referred to as tokusatsu—literally, “special filming” or special effects. For many people, it’s just not a science fiction movie until the spaceships land (or attack, as the case may be), or the mad scientist’s unholy creation breaks out of the lab, or the miracle machine comes to life with bright bolts of VFX lightning.
So, then, what’s an aspiring sci-fi filmmaker to do? Hold out for the day when an emissary from Hollywood arrives on their doorstep, $100 million check in hand? That’s a fantastic tale in itself. Luckily, there is a way forward. They can look to literary classics: Dystopian literature like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, while arguably missing the “science” element of sci-fi, point toward a path where human beings are the source of the intrigue. Time travel is another sci-fi trope that can be accomplished with little more than a box with the words “time machine” written on it, if the acting and the script are convincing enough. And there’s always that old standby for any filmmaker hoping to squeeze a lot of movie out of a little bit of money: trapping the characters inside a single location.