Nowadays it’s hard to find a sci-fi film that isn’t big on CGI. Stellar visuals, immersive 3D and an overdose of special effects seem to be the norm in Hollywood, be it for the Marvel or the Star Wars movies. In fact, it seems pretty much impossible to imagine a good sci-fi film without these qualities. But that wasn’t always the case.
Although practically all mainstream films use CGI and special effects now, there are a few that do not rely on those entirely, and instead focus on dialogue and an engaging plot to keep the audience hooked. And besides, plenty of good films in the last century did not have CGI to woo viewers but were still pretty successful. Here are some amazing sci-fi films which do not use any flashy CGI, that you must check out!
10 Her (2013)
This sci-fi romantic drama film told the story of a man, Theodore, who falls in love with the disembodied voice of Samantha, his virtual assistant, powered by artificial intelligence. Voiced by Scarlet Johansson and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the introverted and lonely Theodore, the film was a commercial and critical success.
Written and directed by Spike Jonze, the film received 5 Oscar nominations and ended up winning an award for Best Original Screenplay.
9 Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko is a thrilling tale about a boy who encounters a monstrous rabbit figure and is convinced that the world will end in just 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Drew Barrymore, among others, the film was well-received and was particularly praised for the quality of acting and the overall dark tone.
Again, a proof of how independent cinema can tell gripping tales without over-relying on special effects or CGI
8 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a beautiful and thought-provoking film about two people who fall in love only to erase each other from their memories. Except, of course, they meet each other again and begin dating.
It stars Jim Carey and Kate Winslet in the lead, along with a brilliant supporting cast that includes Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo, among others. It uses a non-linear narrative to keep the audience hooked and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well.
7 Planet of the Apes (1968)
That’s another franchise that is still popular, with bigger and bolder remakes happening from time to time. Made with a budget of $5.8 million, the film was stupendously successful and managed to gross over $33.4 million.
Set in an alien world where a crew of humans crashes and lands where apes have become the dominant species, the film was very heavy on prosthetic make-up. But apart from that, it was too early in the day for special effects. This film was followed by five others and in 2001 it was chosen to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry.
6 Primer (2004)
Can you even have a time travel film without CGI or any snazzy effects and that too in the 21st century? Well, it turns out that you can. Primer, a film that explores the ramifications of the accidental discovery of time-travel, was almost a one-man show.
Shane Carruth directed, edited, produced, scored and even starred in the film. More so, it was an extremely low budget film, made with just about $7000.
5 Looper (2012)
Imagine being a time-traveling assassin hired by people in the future to kill off other people? Another sci-fi action flick, Looper was the film that brought Rian Johnson, the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi to the forefront.
A pretty bold and innovative film, it had Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt in the lead cast. It was a very well-received film and was widely regarded as one of the best films of 2012.
4 Groundhog Day (1993)
The idea of being trapped in a time loop and forced to relive the same day, over and over again, isn’t something new. We’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it again, most recently in the Netflix series, Russian Doll. But before that, there was Groundhog Day.
Released in the 90s, this film dealt with the plight of Phil Connors, a TV weatherman who while covering the Groundhog Day is suddenly trapped in a time loop. The film was also noted for its humor and is regarded as one of the funniest films ever made.
3 The Butterfly Effect (2004)
As most of us would know, The Butterfly Effect deals with how minute and imperceptible changes can have far-reaching consequences. This 2004 sci-fi thriller follows the adventures of Evan Treborn who seems to have missing memories.
He soon realizes that he can travel to the past to change his present and does so with disastrous consequences. Although the film wasn’t very well-received, it still was a commercial success, raking in over $96 million.
2 The Last Man on Earth (1964)
This was a post-apocalyptic horror film where Vincent Price is the lone survivor after an epidemic and the rest of humanity seems to have been infected by a plague that has turned them to vampiric creatures.
It was based on the 1954 novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, although there are a few changes from the book, such as the fact that in the source material, the monsters can run and climb. The film was shot mostly in Italy and clocks in at just 86 minutes making it a gripping watch.
1 Escape from New York (1981)
Of course, how could we end a sci-fi list without referring to a John Carpenter film? Made in the early 80s before CGI became mainstream, the film was set in the United States in 1997 and the country was rife with crime. So much so, that Manhattan Island was converted into a prison, and that’s where the title comes from.
The film was nominated for a number of Saturn awards and even had a sequel, directed by Carpenter again, called Escape from L.A. (1996). With a modest $6 million budget, it managed to gross over $25 million.
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