Oct. 22, 2021: a date that for many science-fiction fans cannot come fast enough. That is when those of us who don’t attend film festivals will finally be able to watch Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited “Dune,” either in a theater or on HBO Max. Amusingly, a couple of enterprising indies are banking on some impatient viewers’ not paying close attention and being drawn to the microbudget British production “Dune Drifter,” with its deliberately antiquated aesthetics, or to the stupefyingly inept “Dune World,” which involves “wormlike beasts” on a “hostile and barren planet.” Better to check out this month’s selection of overlooked sci-fi nuggets, none of which tries to coast on Frank Herbert’s universe.
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Lance Henriksen figures prominently in the credits of this hybrid of supernatural horror and teen movie, but be warned: The beloved character actor has even less screen time than Bruce Willis in one of his supposedly starring roles. But oh, how Henriksen makes the most of his few minutes! Scenery-chewing of this unhinged caliber is too rare not to be singled out and praised.
Henriksen plays an Arizona charlatan whose ill-gotten powers end up making the bullied teen Kelly (Elijah Nelson) pretty much invincible. This, in turn, allows Kelly to exert bloody revenge on the football players who have wrecked his life.
It’s disappointing to see Henriksen exit so fast but Martin Guigui’s film maintains a terrific cheap-and-nasty momentum. This is as close as we get nowadays to classic 1970s or ’80s B fare, complete with off-brand, endearing actors who throw themselves into this entertaining spin on superpowered high schoolers.
Rent or buy it on most major platforms.
Many of the greatest science-fiction movies camouflage allegorical messages with action-driven plots — looking at you, “Planet of the Apes.” And then there are films like “Mnemophrenia,” where what you see if what you get: a thoughtful discussion of the nature of memory and what makes us human. This may sound like a lecture stretched over the course of a feature, especially since the director, Eirini Konstantinidou, teaches film studies at the University of Essex. But “Mnemophrenia” achieves a delicate balance between ideas and relationships, and has a genuine warmth. The film is set in an all-too-relatable near-future where virtual reality has become so commonplace that it has rejiggered people’s sense of identity — the title refers to a (made up but credible) condition “characterized by the coexistence of real and artificial memories.”
For some characters, mnemophrenia is not a problem but “a new way of being,” another step in the long game of human evolution. Others are less taken with the inability to distinguish the real from the fake, the actual experience from the VR trip. They don’t find life in a perpetual holodeck particularly desirable, not to mention the possible neurological effects of the new “total cinema,” which replicates touch, taste and smell. At the heart of the movie is a tough question: Does it matter if something’s fake as long as it feels real?
Stream it on Shudder.
That this South African alien-possession movie is streaming on the horror platform Shudder is a good indication that it is not for the faint of heart. Just know that the extraterrestrial presence enters the body of Barry (Gary Green) through what looks like every possible orifice, and some newly carved ones as well. And that’s just the beginning.
Barry wasn’t the most wholesome vehicle through which to explore Earth: A heroin addict, this down-on-his-luck outsider doesn’t even get respite at home, where he constantly bickers with his wife, Suz (Chanelle de Jager), in a hysterical mix of English and Afrikaans. So maybe hosting a horrible tourist isn’t the worst thing that could have happened to him. The movie basically consists of a series of encounters as the newly empowered Barry, bulging eyes suggesting all is even less well than usual, teeters around town.
Ryan Kruger’s debut feature has a relentless gonzo vibe — be ready for drugs, sex and a revolting fast-forward pregnancy — that falls somewhere between the cinema of transgression of the 1980s and the outrageous world of the South African music duo Die Antwoord. It is so determined to be cult, it screams to be watched on VHS.
Rent or buy it on most major platforms.
Ray (Dean Imperial) is so desperate to make money to pay for the care of his sick brother that he signs up to work for CBLR, one of the big players in the exciting new world of “quantum cabling” — there’s even an industry expo, where employees can shop for accessories.
Quantum cabling and CBLR are terrifying in a familiar way: a new monopolistic industry that spouts “disrupting” platitudes (its slogan is “challenge your status quo”) while preventing those who don’t buy in from being fully functioning. This is even worse for employees, who must pay for the honor of working by buying a medallion, then are subjected to constant surveillance.
This all makes Noah Hutton’s movie sound terribly dark and ominous, but “Lapsis” is a gentle, often goofy satire, led by an endearing doofus who eventually finds the resistance in the person of fellow worker bee Anna (Madeline Wise). Make no mistake, though: the observations about technology’s ever-encroaching power and the gig economy’s exploitative streak land with an uncomfortable familiarity.
‘In the Earth’
Stream it on Hulu.
Admittedly, you might question whether the British director Ben Wheatley’s eco-mystical mind trip qualifies as science fiction. Written during lockdown and shot under Covid-19 restrictions, the film is set during a pandemic and makes references to isolation and successive waves of the disease. The premise is a little on the nose — we’re still living this and might not yet be ready for the docu-fiction version — but Wheatley quickly takes off in unexpected, and completely bizarre, directions. That his aim is to create a kind of freak-folk fairy tale is evident from its starting point: Alma (Ellora Torchia) guides Martin (Joel Fry), a scientist, into a mysterious forest straight out of the Brothers Grimm. He does not seem worried when she tells him about a spirit of the woods called Parnag Fegg. Soon, though, they realize the animals seem to have disappeared: “they sense something,” and in turn, we sense that this something is not good.
Wheatley adds to this framework with abandon, from scenes of body horror that would make a podiatrist cover his eyes to many directors’ favorite “I can’t think of anything else to do” trope — hallucinations. The movie overplays the cryptic card but remains absorbing for one simple reason: You never know what will come next.
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