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The final frontier, on a shoestring

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Star Wars is coming, as a rushing stream of hype informs us. Though this permutation is geared toward 21st-century videogame tastes, the reappearance of Darth Vader brings with it a nostalgic whiff of the series' 1977 debut, when it inspired the imaginations of a generation now in their 20s and 30s.

Those kids have grown to filmmaking age, and it comes as no surprise that many of them are still besotted with interplanetary adventure and other sci-fi joys. What's nice to see is that some members of the post-Lucas generation have also embraced the more adventurous aesthetics of non-genre independent cinema. Even when the end result isn't a complete success, many of the homespun space operas hold the promise of new voices.

Take the goofy The American Astronaut (Facets), a rock 'n' roll musical in which the dingy proletariat space drudgery of Alien meets the look of Eraserhead. Most everything about it is silly, and the story's a challenge to sit through, but its look is something to see: a high-contrast, black-and-white world in which special effects and spaceship set design are handled with shoestring aplomb.

Transfer that aesthetic chutzpah from visuals to narrative mechanics and you get Primer (New Line), in which Texas filmmaker Shane Carruth envisions a couple of corporate drones straight out of Office Space discovering the secret of time travel. One garage, two actors, and a couple of sheet-metal boxes carry the bulk of the storytelling weight here, and while the plot's details are impossible to follow, the drama plays out with a seriousness that almost keeps this Twilight Zone-ish story afloat.

Primer and Astronaut both star the men who wrote and directed them (all us Star Wars kids dreamed of inventing fantastic stories and then living them out onscreen), and so does the mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness (20th Century Fox). Made by a young guy who has already made it in Hollywood (X-Men 2 cowriter Zak Penn), it pretends that legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog has set out to make a doc about Nessie. Penn's character, who is producing Herzog's movie, has some very un-Herzog ideas about how to spice it up, but it turns out the famed lake has its own surprises in store. All the self-referential intrigue gets a bit tiresome eventually, but for an hour or so it's hilarious for any fan of Germany's maverick auteur.

Arguably the kickoff of this wave of indie science fiction, Donnie Darko (20th Century Fox) has just arrived in the "Director's Cut" form that recently played theaters. The differences between this and the originally released version may not leap out at the casual viewer, but the strange mechanics of Richard Kelly's time-travel philosophy make more sense here, even as the movie's hallucinatory side grows trippier.

Donnie was the rare cult film to get not one but two theatrical releases (albeit brief ones). Omar Naïm's The Final Cut (Lions Gate) hardly received one at all. (The studio swears it played in theaters, but it certainly never did around here.) Robin Williams, continuing his trek through small, challenging movie roles, plays a man who edits the movie of your life when you die; here, he stumbles across a secret that can't be left on the editing room floor.

Other, more arthouse-leaning titles also boast casts with something approaching Williams' marquee value. P.S. (Sony Pictures) offers Laura Linney as a woman who believes that her high-school boyfriend has been reincarnated as a kid (Topher Grace of That '70s Show) young enough to be her son. Time of the Wolf (Palm) transplants French star Isabelle Huppert into a post-apocalyptic scenario rooted in the real world, where society's accepted laws start to give way as the survival instinct takes hold. And the coldly captivating Code 46 (MGM) offers Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton as star-crossed lovers in a world owing much to Blade Runner. Directed by British genre-hopper Michael Winterbottom, Code 46 played a year ago at SXSW but never received the distribution it deserves; its vision of the future is compelling and believable - and, as in the best science fiction, the movie's imaginative vision is bolstered by human drama.

Finally, a blast from the past that, for an English filmmaker like Winterbottom, could have been as influential as Star Wars. A&E Television has just released Quatermass, a television miniseries in which Oscar-winner John Mills plays a rocket scientist called out of retirement to save the world. Boasting the same modest production values as, say, Dr. Who, it may at this point have more in common with Primer and its kin than the slickly bloated Star Wars franchise ever will again.

By John DeFore


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