When you hear the term "indie sci-fi", movies like Primer are what usually come to mind - without the money for the expansive sets and mind-blowing effects that are (somewhat unfortunately) now tied to the sci-fi genre, these films have to rely on actual science-fiction concepts and lo-fi ways of delivering their story. And that's why Primer's time travel machine is a storage unit instead of an impressive ship or machine, because the story itself is the draw for the audience, not the visual prowess. Attempting something grander on a tiny budget will usually get you ridiculed by Michael J. Nelson and a pair of talking robots (see, if you must, Space Mutiny), and nowadays movies like Manborg eliminate the need for MST3k type mockery by being ironic about the whole thing in the first place.
However, the admirably goofy-titled Science Fiction Volume One: The Osiris Child proves to be an exception to that rule. Granted you'd never mistake it for Star Wars, but the effects - flying ships, futuristic cities, Minority Report-style holographic displays - are all well done, and the film even offers a group of rampaging oversized mutants (practical ones at that!) for good measure. Add in a few recognizable faces like Kellan Lutz and Rachel Griffiths, and you have something that falls somewhere between Serenity and a Syfy Original Movie, which might sound like a bit of an insult but I mean it as a compliment. I was prepared for something like Manborg's overstylized, intentionally fake looking aesthetic, and the title wasn't exactly screaming "Take us seriously!", but walked away genuinely impressed by how professional it all looked.
The story is a hodgepodge of elements you've seen in other movies, but that's hardly a surprise in this genre and wasn't a detriment at all. In the future, other, smaller planets are being terrformed and our hero Kane (Daniel MacPherson) is on a week-long mission on one such development. He works for a big corporation (Exor) that regular schmoes don't think too highly of, and for good reason - as corporations in movies like this often do, they're secretly working on a weapon/virus thing that has gone awry and put millions of lives in danger. Ground zero for this disaster is a prison, so no one's too concerned with those casualties, but the monsters (which are actually mutated from the prisoners themselves) are making their way toward the planet's big city - where Kane's daughter is waiting for him to come back. Exor is run by Griffiths' character, and she orders a core meltdown to wipe out the threat but really/more importantly destroy any evidence that she was at fault in the first place - not really caring about the city's residents who will become collateral damage. So Kane becomes her target when he escapes the Exor "flotilla" (a giant city in the sky - very Elysium-y) in order to land near the city and rescue his daughter, aided by Cy (Lutz), a prisoner who escaped before being turned into a mutant like his fellow prisoners, and a couple of tweaked-out lovers who lend a hand.
The momentum of the plot - racing to save the daughter AND racing to get to safety before Exor destroys everything we've seen so far - keeps the rough edges from being too much of an issue. A lot of the bigger events are heard but not seen, which can be frustrating, but the film offers enough action to balance it out; there's a pretty great chase sequence in the third act, and a fun prison riot reminiscent of Face/Off's. But what I really appreciated were the cool little details that didn't break the budget but were "IN THE FUTURE!" enough to show a real effort to fully realize the world. Kane's coffee machine can add in the cream and sugar for him if he asks (no buttons!), large amounts of money can be transfered by bumping devices the same way you can tap an iPhone to get someone's number, etc. The prison was also interesting; the solitary confinement cells are spinning tunnels that keep them from ever being able to actually rest, and the overall look reminded me of the underrated Fortress (another future movie that didn't have the money to waste on overblown spectacle). It's a fine way to remind us that you can create a world that's not like ours without having to show giant crazy cities every five minutes and constantly have spaceships and robots passing by in the background (hilariously, Phantom Menace was on TNT right before the film premiered at Fantastic Fest - a firm reminder of how awry these things can go when the filmmakers have too much money at their disposal).
I also appreciated how easily everyone got along for a change - Kane and Cy are at odds for all of nine seconds before becoming a real buddy pair, and the two methheads who help them out are also thankfully not just out for themselves. Even a couple of wacky gunrunners they meet up with are pretty much OK guys - it's nice to see something like this where everyone seems to understand the bigger threat is far more pressing than any personality conflicts. When someone dies during the rescue mission, the others still help Kane even though they just met him, rather than launch into an "every man for themselves!" kind of scenario.
The film's non-chronological structure wasn't always as successful, however. Director Shane Abbess explained in the post-film Q&A that where he was in Australia, he wouldn't get comics like Judge Dredd in order - he'd get issue 9, then find issue 4 somewhere, and then #6 would turn up... etc. This resulted in him making up the gaps on his own and learning the story out of order, something he tried to recreate here. Sometimes it works - it was interesting learning at the very end what exactly Cy did to end up in prison, but other times it's less beneficial, like when they show part of a meeting with Griffiths' character and then cut back to it (showing part of it over again) a few minutes later to show what else she said once we learn it was all a lie. The film is broken up into seven chapters, some are entirely flashback and others are split between past and present - perhaps it was just because I was drained by the festival but I often had to mentally sort out when/where we were in the narrative whenever time would shift again.
The Q&A also offered me the rare instance where I wish an audience member asked the filmmakers their budget, because I would love to know how far they stretched their dollar. Director Shane Abbess' previous film only cost $800k, and he made this one with many of the same people and, per his admission, completely independently, so I have to assume it was in the same ballpark. But what's important is that whatever he had, it's all on-screen; he opted for quality over quantity, so even if we don't see spaceships and the like every five minutes, at least they look good when they do appear. The non-chronological story weakens its overall impact a bit, but when my main complaint about an independent sci-fi film of this nature is a few screenwriting choices, it's quite clear that Abbess has done terrific work here, and here's hoping the seeming promise of a second installment (or more?) will see realization.