Found footage found success in horror film, but is it really made for sci-fi?
Have you ever watched or listened to Joe Rogan's podcast with Bob Lazar, the physicist who used to work at S4, a top-secret site located near Area 51? The podcast itself is interesting even for people like me who aren't into UFOs or conspiracy theories. As this guy tells his story, I began to really wonder if he was telling the truth...and then documentarian Jeremy Corbell spoke and that all went away.
Rogan and Lazar have this very natural, subdued discussion about Lazar's purported experience, which made me kind of believe him. But then Corbell jumps in the mix with his over-the-top enthusiasm and wild claims and made me become an instant disbeliever. And if you watch his documentary about Bob Lazar, it'll remove you further.
That really got me thinking about sci-fi stories, whether they're told in a film, in a book, or on a podcast. The way we tell stories affects how our audiences experience them, and if our goal is to convince those audiences that what they're seeing, reading, or hearing is real—which often comes front and center when telling sci-fi stories—then employing certain techniques that help conceal the artifice is incredibly important.
Techniques like...found footage.
What is Found Footage?
Before we get too deep into this, let's quickly go over what found footage is.
Found footage is a subgenre that employs vérité cinematic techniques to create films that seem to depict "real" events. This includes shaky handheld camerawork, first-person POV shots, and naturalistic performances and dialogue from actors. As the name suggests, found footage films give the impression that the footage is exhibited just as it was found...raw, lightly or unedited, free of the polish and artifice of studio films.
The Resurgence of Found Footage
Found footage has a long history. The technique predates film and was used in literature and radio, like Orson Welles' 1938 radio play of "War of the Worlds" that caused a real panic among many listeners (the numbers of which are still debated about to this day). However, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is often considered the first, or at least the most notorious, found footage film, whose graphic depictions of brutality seemed so realistic that director Ruggero Deodato was charged with murder.
But found footage didn't find a foothold in contemporary cinema until The Blair Witch Project (1999), and though it wasn't the first film to use the technique, it was by far the most successful to have ever done so. But when its sequel, Book of Shadows, came out the following year, it didn't even come close to matching its predecessor's appeal or box office return, so the found footage genre slinked back into obscurity for several years.
Sure, a few found footage films would come out, mostly outside of the U.S., and find some success, but it wasn't until the release of REC (2007), a Spanish supernatural zombie flick, its American remake Quarantine (2008), and especially the massively successful Paranormal Activity (2007) franchise that the doors would be opened to a bevy of found footage horror projects.
It would seem that found footage found its home in the horror genre—I mean, that's kind of where its roots are planted, but what about sci-fi? Sci-fi and horror are pretty much cinematic cousins and often borrow and share common tropes, tropes that when given the found footage treatment—a vérité shooting style—get amplified and often become more effective.
Seeing a ghost in a movie is scary, but seeing a ghost in a home movie is scarier. So it stands to reason that the same applies to seeing an alien.
So, let's go over some of the moving pieces of found footage and how filmmakers have used them to make some of the most unique cinematic experiences in science fiction.
Found Footage in Sci-Fi
The sci-fi genre is massive, encompassing everything from Space Operas like Star Wars to Future Noirs like Blade Runner. However, the sci-fi subgenres that seems to translate the best to the found footage approach are classic "alien invasion" and "alien abduction" films.
When found footage had its resurgence in the late 2000s, it primarily was used in horror films, but that does mean sci-fi filmmakers didn't jump at the chance to get a piece of that sweet pie. Cloverfield (2008) was one sci-fi film in particular that employed the technique and went on to become a big hit. With a $25M budget, the film cost significantly more than higher-profile found footage horror films like The Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, which had a budget of $60K and $15K respectively, but it experienced that similar big return on investment at the box office, making over $170M worldwide.
District 9 (2009) also came out during this modern found footage resurgence but employed a slightly different approach than Cloverfield.
Instead of shooting a bunch of first-person POV queasy cam footage, director Neill Blomkamp turned his sci-fi film about stranded aliens forced to live like second-class citizens on Earth into a mockumentary, a subgenre that is closely related to found footage.
District 9's budget reached $30M, and not only went on to make nearly $211M at the box office but also received high praise from film critics worldwide.
Why Studios Like(d) Found Footage Sci-Fi
By the numbers, found footage films have given studios big bangs for their buck. Make a movie for as little as $15K or $20K, or even go as high as $20M or $30M, and they could stand to gain tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. If it tanks, well, they're not standing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. It's a comparatively small gamble.
And when it comes to the sci-fi genre, these found footage films are generally made for less and earn more on average. They're not an Avatar, Wall-E, Star Trek, or Transformers, mega-budget blockbusters that go on to make a billion dollars worldwide—they're smaller in scale, appeal, cost, and return, but they're often surefire...and even if they're not, they're not going to put anyone out of business.
In District 9's case, it wasn't the highest-grossing sci-fi film of 2009...not even close. Then again, this little film that cost $30M to make was up against Star Trek ($150M budget), Avatar ($237M budget), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($200M budget), and Terminator Salvation ($200M budget), but managed to make a higher return on its initial investment than all but one of these big tentpoles...Avatar, of course.
But what about non-found footage sci-fi? Well, those films tend to be more costly to make and aren't always pulling in big crowds with the novelty of found footage—granted, the novelty as all but worn off in recent years. These days, a sci-fi film would be lucky to make back even most of its money. Take a look at this graph by Stephen Follows:
Despite being the second-costliest film genre, sci-fi is barely able to break even on domestic box office sales. (Which basically means that studios rely more and more on international sales to make these and many other films profitable, but that's another rabbit hole.) However, sci-fi also comes in second for highest domestic box office gross, meaning that there is a huge audience out there waiting to buy tickets to a sci-fi flick.
And since sci-fi and horror are cousins (remember?), employing the low-cost cinematic techniques used in the horror genre might be a wise move for studios looking to take advantage of horror's unique profitability.
Why Audiences Like(d) Found Footage Sci-Fi
So, what's the appeal of found footage films? Why does it work?
The Spectacle of Sci-Fi
We are used to seeing the grandeur of space travel and extraterrestrial life in film. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, and Independence Day work to inspire awe in their audiences through elaborate spaceships with bright, flashing lights, epic space battles with impossible explosions, or shocking images of our most beloved monuments getting obliterated with a friggin' death ray.
You see this in countless "alien invasion" movies, including our big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, like Transformers and The Avengers.
But then there's Signs, which was a decent sci-fi movie but an even better family drama. Throughout the film, you grieve for Mel Gibson (you could do that back in 2002) and his children as they try to make things work on the farm after the death of his wife. Oh yeah, and then aliens come and try to get 'em. (The threat of an alien invasion is really a subplot in this family's story of redemption.)
The cinematic approach is pretty traditional in Signs, and audience reactions to it were pretty standard...you know...you laugh, you cry, you get scared, whatever...except in one scene.
Do you remember when everybody lost their collective shit when they first saw the "birthday party" scene? I certainly do because I lost my shit, too. All of a sudden, Signs became a real winner in my book...I mean, I liked it before I saw the alien on the news, but it immediately became a film I'd remember forever.
The Anti-Spectacle of Found Footage
There are a lot of adjectives I could use to describe the "home movie" aesthetic...none of which would be "spectacular". They're amateurish, even dull, aesthetically unmotivated, and yeah, super shaky and at times nauseating. But that's not the draw. As a technique, found footage takes advantage of the very thing that makes home movies and news footage and documentaries appeal to us: a very palpable sense of "being there."
The "realness" of amateur video is what makes people flock to "real" smartphone footage of UFO sightings and docs about Bob Lazar working on flying saucers at S4. Even if we know it's not really "real", it feels real. The shaky handheld camerawork and seemingly improvised dialogue sell the illusion that what we're seeing is an unspectacular capture of a spectacular event that actually happened.
As moviegoers, we know the artifice of moviemaking, but we willingly suspend our disbelief to be entertained. Found footage sci-fi films work to make us suspend less and believe more.
If they succeed, you're there in a theater being convinced by the anti-spectacle of the found footage technique so you can be dazzled by the spectacle of alien invasions and UFOs.
And since the appeal of UFOs and extraterrestrials hinges entirely on people believing in them, much like the appeal of ghosts and demons, then sci-fi truly found something special in the heyday of found footage.