Time Travel on a Budget

Why indie sci-fi loves to go back in time.

Lais Borges/Inverse; Armian Pictures; Getty
The Indie Issue

When Jared Moshe’s son was born, he suddenly found himself thinking about time travel.

"I was thrust into a world that seemed scarier and unstable,” Mosh tells Inverse. “I wanted to control everything. So, being a filmmaker, I decided to explore those feelings through my work. I’d had the idea for a ‘gun that murders people in the past’ for a while, and it always just seemed too big and broad. Then, I realized I could use that sci-fi hook as a way into the story I wanted to tell about parenthood."

That idea evolved into Aporia, a 2023 sci-fi drama about Sophie (Judy Greer), a widow struggling with grief after her husband Malcolm was killed by a drunk driver. Overwhelmed by depression, Sophie’s relationship with her daughter Riley suffers. But then, Malcolm’s best friend reveals he created a machine capable of sending a subatomic particle through time. With the right data, they can send that particle to a specific moment in time and have it kill any living being who makes contact with it. Sophie is offered the chance to use the machine to kill the man responsible for Malcolm's death, but messing with the past has dark consequences for the present.

Aporia is part of a minor phenomenon in sci-fi: the indie time-travel movie. Films like Aporia, Zal Batmanglij’s The Sound of My Voice (made on a $135,000 budget), Shane Carruth’s Primer (just $7,000), and the Spierig brothers’ Predestination ($5 million) reveal how time-travel tropes can function outside a well-funded studio picture. While there’s no shortage of blockbuster time-travel epics (from the many adaptations of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine to Marvel’s $356 million epic crossover Avengers: Endgame), it’s in independent cinema, often headed by scrappy filmmakers working with tiny budgets, where the most ambitious and daring examples of the genre lie.

Time Trap

Much of the 2017 micro-budget movie Time Trap takes place inside a cave.

Pad Thai Pictures

For Ben Foster, co-director of the 2017 film Time Trap, time travel was a way to make "full use of the medium" of cinema while still adhering to a limited budget.

In the movie, a group of archaeology students searching for their missing professor stumble into a mysterious cave where the laws of time do not apply. Hours, days, and even months pass by in mere minutes, while creatures that shouldn’t exist hide in the shadows. In this cramped space, centuries of time have distorted into one moment. The outside world sees decades pass while the students can only watch in horror. When the group finally emerges, they find themselves in a bizarre and dangerous future. It’s essentially a locked-room mystery where one cramped space becomes the epicenter of all of time.

“If it could be pulled off in 1985, it was well within our resources when we made the movie in 2015.”

Like Aporia, there’s also a family drama at the heart of Time Trap. Hopper, the students' professor, is searching for his missing family, who were on the hunt for the mythical Fountain of Youth among the caves.

“The power is in the tragedy of a father and daughter being pushed further and further apart as their times dilate,” Foster tells Inverse. “At the end of the film, she hasn’t seen her father for 80 years, but for him it was maybe one. This movie forces an audience to think about what love is in a way no other story can."

Time Trap’s budgetary limitations encouraged Foster and his co-director Mark Dennis to get creative. They used a cave on a friend's property near Austin and mixed miniature work and greenscreen CGI to create the natural place where the distinctly unnatural happens. They were able to blend the past, present, and future through old-school effects, with the cave becoming a battleground of sorts for cavemen, conquistadors, and spacemen before a climax that ends with the survivors pulled through a portal to a space station.

“We adopted the mentality that if it could be pulled off in 1985, it was well within our resources when we made the movie in 2015,” Foster says.

Often, the subtlest of changes reveal the biggest impacts of time travel on-screen. In Time Trap, the sun rises and sets over the roof of the cave so quickly that it resembles the flickering of a street map, showing the horrifying passage of years at a time in mere seconds.

Following the rules

In Aporia, Payman Maadi plays a physicist who invents a machine that can change the past.

Well Go USA Entertainment

With Aporia, Moshe had "always envisioned being able to make this film on a limited budget," a process he found "both inspiring and frustrating." He and his crew only had 17 days to shoot 103 pages so they worked as quickly and efficiently as possible. He shot Aporia at a friend's house to save money while making “dozens of little changes” to that house — a cost-saving measure that managed to convey the subtle but unsettling changes made by the machine’s use ("Different art. A reorganized kitchen. Just enough to keep Sophie off balance.")

The device itself, a clutter of metal, gears, and wires that looks more like a rickety bomb than a time machine, was inspired by both the low budget of the film and the limited resources of the characters.

“Make something that is based on a particle accelerator and looks like a fire hazard.”

“I wanted it to feel like it was built by people without resources who had to scrape together scavenged machine parts and old computers to make this thing a reality,” Moshe says. “My direction to my production designer consisted of: Make something that is based on a particle accelerator and looks like a fire hazard. It should feel like every time you turn it on, it's more likely to burn down the building than actually work."

The rules of the machine were also rigid, as demanded by both narrative and budget. The more he enforced the rules, the less likely Moshe and his team would be tempted to stray from their plans and inadvertently spend more money. Ultimately, this improved the story by keeping the emotional focus on Sophie.

"When I crafted the story I set clear rules for the machine,” Moshe says. “Rule #1: The Machine can only kill. Rule #2: The changes are permanent. You can’t unkill. Rule #3: Once you use the Machine, you remember the original timeline, not the new one. To me that third rule was important to my story, because it created a division between our characters beyond just the morality of using the machine."

Immense Flexibility

Primer was filmed on a budget of $7,000 with the goal of making the most realistic time-travel movie ever.


From The Time Machine to Dune to Everything Everywhere All at Once, the greatest science fiction stories are fundamentally about humanity and the ways that we change (or don’t) when the world evolves beyond our understanding. And if sci-fi is a conduit for exploring the very real concerns of our everyday lives, then time travel is a metaphor of immense flexibility with which to dissect the ways we live in the here and now.

But while blockbusters use dazzling special effects and stunning locales to convey these heady concepts, indie films understand that the biggest changes happen within us. From Shane Carruth’s Primer with its admirable dedication to detail over audience accessibility, to The Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling's claustrophobic drama cult whose leader claims to come from a broken future, these movies get to the heart of why time travel is so captivating.

In The Endless, two brothers return to the UFO cult they escaped from as children.

Well Go USA Entertainment

But perhaps the best example is the work of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the duo behind a recent string of indie sci-fi hits exploring the perils of time travel. Their movie The Endless follows a pair of brothers who return to the UFO cult they grew up in and escaped from as kids. There, they encounter several people stuck in time loops, many of them experiencing their own violent deaths on repeat. Their 2019 follow-up, Synchronic, expands this theme with the discovery of a new designer drug that causes people to stumble back in time, including a scene where Anthony Mackie's protagonist spirals through violent encounters with the KKK and other historical threats.

As for Aporia, stripped down to its beating heart, Jared Moshe’s film is about how grief is inescapable and will come for us all.

Sophie’s desires to shed her mourning are so potent that she is willing to inflict them upon someone else. It’s a conundrum many of us who have lost a loved one have considered. This is what the film explores far more than the intricacies of a time machine, and it’s all the more compelling for that.

"Sci-fi gives us the incredible opportunity to use the fantastic as a window into the human condition,” Moshe says. “For me, it was really important to keep the science fiction intimate and grounded so the stakes stayed personal to our characters. We, as people, are a collection of memories. And if those memories don't align, how can we connect with the people we love?"

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