- a review
Ellis Reed reviews 2020's Dune Drifter, a low budget sci-fi effort from writer/director, Mark Price...
It’s impossible to review a film by Marc Price without first reminding the reader of his début. Colin was the novel zombie film, shot from a zombie’s perspective, which he famously made for less than £50. To put that in context, £50 wouldn’t even buy you this limited edition Dawn of the Dead. Fans of the film include Martin Scorsese, who caught a screening in London and subsequently described it as “savage”. Since then, Price has turned his thrifty eye to black comedy (Magpie), action (Nightshooters) and even western (A Fistful of Lead).
This year, attendees of the October FrightFest saw the world premiere of his latest film: a lean sci-fi thriller called Dune Drifter, with the on-world scenes shot in Iceland. The story begins with a motley crew of military part-timers, deploying for the first time in their space fighters. The Star Wars-style dialogue—“Negative, Grey Leader!”—can’t disguise the fact that the reservists are, to varying degrees, all out of their depth. The mission is expected to be a walk in the park, so naturally, they emerge from hyperspace in the midst of a fierce space battle. Gunner Adler (Phoebe Sparrow) crash-lands with her gravely wounded pilot, changing the tone from exciting space opera to grim survival thriller.
Dune Drifter clearly had a much bigger budget than Colin, but it was still a feat of low budget filmmaking, as Price explained to The People’s Movies. “We had a budget this time,” he acknowledged, “but Dune Drifter was made in much the same way as Colin. We had to build a starfighter set in my living room. By the time Covid restrictions were in place we were deep in post, which meant everything was done in my bedroom again…”
Visually, with the possible exception of a CG star tunnel—which, to be honest, reminded me of Ecclestone-era Doctor Who—the film is a complete triumph. The cockpit scenes are a real joy, with grungy costumes and coloured lighting. The battle takes up the whole first act and is more than good enough to hold our interest. Once the story moves on-world, the volcanic plains of Iceland are a convincing stand-in for a hostile alien planet. The sound design also deserves high praise, with Adam Langston providing a brilliant score and George Davies doing the sound effects.
Like all the best low-budget films, Dune Drifter will leave you wondering why triple-A features cost so much to make. I definitely subscribe to the view that modern films look too much like video games. If you compare the trailer for Dune Drifter to the one for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I can’t deny that the latter has flair and charm—but the former is, to my eye at least, much more plausible as genuine footage of real events.
As far as the story goes, Dune Drifter is modest in its ambitions but still effective. Some viewers might find the ending anti-climactic because a couple of threads—and I won’t say which to avoid spoilers—aren’t as developed as they could have been. Movie conventions mean we expect some elements or themes to return for the final act, but they fall quietly by the wayside instead. Even so, Adler’s predicament held my interest throughout—especially (but not only) once she’s hatched a plan to get back into space. Crucially, Sparrow’s acting is first-rate, and she really makes the material shine. The fate of the pilot also makes for compelling viewing, largely thanks to a committed near-death performance by Daisy Aitkens.
When it comes to the willing suspension of disbelief, you have to meet the film halfway, but it’s very much typical of the genre in that regard. For instance: we get pew-pew! noises in the vacuum of space and some of the technology put me in mind of Hogwarts. When the fight scenes require it, getting shot by a laser is like being walloped by a cricket bat. These aren’t complaints but rather notes on genre, and the fantastical elements are no more egregious than a Star Wars. Ultimately, I found Dune Drifter more believable than most Hollywood blockbusters, magic tent notwithstanding.
Overall, Marc Price’s latest outing is a very solid package for sci-fi fans, combining great performances with pitch-perfect visuals and a small but satisfying story. By the end, my only complaint was a very trivial one: I didn’t understand why it was called Dune Drifter. That aside, it’s definitely worth a look if (and hopefully when) it turns up on your preferred streaming service. Recommended.
Dune Drifter is available to rent or buy via Amazon Prime now. You can watch a short behind the scenes documentary on the making of the film below…