Summer camp can be challenging enough for a clumsy 13-year-old nerdy boy without aliens invading and turning the surrounding region into a war zone. That is the premise of Edge of the worlda fresh and fun Netflix original film written by screenwriter Zack Stentz (Thor, X-Men: First Class) and directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation† It’s pretty much the perfect summer fare, the kid-centric kind of action/adventure that drew audiences to theaters in the 1980s. Stentz sat down to talk to Ars about his inspirations and how he and McG successfully brought the story to the screen on a relatively modest budget.
(Some spoilers below.)
In the film, four misfits from very different backgrounds meet at a summer adventure camp in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. Then aliens invade and Alex (Jack Gore), ZhenZhen (Miya Cech), Dariush (Benjamin Flores, Jr.), and Gabriel (Alessio Scalzotto) are stranded alone in the woods when they miss the evacuation. An astronaut from the International Space Station makes an emergency landing near the camp while the four are hiking. Knowing the location of the alien mothership, she gives the kids a flash drive with that data and, with her dying breath, asks them to take it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Repelling the invasion is Earth’s best hope, but the lab is 70 miles away, so the foursome must use their wits to get there in time.
While Edge of the world is much in the same vein as the Netflix blockbuster hit Weird stuffStentz says he first wrote the script before the Duffer brothers launched their retro series. In any case, his film has more in common with 80s fare such as: ET† The Gooniesand Stay with me. (There are plenty of sly winks to those movies in Edge of the worldbecause our four young heroes are naturally very media savvy.) “Those were the movies I grew up in, and I wanted kids my own age to have their version of that, not as a historical piece, but with contemporary kids,” he said. His agent initially told him there was no market for such a film – and then the roaring success of… Weird stuff the industry changed its mind.
“These kids are realizing that they’re a lot braver and smarter and more capable than they thought.”
The challenge with today’s setting is that parenting is a lot more practical in this age of helicopter education. So Stentz needed a scenario where today’s tightly controlled kids would suddenly remove those restrictions. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to take modern kids into a situation where they don’t have their smartphones, they don’t have GPS to help them find their way around,” he said. “There aren’t adults telling them what to do all the time. That eventually became the theme of the movie: these kids are realizing that they’re a lot braver, smarter and more capable than they thought.”
The best place to create that scenario was summer camp. Stentz’s own children have attended adventure camps in the San Bernardino Mountains, one of which is on the Rim of the World highway – hence the film’s title. It proved to be the perfect place to cut off its young protagonists from civilization and force them to work together to make their own way from the camp, through the Inland Empire, to Pasadena.
Much of the film is set at JPL, but they couldn’t film at the real JPL. So McG had his crew build a mock-up of the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) at a gym in Pomona, complemented by scenes filmed at the Los Angeles Center Studios, which feature the same mid-century architectural style. And Stentz borrowed a bit of current Cold War space history for his story: Project Excalibur, a Cold War program to develop fusion-pumped X-ray lasers for ballistic missile defense.
“It was Edward Teller’s baby, and in reality Project Excalibur was never built,” Stentz says. “I suppose what if they actually built a prototype and sent it into space disguised as something else, and it’s been there for 30 years and the military is vaguely ashamed of it. So when the aliens invade, there’s actually a ‘space laser’ that could shoot down the alien fleet.”
Netflix and other streaming services have increasingly gone out of their way to produce original movies and original series, filling the gap left by the major studios as they shifted their focus to mega-blockbuster franchises. “If [Rim of the World] came out in 1986, it would have been a big summer studio movie,” said Stentz. However, he and McG didn’t have a big budget for the summer movie, so they had to get creative with their special effects, especially when portraying the aliens and spacecraft. Stentz ‘ significant television experience (Fringe, The Flash, The Sarah Connor Chronicles) came in handy, as he’s used to only having a few million dollars per episode.
“Eighty percent of the film are the four children talking, cycling, driving” [jacked] car, and so on,” he said. They saved most of their budget for the few big action scenes. “We threw a Humvee on a school bus and had an explosion so big we caused $30,000 in damage to the back of Universal studio. a lot by blowing out the windows,” he added. “So we went big, but we got big in little pops.”
About that vintage car the kids claim for their trip: It was originally conceived as a 1974 Pontiac Firebird, which fans of 1970s TV will recognize as the model Jim Rockford drove The Rockford Files† “But it turns out there just aren’t enough left to destroy them,” Stentz says. (Movies can be tough on cars.) There are plenty of old 1973 Ford Mach 1 Mustangs out there, though, so that’s the car they used. “McG said, ‘Part of you feels bad doing this. They don’t make these anymore and we destroy one. But at least it’s giving up its life for art.'”
Edge of the world premiered on May 24 and is now streaming on Netflix.
List image by Netflix