Summer camp can be challenging enough for an awkward 13-year-old nerdy kid without aliens invading and turning the surrounding region into a war zone. That’s the premise of Rim of the World, a fresh and fun original film from Netflix, written by screenwriter Zack Stentz (Thor, X-Men: First Class) and directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation). It’s pretty much perfect summer fare, the kind of kid-centric action/adventure that used to bring audiences flocking to theaters in the 1980s. Stentz sat down to chat with 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 misfit kids from very different backgrounds meet at a summer adventure camp in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains. Then aliens invade and Alex (Jack Gore), ZhenZhen (Miya Cech), Dariush (Benjamin Flores, Jr.) and Gabriel (Alessio Scalzotto) find themselves stranded alone in the woods when they miss the evacuation. An astronaut from the International Space Station crash-lands near the camp while the four are out hiking. She knows the location of the alien mother ship and gives the kids a flash drive with that data, asking them with her dying breath to take it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. It’s Earth’s best hope to beat back the invasion—but the lab is 70 miles away, so the foursome must use their wits to make it there in time.
While Rim of the World is much in the same spirit as the Netflix blockbuster hit Stranger Things, Stentz says he first wrote the script before the Duffer brothers launched their retro series. If anything, his film has more in common with 1980s fare like ET, The Goonies, and Stand by Me. (There are plenty of sly nods to those films in Rim of the World, because our four young heroes are naturally highly media savvy.) “Those were the movies I grew up on, and I wanted kids my own kids’ age to have their version of that, not as a period piece, but with contemporary kids,” he said. His agent initially told him there wasn’t a market for such a film—and then the resounding success of Stranger Things changed the industry’s mind.
“These kids realize they’re a lot braver and smarter and more capable than they thought.”
The challenge with the contemporary setting is that parenting is quite a bit more hands-on in this age of helicopter parenting. So Stentz needed a scenario where today’s highly monitored kids would suddenly find those constraints removed. “I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to take modern kids and put them in a situation where they don’t have their smart phones, they don’t have GPS to help them find their way everywhere,” he said. “They don’t have adults telling them what to do all the time. That ended up being the theme of the movie: these kids realize they’re a lot braver and 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 located on Rim of the World highway—hence the film’s title. It proved to be the perfect place to cut his young protagonists off from civilization and force them to band together to make their own way from the camp, through the Inland Empire, to Pasadena.
A good chunk of the film takes place at JPL, but they weren’t able to shoot at the real JPL. So McG had his crew build a mock-up of the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF) in a Pomona gym, augmented by scenes filmed at the Los Angeles Center Studios, which boasts the same mid-century architectural style. And Stentz borrowed a bit of actual Cold War space history for his tale: Project Excalibur, a Cold War era 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,” said Stentz. “I hypothesize, what if they actually built a prototype and sent it into space disguised as something else, and it’s been up there for 30 years and the military is vaguely embarrassed about it. So when the aliens invade, there actually is a ‘space laser’ that could shoot down the alien fleet.”
Netflix and other streaming services have been increasingly dipping their toe in producing original films as well as original series, filling in the gap left by the major studios as they have shifted 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. He and McG didn’t have a big summer movie budget, however, so they had to get creative with their special effects, especially when depicting the alien creatures and spacecraft. Stentz’s considerable television experience (Fringe, The Flash, The Sarah Connor Chronicles) came in handy on that score, since he’s accustomed to only having a few million dollars per episode.
“Eighty percent of the movie is the four kids talking, riding bikes, driving a [jacked] car, and so on,” he said. They saved most of their budget for the few big action sequences. “We flipped a Humvee onto a school bus and had an explosion so big, we did $ 30,000 worth of damage to Universal Studios’ back lot by blowing out the windows,” he added. “So we went big, but we went big in small pops.”
About that vintage car the kids commandeer for their journey: it was originally supposed to be a 1974 Pontiac Firebird, which fans of 1970s TV will recognize as the model Jim Rockford drove on The Rockford Files. “But it turns out there simply aren’t enough of those left to trash any of them,” said Stentz. (Filming can be rough on cars.) There are plenty of old 1973 Ford Mach 1 Mustangs, however, so that’s the car they used. “McG said, ‘A part of you feels bad doing this. They don’t make these anymore and we’re destroying one. But at least it’s giving its life up for art.'”
Rim of the World premiered on May 24, and is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix