Cinema's Coolest Sci-Fi Universe Is Quietly Giving Marvel A Run For Its Money

Over the last decade or so, Marvel has had a knack for snagging independent filmmakers with a lot of buzz, critical acclaim, and innovative creative voices to join their stable. Before James Gunn was at the helm of the "Guardians of the Galaxy" trilogy (which led to his new position as the head of rival cape company, DC), he was the guy who got his start writing "Tromeo and Juliet" for Lloyd Kaufman. And he's not alone. Scott Derrickson, Jon Watts, Taika Waititi, Cate Shoreland, Destin Daniel Cretton, Chloé Zhao, Nia DaCosta, and so many others were still stars on the rise when Marvel came calling.

Fan reactions are typically divided with one camp worried this marks the end of their independent visions in favor of corporate-driven storytelling, while others are thrilled to see directors they love getting one hell of a paycheck. Theoretically, this should give them the creative freedom to make whatever film they want next, like the director's version of what Daniel Radcliffe has been doing post-"Harry Potter." There's no right or wrong track for a post-Marvel paycheck for anyone, but it's undeniable that "Moon Knight" and "Loki" season 2 directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have never, ever lost sight of what put them on Marvel's radar in the first place.

Benson and Moorhead are two-thirds of the production company Rustic Films alongside David Lawson Jr. The trio's debut film, "Resolution," was an indie favorite in 2012, and the start of their company's low-budget, science-fiction cinematic universe. Benson and Moorhead helm the majority of films to come out of Rustic's camp, but have been joined by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella's "After Midnight" and Amy Seimetz's breathtaking "She Dies Tomorrow."

I recently had the opportunity to catch their latest production, Michael Felker's "Things Will Be Different" at the Overlook Film Festival, and it further solidified that when it comes to a connected sci-fi universe, Rustic Films is giving Marvel a run for its money.

An emphasis on heady, intimate science-fiction

"Things Will Be Different" is Felker's feature directorial debut, having served as the co-editor on Benson/Moorhead's films for the last decade. Now, I'll be transparent in saying that my career has provided me the opportunity to meet the Rustic Films team on a personal level, but at my core, I'm still the 24-year-old genre fangirl with a blog who cried in the theater the first time she saw their film "Spring." This is to say, I'm acutely aware of Felker's style as an editor, successfully weaving the deep lore and twisty science "rules" of each individual film into a coherent tapestry of brilliance. In "Things Will Be Different," Felker writes, directs, produces, and edits his debut, about two estranged siblings (a phenomenal two-hander for Adam David Thompson and Riley Dandy) seeking refuge in a farmhouse that exists in a fluctuating timeline outside of our own.

The overwhelming majority of the film takes place in the farmhouse and accompanying land, echoing the lo-fi, DIY-or-die sensibilities of prior Rustic Films productions like "Resolution," "After Midnight," and 2022's COVID-filmed "Something in the Dirt." These comparisons are easy to make and certainly help crystalize why Felker has been their go-to co-editor for so many years, but "Things Will Be Different" establishes his directorial voice with a scream. Underneath time-traveling mysteries, disembodied voices providing directions, and a litany of intentionally unanswered questions is an emotionally charged look at the strained bond between siblings. Time travel is the vehicle Felker uses to tell an incredibly human story about regret and reparation, electing to present a stripped-down approach to the subgenre that ensures the audience cares far more about the people at the center rather than getting distracted with thoughts about how they'll make some high-tech gadget for their next Halloween costume.

The Rustic touch

Is there such a thing as an auteur production company? Because despite the various directors who have worked underneath this banner, the Rustic touch is unmistakable. Benson/Moorhead/Lawson Jr.'s involvement alone makes each film feel like they're all connected — even if they're not. While multi-billion dollar corporations are fixated on making characters and plotlines all blend into one sprawling narrative, Rustic Films' cinematic universe is prioritizing themes, perspective, and thought-provoking stories.

We at /News have written before about how Benson and Moorhead incorporated their indie horror and sci-fi style into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we've yet to discuss how Rustic Films has been making their own sci-fi universe since the very beginning. There's a cruel irony to how often David Lawson Jr. is left out of the "produced by Marvel directors" buzzy headlines that surround their company's movies, considering they sell "Smiling Dave" merch, a reference to his namesake UFO cult member that appears throughout the company filmography. Lawson Jr. and Moorhead also appear in "Things Will Be Different," but don't let the crisp, white-collared shirts fool you — these are not their characters from previous films. Instead, Felker elected to use the identifiable costuming in a new way, to present the familiar faces as members of an entirely different organization.

Some could argue (and I'm sure some fellow film nerd out there with more time than I absolutely will) that this is a sign of a multiverse. But perhaps it's just the company making good on its motto of making movies with friends.