As the sun rose on the first day of 2013, a landscape of sci-fi Nirvana lay before us. The dawn of the new year promised us a plethora of big-budget sci-fi films that were going to give their comic book movie counterparts a run for their box office money. After Earth, Oblivion, Pacific Rim and Elysium had us dreaming of spectacle and star power, but what began with such promise ended with a whimper.
The numbers speak for themselves.
The four movies had a combined production budget of $555 million yet only managed to bring in $317 million at the domestic box office. You don't need to be an accountant to know that those figures are really not what the studios had in mind. So what went wrong? Why did the domination of the domestic box office fail to materialize and why, like the dimming embers of a dying star, did the Year of Sci-Fi collapse in on itself?
Your reputation precedes you
Looking at these movies individually, there's a case to be made that some of them were dead in the water before they even arrived. Many people failed to see the point of Pacific Rim, which looked to some as nothing more than an expensive Transformers knockoff (how wrong they were). After Earth had a very different problem, namely the man sat in the director's chair. Not even 's star power and box office pull could combat the stink that surrounds writer/director at the moment. His name is so toxic that it wasn't included on any of the posters or promotional material, yet that still wasn't enough to stop the movie crawling to a disappointing $27 million on its opening weekend and in the process stripping Smith of the title of undisputed king of the summer blockbuster.
Nicely done Night.
and had enough gravitational pull to give both Oblivion and Elysium solid opening weekends, but their star power alone was unable to sustain that success. This leads us into the next point...
We don't need no education
If there's one thing that After Earth, Oblivion, Pacific Rim and Elysium all had in common, it's that the planet we call home was on the receiving end of some rough treatment. Whether it be inter-dimensional Kaiju destroying cities or Earth becoming a barren wasteland after an alien war, our beautiful and delicate planet took a savage beating. Perhaps audiences have had enough of seeing our habitable rock get destroyed.
There's a case to be made that we are living in a cultural epoch that is not conducive to sci-fi. The news is dominated by stories of economic hardship, wars in distant lands and the clear and present danger of overpopulation, global warming and ever-dwindling natural resources. At times it's a grim place out there. Do audiences really need to see it made manifest in our movies as well?
It wasn't just planetary destruction that was the hot topic in this years sci-fi blockbusters. Elysium was a social comment on the growing divide between the haves and have nots, which, depending on your political viewpoint, meant that the movie was either a socialist attack on the Right by liberal Hollywood, or a fair reflection of a society that is becoming more fractured and opposed.
Then there was the suggestion that After Earth was an exercise in Scientology propaganda that acted as a thinly veiled exposition of the church's dogma. Whether that accusation holds water or not, I think the question that needs to asked is, in these straightened times are moviegoers more in need of escapism as opposed to a two hour lecture on why we are all terrible people?
Sequels are sadly sexy
The most troubling aspect of the summer of sci-fi flops is that they were all original ideas. None of the movies in question were a sequel, part of a franchise or based off well-known source material. This must be really worrying for anybody that craves more originality from their big-budget blockbusters. We all bitch and moan when the movie schedule is dominated by sequels, reboots or remakes, but when something original does get made we don't pay money to go and see it. By not investing in original content we are all complicit in Hollywood's desire to make movies based on established franchises and characters. Why should a studio green light an expensive, and ultimately risky project, like Elysium or Pacific Rim when the margin for failure is too high? It's worth noting that by far and away the most successful sci-fi movie of this year was Star Trek Into Darkness which is a sequel of a rebooted franchise. The movie managed to gross $227 million at the domestic box office, which is over two-thirds of the total gross of After Earth, Oblivion, Elysium and Pacific Rim.
That's a worrying statistic indeed.
The blockbuster black hole
There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.
This brings us to our final point. Perhaps the sky isn't actually falling in on sci-fi, but is instead a representation of a wider malaise at the domestic box office. It's not just movies involving spaceships that have crashed and burned this year, with The Wolverine, The Lone Ranger and Turbo all posting less than favorable financial results. Are we seeing the beginning of blockbuster fatigue, where the summer schedule is so dominated by big-budget fare that we've become exhausted by the endless repetition of things going boom? And with the cost of taking a family on a day ouy to the local multiplex comparable to going on a weekend trip whale watching trip in Alaska, audiences have to be more selective with the movies they choose to spend their hard earned cash on.
We might have reached the tipping point, where less really is more.
A New Hope
Now is not the time to panic however and all is not lost. Early indications suggest that 2014 could be a vintage year for the genre, with 's Transcendence and 's Interstellar both tipped to do big things. We'll also be getting another vehicle in Edge of Tomorrow, plus reboots of Godzilla and RoboCop.
But if these fail to ignite the box office touch paper, stay calm.
Sci-fi has a savior.
It's been prophesied that the Chosen One will return, with tales of Kessel runs, galactic space battles and the droids you've been looking for. It will drag the genre by it's bootstraps to the top of the box office where it will destroy all those that dare stand before it (at least until The Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice show up).
The movie's name is Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens and it's here to rescue you.
What do you think about the current state of sci-fi? Is the genre in trouble? Drop you thoughts, theories and feedback in the comment section below.