The year 2013 was supposed to be the one that saved original science fiction at the movies.
Remember how this year's crop of sci-fi looked back in January? Sure, there were sequels like Star Trek Into Darkness and adaptations like Ender's Game on the way, but they were easily overshadowed by the ambitious-looking Oblivion, the intriguing After Earth, the supposedly game-changing Pacific Rim and Elysium, the latter of which was destined to more than live up to the promise of director Neill Blomkamp's District 9. Six months ago, we were promised the best and most ambitious year of science fiction films since, well, ever.
So, what went so wrong?
It's not that every film is bad (but a few are), and it's not that every film is a bomb (but most did disappoint). It's that we're more than halfway through the year and genre fans are still thirsty for something truly remarkable... and if you want to get cynical, the studios now have fewer reasons to invest in original science fiction. The only thing left to do is take a step back, look over the wreckage and wonder what the hell happened.
Let's start with Oblivion, a film I actually liked quite a bit. As far as glossy, expensive adventure films go, it's more than serviceable, giving Tom Cruise a couple dozen opportunities to stretch his action-star chops all while building a postapocalyptic world that sure looks real purdy. But as original science fiction goes, we can cut straight to the chase, roll our eyes and say that there's no way anyone who has seen more than a dozen movies in the genre can call this thing original.
Director Joseph Kosinksi is less of a director and more of a DJ, remixing all of his favorite science fiction movies into his own personal jam. Oblivion is less of a movie and more of a greatest-hits collection of your favorite sci-fi ideas, concepts, settings, themes and characters. Sometimes it's pretty darn cool but it's never not familiar and it's certainly not original. Just because there isn't a number or colon in the title doesn't mean something isn't derivative.
Audiences and critics were more ready for After Earth to disappoint since it's a late-era M. Night Shyamalan movie starring a movie star whose career finally seems to be entering a freefall stage, but its creative failure stings more than any other film released this year. While Oblivion is a competent and entertaining rehash of better films, After Earth invents a world that, on paper, feels as fresh, exciting and interesting as anything else we've seen in the genre. It's no secret that Will Smith and his people were planning to build a new media empire around the After Earth universe and I strongly believe that, in another universe, this movie was a smash hit.
In broad strokes, everything about this movie works. That's why it's a shame that it's such a bore, taking its "Boy's Adventure in a Sci-fi Jungle" foundation and refusing to make it fun or exciting. It's no wonder sci-fi fans rejected this grim, dully shot movie -- the universe may be fresh, but it offers no reason to get excited about it.
Which brings us to one of the more fascinating and troubled productions of year. Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim has already earned itself a fervent following among critics and genre aficionados, but audiences flat-out rejected this goofy, nutty and extremely entertaining movie. I can't blame 'em. I like Pacific Rim a great deal, but it's about as accessible as the 20th entry in an ongoing science fiction novel series. For some people, this kind of immediate immersion into a deep and occasionally complicated world can be a joy. This is an absurdly nerdy movie made by absurdly nerdy people for absurdly nerdy audiences. For all of the money spent on it, it's still a niche project. Would it have performed better if it was marketed as a kids' movie (which it really is at heart) and not as a Transformers riff? Beats me. I'm no expert. I'm just sad that one of my favorite movies of the summer died on the vine.
But Elysium was supposed to redeem all of this, right? If you're reading this, you've probably already seen Elysium and you may very well agree that it's the single most disappointing movie of 2013, a train wreck of shoddy world building, featherweight characters and satire that's insultingly obvious and on the nose. To be fair, I wouldn't be so rough on a dumb lug of a movie like this if the director hadn't previously made the incredible District 9 (which built a detailed sci-fi world that worked as a perfect delivery mechanism for its social message), but as it stands, I think science fiction fans are allowed to be devastated by this film's failure. It's like Hollywood took Neill Blomkamp, told him he was a genius, gave him a massive budget and stood by while he watered himself down in every way. Watching Elysium and hoping for something even remotely smart is a traumatizing experience.
Even if you brush creative failings aside, it's been a rough year for the genre. Oblivion, After Earth and Pacific Rim all disappointed at the box office and Elysium had a softer opening than many pundits expected (but it may grow legs in the coming weeks if it's fortunate). It's not just that most of these movies let sci-fi fans down -- audiences let these movies down, staying away in droves. You can suggest that none of them appealed to the masses or they were sold poorly, but it doesn't change the fact that, at one point, four original movies had people excited and then failed to do any business whatsoever. It's no wonder we were all excited for 2013, but now I'm reminded why Hollywood doesn't take chances on movies like this.
Everyone let everyone down in this scenario. It's been a rough couple of months.
Yet hope still remains. The small, hard sci-fi flick Europa Report has been earning rave reviews during its VOD release (see a review by our own Peter Hall here) and the upcoming Korean film Snowpiercer has been earning rave reviews from across the world. But Europa Report never got a chance on the big screen and Snowpiercer is being threatened with massive cuts by its American distributor. There's light at the end of all of this, but it's still looking awfully dim.