Looking at the box office results for this past weekend, I was a bit surprised that the new Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion managed to pull in nearly $40 million to take the number-one spot on the domestic box office charts. When it comes to sci-fi, it seems like the films that soar and the ones that sink walk very fine lines with each other. When Star Wars made sci-fi one of the highest grossing genres in the world and ushered in a new era for the genre for the next few decades, few people could've imagined the types of films that would be yielded by the time we've reached modern times.
Some sci-fi fans I've talked to seem kind of mixed on the idea of what the genre's become, while others are very enthusiastic about it. So, what's the difference between elements of the genre that have captured the imagination of the public, and those that have faded into obscurity?
The Best of "Bad" Sci-fi
As a kid that grew up primarily in the 1990s, I have a lot of older friends lamenting the fact that I didn't yet have the presence of mind to enjoy celebrated (and not-so-celebrated) entries in the sci-fi genre from generations past. Most of my favorite sci-fi films as a kid were Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Men in Black and Galaxy Quest. My favorite sci-fi film as a kid was probably The Fifth Element, and yes, I was born in 1987 so I looked forward to each Star Wars prequel as they came out.
Now keep in mind that most of these films had pretty positive critical receptions upon release. But, these same friends were lamenting the fact that I'd never seen a Roger Corman sci-fi flick, or even Flash Gordon! This kind of boggled my mind, because I was under the impression that I should stay away from "bad" sci-fi to broaden my horizons. But these friends, in their infinite wisdom, helped give me some of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in my whole life because of watching the utter spectacle of chaos and camp that was Flash Gordon, or the oddity that permeated the screen in Galaxy of Terror.
So, I can't speak for everyone of course, but it seems like the "bad" sci-fi has a greater potential for immortality in some ways than even the best examples of the genre. Fun goes a long way in a sci-fi film, and some of the worst critically received films really seem to have a degree of fun that I, in my naïveté, was definitely not expecting. Would these films hold up very well if I had watched them alone in my living room? No, probably not. But in the right environment and with the right people, just like any bad movie, it can give you an experience you'll never forget, and that's where the value for me lies.
Even from an objective standpoint, are these films bad? Well, yes. Most definitely. They're pretty terrible, actually. Thematically they can actually be pretty interesting, but when you see the cheapness of production design (as Corman fans well know) or the performances on display (Flash Gordon is pretty famous for that), it's pretty easy to see that these films can't really be called "good." Even with that, though, if you're a sci-fi fan, then it's hard not to appreciate the imagination put into the effort: the Corman films, though lacking in visual punch, definitely had to be imaginative due to the sizes of their respective budgets. And, in a film where budget wasn't as much of an issue as in Flash Gordon, that film still manages to be visually impressive even though it, at times, can be hard to take the over-the-top campiness.
Even then, though, there's still science fiction that most people find completely irredeemable. The only problem is that I haven't been able to find a single objective authority on that topic. Most of the ones I've come across in trying to gauge peoples' perceptions of bad sci-fi have been pretty recent, but it seems like there's a lot of forgiveness for films that would likely be derided in another genre, and a complete lack of forgiveness for some sci-fi films that don't meet certain criteria. Part of that is because today's generation of moviegoers are a bit too used to seeing giant epic adventures, and as a result, that's what we've demanded.
Are We a Spoiled Audience?
Today's movie audiences, though very sophisticated, are largely spoiled to a degree when it comes to the broad, big genres like science fiction, comics adaptations and action films. In the action genre, for instance, would a film like John Carpenter's original Assault on Precinct 13, produced for $100,000 in 1976 (which equates to a little over $400,000 today), be able to compete head-to-head with a bombastic action overdrive film like A Good Day to Die Hard ($92 million budget) or Fast Five ($125 million)?
Science fiction has become a similar animal, where even valiant low budget efforts have become dangerous territory for business. As a recent example, take last year's hybrid sci-fi/comic book film Dredd. By all accounts, a pretty high critical success, while simultaneously acting as a low budget (less than half that of Fast Five) sci-fi actioner with a lot of great narrative elements. Throw in some relatively hard-core violence and some creative cinematography (and, personally, the best use of 3D I've ever seen) and it doesn't feel like the makers are stretching every dollar, even though they did.
What was the result? It tanked. On a $45 million budget, Dredd's finally box office tally was $36 million. It had several elements working against it, sure: stigma from the 1995 Stallone film and a hard R rating likely playing no small part in the final result. But, is it too far outside the realm of possibility to assume that Dredd just didn't look big enough to modern movie audiences?
Which brings me to this weekend's box office champion, Oblivion, which in one weekend has managed to pull in more than 86% of Dredd's total box office take on a $120 million budget. An undoubtedly interesting film, though the tenor of many reviews have acknowledged some weakness in the writing. A comic book writer on Twitter even acknowledged it had several plot holes, but was still a lot of fun. Although I don't always like to use this as a source, here it's a good, illustrative tool because of its aggregated percentage of positive film reviews: Oblivion's score on Rotten Tomatoes currently stands at 57%, three points below its "fresh" requirement of 60%. Dredd's RT score stands at 78%, well above the "fresh" requirement.
Beyond making me cry at the likelihood of not seeing a sequel to Dredd, what does this say about Oblivion's ability to succeed in the current market of sci-fi films? It had big names, Dredd did not. It had a wide, sweeping canvas from which it worked, and very dazzling effects work and some pretty damned good performances, while Dredd had more muted effects (but still good, if not great performances). In the end, people are gravitating more towards Oblivion, and at the end of the day it was because it had bigger stars, bigger scope, bigger budget... it was just plain bigger.
We expect a lot from sci-fi today. When you have films like Avatar or 2009's Star Trek doing big business because of their scale, it takes a pretty big bite out of films with the feel of old, smaller sci-fi that is so loved by certain fans. In recent memory, the only low budget excellent sci-fi film with no recognizable film stars to succeed on a large, pop-culture scale was Neill Blomkamp's terrific District 9, but with his upcoming film Elysium that director has graduated into bigger budget territory.
Upward mobility is always good, but it does also show that the more marketable direction is stars and scale. Hopefully out there somewhere is a director that might help to definitively show us that successful sci-fi can remain in the vein of the likes of District 9 and Dredd, and the next generation of film audiences won't have to limit themselves to what may become $300-400 million budgets to have truly satisfying, broad examples of science fiction. I never really thought I'd type this, but I'm missing Roger Corman.
This Week's Pick at the Comic Shop (Releasing 4/24)
I'm going with a bit of a different pick this week in honor of our topic, because while it'd be very easy for me to pick Grant Morrison's latest Batman Incorporated issue that reacts to the death of Robin, instead I want to point you in the direction of a fantastic collected edition from Image Comics that has some truly great science fiction in it. I'm talking about writer Jonathan Hickman's revision of history surrounding the Oppenheimers (yes, plural) and the creation of the atomic bomb found in The Manhattan Projects Volume 1 trade paperback collection.
The volume collects the first five issues of the wonderful, ongoing series that has a premise too simple and elegant to ignore: What if the research and development department created to produce the first atomic bomb was a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs? What if the atom bomb was just the beginning? How far through time does this extend? What is the "Manhattan Project" of the Cold War? Also, what about Robert Oppenheimer himself is so... unsettling?
Today, writer Jonathan Hickman is well known to mainstream comics fans as the insightful architect of a wonderful run on Fantastic Four, as well as being the current shepherd of two of Marvel's Avengers titles. While that work is excellent, here it's very easy to see unfettered passion and imagination run wild with a lot of detours and surprises popping up through both known, and unknown history. I definitely recommend picking it up, alongside our own Jacob S. Hall, who also recommended picking this book up and adapting it as a movie last September.
That does it for this week. Be back here in seven days for the next edition of the Geek Beat!