Friday 3 April 2015

Is Original Sci-Fi Stuck in a Tailspin? (VOR)

2015 hasn't been an easy year for science fiction so far. Three months in and the outlook for the genre isn't looking rosy - two high profile flops in the form of Jupiter Ascending and Chappie have underlined how risky it can be to produce a wholly original piece of science-fiction when audiences are so comfortable gorging on a steady-diet of unfunny Will Ferrell comedies and reimagining of classic Disney princesses.

Does this mean that original science fiction doesn't have the foothold it once did in cinema? Can the genre have the same impact and success as it once did, or is it stuck in a tailspin?

No-one understands the meaning of the phrase "what goes up, must come down" like The Wackowski siblings. Once proclaimed as trailblazers of modern science-fiction storytelling, the duo have gone on to suffer critical hammering after critical hammering in the last few years.

It's been a whole 16 years since The Matrix reinvigorated sci-fi; in that time, they've lurched from two disappointing Matrix sequels to the woeful Speed Racer and the baffling Cloud Atlas. In short, they've failed to live up to their billing when it comes to replicating the success of The Matrix.

Jupiter Ascending was the first big-budget disaster of 2015
Then, just last month, Jupiter Ascending came along. Was this going to be their return to form? Like The Matrix, it was another wholly original screenplay that they themselves had authored and transitioned to film, following the journey every step of the way. Surely, just this once, lightning could strike twice?

Unfortunately, this wasn't to be the case. Jupiter Ascending was a truly awful film that, despite having a lot going for it, failed to engage audiences and critics alike. The reviews were scathing (25% on Rotten Tomatoes) and the cash tills weren't singing - to date, Jupiter Ascending has only just broken even by making back its $176 million budget.

The consensus was in and the film was branded a flop. The verdict was harsh, but fair - in short, nobody will be talking about Jupiter Ascending ten years from now in the same way they talk about The Matrix or V for Vendetta.

With Jupiter Ascending quickly brushed aside, all eyes turned to another upcoming original sci-fi film - Chappie, a film helmed by Neill Blomkamp, another director whose debut film captured our imagination and supposedly set him on a course for stardom.

Again, much like Jupiter Ascending, Chappie was met with negative reviews. Criticised for its muddled plot and thin characters, audiences weren't enthralled by Blomkamp's third feature as they were with District 9, his debut feature from 2009 that was a runaway hit and even received a Best Picture nod at the Academy Awards. 

Blomkamp's District 9 (above) was nominated for Best Picture,
but Elysium and Chappie have been less successful 
Following each other in quick succession, it's easy to jump to conclusions and proclaim the death of original sci-fi. After all, when original screenplays such as these suffer in comparison to something dull and repetitive like Transformers, what hope is there for the genre?

However, I'm here to tell you it's not all doom and gloom. Original sci-fi is not being sucked into a murky morass from which it cannot escape. Firstly, we can take solace in the fact that both of these movies did genuinely suck. They were not good films in the slightest and, at the end of the day, audiences responded to that. Where a film like Transformers or TMNT can skate through bad reviews because they have a pre-existing fan base, Jupiter Ascending was reliant upon positive buzz and word-of-mouth to generate an audience.

Furthermore, two failed films an industry trend does not make. In fact, we've enjoyed a raft of brilliant science-fiction films over the last few years that will stand the test of time; Interstellar, Snowpiercer, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination, I Origins, Looper, Chronicle, Source Code and Monsters to name but a few. And there are more to come on the horizon; Ex Machina, Tomorrowland and Z for Zachariah are just a handful off the top of my head. 

Interstellar may have its critics,
but it was a superb piece of
original science-fiction
Sure, there is the odd clunker here or there (Transcendence, Lucy, After Earth) but I would argue that inventive and clever original science-fiction films can (and will) continue to wriggle their way onto the market as they always have, no matter how successful they are in a financial sense. There will always be bright, up-and-coming directors in the same mould as Duncan Jones and Colin Trevorrow to breathe new life into the genre every few years.

A great example of this is Bong-Joon ho's fantastic post-apocalyptic drama Snowpiercer. Despite the fact that it didn't attract an audience to match its brilliance - a limited release both here and in the United States saw it scrape together a total worldwide gross that clocks in at around $86 million from an estimated budget of $40 million - a score of 95% of Rotten Tomatoes and widespread critical acclaim would dictate it is destined for cult status in the future.

Snowpiercer had everything except an audience. It was bold, stylish and unconventional. It was daring when it needed to be daring, and kinetic when it needed to be kinetic. The acting was superb, the visual design was inspired and what it had to say about society was impactful. That it flew under the radar for many mainstream audiences is criminal.

Another fantastic example is Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s much-discussed sci-fi actioner from last June. Again, here was a film that had everything – two big name actors (Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt), a director with a great track record (Doug Liman), a clever concept that lends itself to inventive and entertaining action and, amongst all this, a satisfying and well-executed storyline that didn’t run itself into the ground.

So don't despair - science fiction isn't going anywhere anytime soon. For every Jupiter Ascending that disappoints, there will be an under appreciated gem like Interstellar that amazes. Films like Edge of Tomorrow might be drowned out by trash like Transformers, but the quality of the former speaks for itself. 

Boon-Joon ho's Snowpiercer
Quality always trumps quantity, and maybe that philosophy is one that studios need to embrace when assessing the viability of new, original sci-fi screenplays. Continual rebooting, reworking and universe building is one thing – but original stand-alone films that excel across the board and have something deep and meaningful to say are another. 

There will always be flops like Jupiter Ascending that make people question if sci-fi has a future – but, as sport fans will continually remind you in times of hardship – form is temporary, class is permanent.

At the end of the day, if all else fails, at least we have The Force Awakens to look forward to!


  1. Sci Fi is always a tricky genre, but I hate that it get so overlooked sometimes because there are great films there too.

    1. I don't think it gets the praise it deserves, especially when it comes to visually representing something theoretical like the extra dimension in Interstellar. People saw the bookshelf and rolled their eyes because it looked odd but credit where credit is due, Nolan did his best to illustrate something tricky and undefinable. Maybe people are just too critical of the genre sometimes :) Thanks for commenting Brittani!

  2. Chappie was horrible. I've heard that Jupiter Ascending was good. And I still haven't seen Interstellar... I know, I know. I need to fix that.

    1. That's alright...I still haven't seen Interstellar either!

    2. You heard wrong - Jupiter Ascending was awful! Both of you need to see Interstellar - like, right now. It's much, much better than you've read and heard! :)

  3. This is such an incredible piece! This genre, as Britt mentioned, is tricky because there is so much you can do that it is a struggle for filmmakers to strike the right balance. Too much and your cluttered and messy...too little and you're consider dull and ineffective. But then there are those who understand how to use restraint in the right ways and still deliver something truly innovative. I hope to see a resurgence soon!

    1. Wow, thanks mate :) That's such a brilliant way of summarising it, I couldn't have put it much better myself. It's always good to see those select through slip through and make an impact though :)

  4. Great article! Despite some of the good sci-fi flicks that have come out, I'm really anxious to see one that regains the genre's footing; a movie that is entertaining and complex. A film like Inception but with a stronger sci-fi edge to really bring back escapism and excitement. Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer are great starts. I just wished the momentum wouldn't be so stop-and-go.

    1. Thanks Katy :) That's a good point - Inception really struck a chord with people but didn't have such an overt focus on sci-fi themes. Interstellar came closer but for one reason or another wasn't as successful critically. Plus, 10th overall last year ($642 million) isn't as much as Inception made.



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