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June, 2006 : Essay:

Hollywood Eats Its Own Brain!

The Demise of Real SF Movies

X-Men: The Last Stand broke all sorts of box-office records when it opened last month over Memorial Day weekend. It can claim the fourth-highest Friday-to-Sunday opening weekend ever, the second-biggest single day ever (for its opening day), and—most importantly to box-office watchers—the most successful, by far, Memorial Day weekend ever. It left the 1997 Memorial Day opening of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in the dust, smashing JP2's then-record four-day opening of just over $90 million by raking in almost $123 million.

That's good, right? X-Men: The Last Stand brought SFnal concepts before millions of moviegoers. Or did it?

It didn't. It might look impressive, to fans of science fiction, that one movie ostensibly full of what-if ideas (about the cultural and political impact of the rise of genetically mutated humans) replaced another (about the organizational misdeeds of a corporation that pushes back the frontiers of science) at the pinnacle of one kind of highly coveted success in Hollywood. But you don't need to look much closer to see that The Last Stand is SF only in its trappings: the film is far more concerned with mutant-combat setpieces and showing off its exorbitant FX budget than it is with exploring the consequences of its what-if scenario. In fact, even when it appears to give itself the opportunity for a short detour into contemplating the ideas it itself raises, the movie backs off: although the central conflict it presents its mutant heroes is the possibility of a "cure" for their mutations, it resolutely avoids even the barest discussion of the ramifications of the "cure" on the new and evolving mutant culture. When it comes up against the genuinely science fictional, The Last Stand retreats to the safety of cinematic action.

What happened? Only six years ago, the first X-Men movie managed to combine action and ideas; nine years ago, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which the latest X-Men movie trumped at the box office, did not avoid detours into the consequences and corollaries of its speculative circumstances. Go back even further, to the 1950s and 60s and 70s, and the lack of real science fiction today becomes even more obvious. How did we go from The Day the Earth Stood Still to The Day After Tomorrow, from Westworld to I, Robot, from When Worlds Collide to Armageddon?

What happened is the blockbuster. The blockbuster killed the science fiction movie.

Now, that's just silly, you say. Everyone knows that blockbusters are science-fiction movies. Well, not really. Not unless you stretch the term "science fiction" to include fantasy: there are plenty of very good films appearing on recent annual and all-time box-office-blockbuster lists that qualify as fantasy, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Shrek and Spider-Man. But science fiction, the literature of ideas: where is its cinematic equivalent? Not easy to find these days. It's true that Armageddon—the action movie about oil-well grunts sent into space in order to destroy an asteroid on a collision course with Earth—was the second biggest moneymaker of 1998, hauling in more than $200 million in North America alone. But it is far more interested in the idea of blowing things up than in any SFnal concepts about threats from outer space to human civilization—it is SF only in its stage dressing. Ditto 1996's Independence Day, number 14 on the list of biggest moneymakers globally (it's number 20 domestically). Even the few true SF movies that become huge hits with audiences today—the first Matrix film, for instance—are, it appears, SF almost accidentally, or as an afterthought. It's action and violence and disaster that drive the science fiction films Hollywood gives us today, and if we happen to also get some intriguing what-if speculation along with the martial-arts combat and car crashes, well, that's merely a bonus.

It started in the mid 1970s with two films that became worldwide hits unlike anything Hollywood had seen before: 1975's Jaws and 1977's Star Wars, which demonstrated to the studios that the right movie could be all but a license to print money. Lessons were learned from those films and the numerous imitators they spawned over the next ten years: Movies that appeal to teenagers and young adults—that is, big, loud, fast action movies—make more money than those geared to sophisticated adult audiences—that is, quieter, more introspective, more focused on character than plot. Movies that translate easily and comprehensibly into other languages and have crosscultural appeal make more money worldwide than those that don't—which is why the biggest movie stars in the world are action heroes, not comics; humor is greatly informed by culture and rarely translates readily into overseas success. None of which boded well for the kind of science fiction that genuine fans of the genre want: intelligent, measured, exploratory.

So, while the process took decades and is still continuing (though it may be showing signs of wearing itself out), Hollywood retooled from an industry that opened films in a few theaters and let them succeed through word of a mouth, critical acclaim, and slow touring releases to one in which saturation marketing and saturation releases rotate butts in and out of multiplex seats in a merry-go-round of moviegoing. Discriminating audiences of grownups gave way to undemanding audiences of children—there's no time anymore for a movie that requires thought or reflection, not in Hollywood. In all of 1968, there were only 29 new theatrical releases vying for the attention of moviegoers; in 2005, there were 581. In 1977, Star Wars opened on 43 screens, and at its widest release was playing on only 1,750 screens; it was still playing theatrically in first-run well into 1978. X-Men: The Last Stand opened on an astonishing 8,700-plus screens at 3,690 theaters; it will see precipitous drops in attendance in its first month of release, will disappear from multiplexes before summer is over, and will likely be available on DVD by October. Long before then, it will have been supplanted in the minds of moviegoers by a dozen other massively hyped would-be blockbusters.

Certainly, serious, thoughtful science fiction is not the only genre to have suffered in this paradigm shift—anything not aimed at the 14-to-25 demographic is generally considered marginal from a business perspective, if such films get produced at all. (Of course, there are films that do not feature invading aliens blowing up the White House that are very successful today—one recent nongenre example: Brokeback Mountain—but the industry of late always seems shocked by such success in a way that it is not when it's warring genetic mutants who storm the box office.) But science fiction suffers doubly. Because its frills—space ships and aliens and the like—disguise the mundane roots of many an action-adventure flick, there is a perception that SF is alive and well in Hollywood. But it's almost impossible to name a major studio release since the turn of the millennium that qualifies as science fiction aimed at adults, SF that is not buried under gun battles and massive explosions, SF that actually posits a what-if and follows its implications to a logical conclusion. Hollywood offers us no modern equivalents of, say, 1966's Fahrenheit 451, with its considered cultural extrapolation, or, more recently, 1984's Starman, a charming SF romance. The closest we can come is, perhaps, in the films of M. Night Shyamalan, but his reach exceeds his grasp: his Signs, from 2002, descends into mushy religious pseudophilosophy, and his follow-up, 2004's The Village, is but a warmed-over Twilight Zone episode. Lilo & Stitch, from 2002, is real science fiction, and enchanting to boot, but it is a child's trifle; most of the SF, real and pretend, aimed at the kiddie crowd—2003's Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, 2005's Robots—is simply dreadful.

There is good SF to be found at the movies these days, if rarely. Deep Impact was practically a smack in the face to Armageddon that same summer of 1998, a far more thoughtful and idea-oriented take on the giant-incoming-asteroid plot; the film recalls 1951's When Worlds Collide in its exploration of how society might face the prospect of extinction. Steven Spielberg, who unwittingly started us down this road with his Jaws, continues to make introspective SF movies that are primarily about ideas, for all that they may be packed with action: his recent AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds would all collapse without their scientific speculation.

The second Star Wars trilogy has seen George Lucas go, alas, in the opposite direction. With their over-reliance on inorganic CGI-animated battles and action sequences, these movies exemplify all that is wrong with big-budget Hollywood SF movies today: the more they look and feel like videogames, the better their creators seem to like them, and the more unsatisfied fans of real science fiction are. But the tropes of action movies are weighing down even the good stuff: The Matrix was thrilling, but its sequels sacrificed metaphor and symbolism for concrete physicality; Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a wicked satire of itself, but it fails to introduce any significant new SFnal concepts in its mad rush to blow things up.

Movies have always been product, a means to separate audiences from their money. But somewhere between the nexus of Jaws/Star Wars and today, Hollywood stopped disguising that fact, stopped catering to the smart audiences that made films like 2001: A Space Odyssey the blockbusters of their day and started aiming its sights directly at the easiest crowd to please, the easiest one to separate from its money. Fortunately, independent and foreign filmmakers have taken up the torch of serious science fiction—as they have with the other sophisticated genres abandoned by Hollywood—and have given us such excellent SF flicks as the recent Primer, Donnie Darko, and Code 46. But as our real lives become more science fictional, the smart and erudite SF that was once considered part of the Hollywood mainstream, like 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, has now been marginalized and minimized. The all-important act of contemplating where we may be going as a society, which is an exercise all thinking people should be engaging in (and once were), has become nothing but another niche market.

Discover all sorts of box office trivia at Box Office Mojo and The Numbers.

This essay was inspired by a panel I sat on at Lunacon in March 2006.

Copyright © 2006, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.


Jun 5, 20:54 by IROSF

A thread to discuss science fiction in film.

The article can be found here.
Jun 6, 03:18 by Joe Haldeman
Very accurate and concise, MaryAnn.

Is there hope in the indies, in the art houses? Or are those venues so small their cultural effect is invisible?

Joe Haldeman
Jun 6, 06:38 by David Bartell
Well said, MaryAnn. (Hi Joe.)

I would add that Spielberg also made "Hook" on a big budget. After it flopped, he lamented that it was too bad, because now no one would invest in "big pictures" anymore. It was as if he was taking the blame for ruining it for everyone. Of course, he proved wrong, but it's an interesting footnote.

Another problem is that big budget movies can't make a profit without foreign sales. That's factored into the amount of money a film is given. On the good side, this is why LOTR was made the way it was. On the down side, (or maybe in the middle) blow-up movies with stars like Arnold will always be made. The action is what sells to a lot of international markets. Cerebral concepts do not.

So I think we will live with big mindless comic book movies, hopefully fun ones. For better SF, I think what has to happen is that somehow filmmakers come to terms with SF movies that are not necessarily big budget. It can be done - e.g. Gattica, Silent Running, and a few others - but does not have the get-rich-quick appeal of the blockbuster.

David Bartell
Jun 6, 07:56 by MaryAnn Johanson
Is there hope in the indies, in the art houses? Or are those venues so small their cultural effect is invisible?

There are good SF films coming out of non-Hollywood venues. I mentioned a couple: Code 46 is a British film; Primer was made by a couple of guys in Texas on some absurb budget like $40,000. And I do think that the blockbuster mindset driving Hollywood will have to slow down -- it's not sustainable, and we're already seeing the salaries of the biggest stars (which have helped pump up film budgets) starting to come down; some major stars, like Tom Hanks, reportedly eschew salary altogether in lieu of a cut of the profit. If Hollywood is forced to contract, I think then we may start seeing more thoughtful films of all kinds, SF included, once again.

But I doubt we'll ever see another thinky SF film that will have the cultural impact of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey -- there's just too much competition not just from the hundreds of films released every year but also from videogames and TV. But we're seeing culturally impactful SF on TV right now, like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. In fact, the amazing success of Lost obviously means that audiences are capable of enjoying and sticking with a story that demands analysis and debate and discussion. Perhaps someone on the movie side in Hollywood will realize this and try something similar on film soon.
Jun 6, 08:06 by MaryAnn Johanson
Another problem is that big budget movies can't make a profit without foreign sales. That's factored into the amount of money a film is given.

Well, sure. But not every film has to be a blockbuster. If you don't spend $200 million on a film (and that's not even counting the cost of promotion and marketing and prints, which cost a fortune), then you don't need to open it on 3,000 screens in Asia to make a profit. A small, thoughtful film that cost only $7 million to make doesn't need to open globally to make some dough.

I've been saying this for years: If I were a studio exec, I'd take just one block of $100 million, and instead of taking a chance on just one big dumb flick that might just about earn back its budget, I'd give ten hungry young filmmakers $10 million each, or 20 hungry young filmmakers $5 million each -- and if only one of the films they make is a hit, or only one of those films produces a new star, the investment will have been worth it.

You mentioned Gattaca -- that is one of the best SF films ever made. Of course, it has not yet earned back its budget, which is why we haven't seen other films like that again. I bet Gattaca would have done better released today than it did back in 1997 -- there'd be a big push online for it, and the word-of-mouth online might have helped boost its box office.
Jun 7, 10:41 by Rogelio Mendoza
"X-Men: The Last Stand" is currently showing in the same art house theatre where I first saw such films as "Like Water For Chocolate" and "Run, Lola, Run."

And sadly, it's not the first "mainstream" film to play there. That doesn't exactly make me optimistic about the future of science fiction in the indie/arthouse world...
Jun 8, 05:49 by A.R. Yngve
There will always be a market for over-budgeted special-effects movies. But never mind that.

So what of the low-budget SF films? PRIMER should be an example for the rest of us. If you want to make a low-budget, cerebral SF film -- just do it! Grab a digital video camera, write a script, and find some actors.

If you want something done properly, you'll have to do it yourself...

Jun 8, 10:37 by Bluejack
Are there any others like primer? It always comes up because it's like the only competant home-made sci fi film anyone has seen... is it *really* the only one?
Jun 8, 15:19 by Richard Lovett
Interesting clan who's migrated here! I logged in to see if Gattaca had ever turned a profit. I suspect that today it could be done cheaper. But I belong to a Monday movie group, and when it comes to sf, that's a depressing experience. "It's science fiction; it's not supposed to make sense" is the mantra of everyone under a certain age, and they're not just trying to goose me when they say it: they believe it.

What about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?" I thought it had considerable sfnal merit. Or did it just shine in comparison to the other 51 movies my group saw that year? Most of the other people didn't like it, which in memory stands as a good sign.
Jun 9, 14:46 by Robin Zimmermann
What about "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?" I thought it had considerable sfnal merit. Or did it just shine in comparison to the other 51 movies my group saw that year? Most of the other people didn't like it, which in memory stands as a good sign.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was, in my opinion, science fiction of the best kind. I think a major reason for its failure with audiences is that too many people (most aggravatingly, including the writers of the DVD box) think of Jim Carrey as as the kind of actor who plays Ace Ventura than think of him as the kind of actor who also plays Truman Burbank (and that's another sorta-recent example of SF, though probably a weaker one). In fact, I went into this forum thread specifically to mention "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".
Jun 13, 07:03 by peter heyneman
There are other sf art-house movies that barely even register as sf to audiences since they don't have aliens and ray-guns. PI or 2046 come to mind.

But I'm not even sure I understand the premise of the article. Aren't these big-budget failures just low-quality SF? It seems like Ms. Johanson is saying that SF is SF when it's good, but not when it's not. I wish we could draw in the borders of our favorite genres when they are misused, but I don't think we have that luxury.

Anyway, interesting the magazine!
Jun 27, 10:36 by Adrian Simmons
Okay, I'm getting into this late. Still, I've often heard it said that the best form for science fiction is the short form- the magazines like Astoudning and Asimov's and Analog. I've heard it said that a short story can be built around a thought experiment, but a novel is a lot harder.

I have to wonder if the same is true with film. Maybe sci-fi really begs to be on television- uld skool, like The Twilight Zone and some of the original Star Trek episodes (I'm sure that some of the later Trek series delved into some good SF territory, but I can't recall any particular episodes right now).

Oct 24, 18:00 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
A very concise and informative article. I agree wholeheartedly. The mega-blockbuster has killed not only the SF film, but intelligent films in general. Intelligent SF film is still being made, as several posters have pointed out. Pi, 2046, Gattica, Children of Men amoung others have managed to evade the Hollywood heavy handedness that has given us Independance Day and (shudder) the three new Star Wars films.
SF, in my opinion, has fared better on the small screen. The inevitable Star Trek franchise kept it alive enough for other series to at least get made. While I will incur the wrath of several Trek fans, most of what was put out in this franchise was SF of the worst sort: unintelligent, uninteresting and uninformative.
To be sure, several of ST:TNG episodes were superb. "Darmok", "The Measure of Man" and "The Best of Both Worlds" are what Star Trek could achieve when the stars were right; Voyager is what we were given instead. Of them all, I would say that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the most consistant in tone, feel, and story. But even there, the writers took a lesson from the far more intelligent (if not more successful) Babylon 5.
B5 is what television SF is supposed to be: and excellent balance between big screen action, social and political commentary, character evolution and entertaining story. Contemporaneous television SF really couldn't compare with Babylon 5. Sliders, while interesting in concept, really didn't go anywhere until the writers decided on a recurring plot (like B5), and Stargate was still born.
There were, however, a few gems ignored by the fans while they were putting on their StarFleet uniforms to watch the kindler, gentler, politically correct Federation take a soft touch on everything.
Total Recall 2070 was a smart, slick, stylish fusion of Asimov, Phil Dick and Raymond Chandler. The whole series, from the pilot to its too soon finale, was an extended commentary and investigation of the social and political consequences of a wide variety of technologies. Not an episode went by without the impact of the future being starkly shown. Alas, it has never been rereleased on DVD.
Earth 2 had and interesting premise, some clever turns and good potential. Sadly cancelled before it could show what it was made of. Anything with Clancy Brown in it can't be all bad. Luckily Fox released the whole run on DVD so is not lost to the tides and time.
Believe it or not, Space: Above & Beyond deserves more credit than it was ever given. Despite its somewhat cheesy, too ernest, Tour of Duty in space premise, at least the world and techonology was well thought out, consistent and relatively believable. Several episodes were well written, with clear commentary on society, politics and technology, and some were just damn good stories.
As one poster above mentioned, science fiction excels at the short format. So too does it have the chance to excel on the small screen.

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