From the countless classics of E.T to Star Wars to Avatar to Lawnmower Man - Hollywood has delivered with Sci-Fi. It's such a successful genre across the board because of its storytelling, break from reality, and immersive effects. Is Star Wars realistic? No. Is Avatar? Not in this century. What about Lawnmower Man? Well if you own a lawnmower then kind of. That doesn't matter though. Even the superhero genre that has been getting all of Hollywood's attention since 2002 relies on sci fi. So why are people panicking? Because of the recent box office. Well this year's BO has been smelling quite fine with record breaking numbers...except in the sci-fi department.
Oblivion, After Earth, Star Trek Into Darkness (to a lesser extent), Pacific Rim, and The Host are all sci-fi that have put up disappointing grosses this year. Are Elysium, Gravity, Thor 2, and Ender's Game next? What about Divergent, The Maze Runner, Robocop, Transcendence, Jupiter Ascending, and Intersteller for next year? John Carter, Battleship, Total Recall, The Watch, Cloud Atlas, Dredd, Prometheus, Cowboys and Aliens, Surrogates, The Thing, Mars Needs Mom, Repo Men, and Skyline are all some recent sci-fi flops/fails/bombs/disappointments. Now to be clear, the genre has still had success lately, but the flops outnumber the successes. Also it seems sci-fi, especially original, has dissapointed more lately than any other genre.
Hollywood has made it clear that it likes to spend on success, but lately sci-fi hasn't been that. Are studios going to start red-lighting original and remakable sci-fi projects unless they're 100% proven to succeed? Elysium has a lot going for it. Matt Damon, compelling concept, stellar effects, Matt Damon, lethargic competition, good reviews, and Matt Damon. So whats the problem? Well it seems those things alone can't sell movies anymore for some reason. After Earf (thats how I say it) had Will Smith, probably the #1 star on the planet, and his offspring, but it stumbled right out of the gate. Oblivion had Tom Cruise, probably #2, and that started off nicely, but couldn't hold on. Remember also the misfires from last year, all with big name stars...except for Carter of course. Okay, stop laughing at Kitsch, he's suffered enough.
Right now the studios are making bank with cheap R-rated comedies, superhero movies that sell toys, animated franchises that also sell toys, and dirt cheap horrors. Sci-fi's haven't been as kind and don't sell as many toys. (Don't bring up Star Wars 7, you still got 2 years for that). "Cheap" for a sci-fi isn't cheap either. If you make a summer sci-fi blockbuster for $20 million, the same price as The Conjuring, it's going to look more butt-ugly than the Butt Ugly Martians cartoon from Nickelodeon. Once it's all said and done, today's sci-fi can cost almost $200 million or more once production and marketing are both factored in. Oblivion's reported $120 million budget is cheap for sci-fi, but still expensive by today's standards.
So what do we do? I don't want these movies to fail. Thousands of people put hard work into these movies, especially the effects team. Do you know how difficult it is to animate Optimus Prime? Why people haven't been flocking to these movies like they used to is a hard guess. Some of these movies have been garbage, but some like Oblivion, Trek, and Pac Rim were met with good reviews. Even if Elysium, Gravity, and Ender's Game fail, I don't think studio's will pull the plug on original sci-fi, but you can bet they'll retool it. We likely won't see any $200 million+ or even $150 million original concepts anytime soon, but they won't completely fade away. Sci-fi is still a beautiful genre and a year full of superhero and R-rated comedies would create too much imbalance. The concepts are there; the best thing to do at this point is to just make them cheaper and more niche-less. One problem with Pacific Rim and possibly Elsyium is that they just don't appeal to the general crowd. The marketing teams have to find a way to fix this, and fast. Elysium opens Friday, EG, and Gravity open in the Fall. Will they buck the trend? We'll see and we hope so. No one wants a Marvel movie every month.