As a genre, Sci-Fi has proved to be one of the most volatile, creative, and revealing subsections of not only the filmmaking industry, but what happened to smart Science-Fiction movies? Often set in the approaching future, Sci-Fi allows creators to explore the ramifications of the species’ actions in new, exciting, and terrifying ways. For instance, the prospect of space exploration alone allows directors to rummage through themes of identity, colonialism, regret, and isolation.
There was a stretch of time in where it seemed like filmmakers and studios were on a similar wavelength when it came to Sci-Fi movies, willing to dedicate their time and resources to telling these kinds of stories. Auteur Christopher Nolan helped lead this charge with his seminal creations Inception and Interstellar throughout the 2010s. During that time, other directors, including Denis Villeneuve and Alfonso Cuarón, also contributed thought-provoking projects to the genre, including the alien-based drama Arrival and the harrowing space thriller Gravity. Each of these productions garnered both critical and audience appraisal, as well as a fanfare of awards season recognition: each was a box office success, and all but Interstellar were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar).
The turning point came in the fall of 2017 with the release of Blade Runner 2049. A big-budget sequel to a Ridley Scott cult classic and directed by Villeneuve, the film was expected to be another trailblazing and celebrated addition to the genre. And yet, despite a thoughtful and original story, a spectacular, big-name cast, and gorgeous, Academy Award-winning cinematography from Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 bombed at the box office. Off of a $150 million budget, the film only garnered $260 million internationally, with only a little more than a third of that ($92 million) coming from the United States. Since then, while there have been some Sci-Fi films that have crossed the big screen and found critical success – including Alex Garland’s Annihilation (which itself bombed at the box office) and Ex Machina – the number of impressive, studio-backed genre productions has decreased drastically.
The unexpected and almost unprecedented loss experienced by Blade Runner 2049 surely must have scared off potential Sci-Fi producers. And if it wasn’t that, the more recent and underwhelming performance of the James Grey and Brad Pitt vehicle Ad Astra definitely didn’t help boost studios’ confidence in financing the more intelligent and challenging side of the genre. While these stories are intriguing examinations of the human race, in an age where familiar and nostalgic blockbuster settings dominate – like those exhibited in Star Wars and Star Trek – audiences don’t seem to show up for the former anymore. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than crafting a brand new fictional world, drenched in its own intriguing narratives and themes, is getting viewers to step into those worlds for themselves. If reboots and sequels to classic productions don’t even fare well – off of a $100 million budget, Alien: Covenant only made $74 million in the US – how can studios expect audiences to inhabit new settings with new stories?
All this being said, there are some productions coming off this year that might signal a change for Sci-Fi in the 2020s. Arguably the most enticing film of the year is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a time-bending crime thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, and Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune will be releasing in the height of the awards season. With the Mouse House and Star Wars supposedly taking a tolerance break, perhaps now is the time where smart Sci-Fi can make another breakthrough.
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