2009: A Vintage Year For Sci-Fi Movies?

Could 2009 be marked down as a vintage year for big screen science fiction?

2009's Sci-Fi films

Over the past few years, blockbuster cinema has been beating firmly to the tune of comic book movies and superheroes. Even supposed flop movies, or at least disappointments, such as Daredevil, The Incredible Hulk and the two Fantastic Fours have easily cleared nine figures and counting, and when a lower key project such as Ghost Rider can coin in nearly $230m worldwide, it’s understandable why movie producers are keen to queue at this particularly cashpoint.

Yet 2009 has seen other genres really start to muscle in, and one of the biggest beneficiaries has been science fiction. Rumours of the demise of sci-fi, of course, have been long overstated, but there’s little doubt that few studios for some time were willing to invest the necessary monies for major blockbusters. Granted, if Steven Spielberg puts his name to it you end up with films such as Minority Report and War Of The Worlds, and George Lucas, of course, can bang out as many Star Wars movies as his bank balance will allow. But everyone else? People have tended to be a little bit shy to show their money.

The Past Few Years

Take the top 50 box office charts of the past few years. 2005 saw Star Wars Episode III top the box office, with War Of The Worlds in fifth place in the US. Outside of those? Lots of comic book movies, a good chunk of horror, but not another science fiction film to be found. You need to go down to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in 55th. Granted, there were films above it that had science fiction elements, but proper sci-fi films they weren’t.

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2006? Oh dear. Accepting again the sci-fi elements that sneak into many comic book movies, you’re down to number 89 before Children Of Men rears its head. This is, remember, the genre that has given cinema major hits such as the Alien, Star Wars, Star Trek, Independence Day and even the Men In Black movies. And yet Hollywood couldn’t sell a single sci-fi film into the top 50 just three years ago. Contrasted with now, that’s a staggering statistic.

2007 was more promising. Transformers could just about sneak in, and that was the third biggest film of the year in the US, while I Am Legend sat in sixth. Meet The Robinsons could sneak in gently under the sci-fi banner too at 29th (and given that the last time Disney tackled sci-fi had been Treasure Planet, its relief at Robinsons‘ $97m US gross was probably tangible), Resident Evil: Extinction nipped in at 51st (tenuous perhaps, but there’s some semblance of sci-fi argument) and the incredibly shitty AvP 2 hit 64th place.

Improvements

Things were certainly on the up, and when in 2008 the generally derided remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still brought in nearly $80m in the US, it proved that Hollywood had not only got back to the desire to make sci-fi movies, but that it had regained its confidence in selling them, too. Other 2008 sci-fi hits included Iron Man (appreciating again the comic book crossover, but this is surely more sci-fi than most, given that the design, construction and operation of the very sci-fi suit is at the heart of the film), Wall-E, Jumper, The Happening, Speed Racer and Death Race. Plus there are plenty more 2008 releases that you could argue regarding their sci-fi credentials.

2009, though, is shaping up to be a golden one for sci-fi. The biggest, most expensive release of the year – no matter what you think of the material that’s been screened so far – is James Cameron’s Avatar, which is landing in cinemas in December. It’s a hugely expensive production, and one that could yet bring in an equally huge amount of money (although it does have a bit of a mountain to climb there). Either way, sci-fi is the genre that Hollywood has gambled the most on this year, and to some extent, it’s reaped strong rewards.

An earlier example of this was the big money Paramount spent on rebooting Star Trek, which it then positioned as one of its major tentpole pictures of the year. The others? Try Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe. Paramount isn’t daft: big budget effects sci-fi attracts cash, and that’s why Paramount, more than any other studio last summer, has backed it hard. And, even in the case of the not-great G.I. Joe, it won its gamble, with strong box office returns.

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It wasn’t alone in taking a sizeable punt on the genre, either. Terminator Salvation may have disappointed at the US box office, but its overall take worldwide is edging $380m, and the film has proved to be one of the more critically divisive of the summer. Before that we had Summit funding Nic Cage in Knowing and Chris Evans in Push, Disney pumping cash into Surrogates, G-Force (ahem) and Race To Witch Mountain, Warner Bros backing The Time Traveler’s Wife and Universal taking a punt on Land Of The Lost. Not all of these productions were successful, of course, but audience thirst for sci-fi – at least in its softer form – has clearly been growing.

Even animated movies have been set in sci-fi foundations. Two of the year’s biggest animated hits, Monsters Vs Aliens and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, have sci-fi influences right at the heart of them. Aliens In The Attic was far less successful, but the sci-fi thinking was still there.

At the lower end of the budget scale, some fun-if-forgettable projects also managed to squeeze through. Gamer certainly had its moments, while Pandorum was decent fun, and both got big screen releases where in previous years you wonder if the video shop would have been their real home.

The Highlights

The two that have really given the year its pedigree though are District 9 and Moon, both of which were economical productions in their own right. The former, directed by Neill Bloomkamp, proved that you don’t need to spend lavish amounts on effects, you just need to be savvy about how you use them. The film’s an extraordinary piece of work, and what’s even more impressive is that Hollywood converted a quality science fiction production into a massive hit. District 9 has currently racked up – with the aid of a terrific marketing campaign – over $180m worldwide. That’s for a film without a child-friendly certificate, too. It makes you glad that Bloomkamp didn’t go and make the long-mooted Halo film and landed District 9 instead.

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Moon is even more special. Director Duncan Jones has said in interviews that he sought a return to the ‘hard’ science fiction of old, and homages to classic 70s sci-fi movies are embedded throughout Moon. They even allow Jones to play with audience expectations surprisingly well, and his film is both taught and exceptionally clever.

And just look at the low budget effects, too, done with model work without the need to give ILM a buzz. If there’s anything that should make you feel gleeful for the future of big screen sci-fi, it’s the fact that Duncan Jones could make a film such as Moon for just $5m. Low budget sci-fi has, of course, worked before, but Moon sidesteps the desire to head immediately to the DVD racks, and instead proves that the genre can be mature, clever and enthralling, without breaking the bank. It should, if there’s any justice, get Sam Rockwell an Oscar nomination too.

Coming Soon

That the year will end at the other side of the scale, with the hundreds of millions being poured into Avatar, isn’t something to sneer at either. If low-, mid- and high-budget Hollywood is embracing the sci-fi genre then 2009, even when all the money has been counted and awards have been given, may end up being looked upon as a really important and very welcome year for the genre. Because right now, big screen sci-fi hasn’t looked this healthy in a long, long time.

Long may it continue…