Five years ago, sci-fi cinema enjoyed a remarkable period of critical and financial success. Avatar came out at the end of 2009, made billions, garnered nine Oscar nominations, and won three. District 9 had emerged that same summer, where it made more than $200m and received four Oscar nominations. Then there was Moon, Duncan Jones’ low-budget genre film which launched his filmmaking career.
In the summer of 2010, along came Inception – Christopher Nolan’s high-concept sci-fi thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Ahead of its release, Nolan’s industry clout was at its height following the financial success and acclaim of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Yet Inception was seen by many as a risky undertaking – a $160m passion project Nolan had managed to set up because Warner was so keen to have him make a third Batman film.
The writer Mark Harris, in his 2011 article The Day The Movies Died for GQ magazine, wrote of the scepticism which led up to Inception‘s debut in cinemas. “After it started to screen, the party line changed: ‘It’s too smart for the room, too smart for the summer, too smart for the audience…'”
Those sceptics were soon proved wrong. Inception made more than $800m, and like Avatar and District 9, joined that small club of genre films with Oscar recognition: it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won three.
Films such as Avatar, District 9 and Inception appeared to prove that there was a ready market for stand-alone genre films – the latter pair, in particular, seemed to indicate that such films aimed at an older audience could still sell tickets.
A range of varied and (often) highly entertaining SF films followed after the launch of Inception. Monsters, Skyline, The Adjustment Bureau, Battle: Los Angeles, Limitless, Source Code and Super 8 in 2011, to name a few. Super 8 managed to make more than $250m from a $50m budget, which isn’t a bad feat for a film without a major star attached.
Without films like Avatar, District 9 and Inception, it’s arguably less likely that Hollywood studios would have put up the money for the legion stand-alone films which followed. Take for example, director Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion – a project which began as a much smaller concept, before Tom Cruise signed up for the project and its budget expanded to $120m. When we spoke to Kosinski last year, he cited as Avatar as the “ultimate example” of a successful stand-alone science fiction movie.
“If I was doing something based on another movie – either a sequel to another movie, or based on a well-known property – it would be a little easier,” Kosinski told us. “But then an original story is difficult, and then an original story with a high budget is probably the hardest level. Luckily, there’s been some really successful films that have been original – Avatar, obviously, being the ultimate example, so I knew I needed a movie star.”
Such films as Elysium and After Earth followed a not dissimilar model to Inception and Oblivion: if you’re going to make an expensive, original sci-fi film, you need a name attached. Having Leonardo DiCaprio was one major factor in Inception’s success in 2011, and Tom Cruise’s name arguably helped Oblivion at the box-office, particularly overseas.
Yet big names don’t always help. Despite Matt Damon and Jodie Foster’s billing in Elysium, the film didn’t make a great deal more than District 9 had back in 2009. M Night Shyamalan’s After Earth failed to make much of an impression in cinemas, despite the usually reliable star presence of Will Smith. Something similar happened in 2014, with Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, making just $79m worldwide – a fair amount less than its $100m budget.
Now, you could argue that a mixture of negative reviews and bad press took their toll on these films. But what are we to make of Doug Liman’s Edge Of Tomorrow? The reviews for Liman’s film, based on a Japanese novel, were largely positive – it’s currently rated 90 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes – yet it only managed to get to number three at the US box office on its opening weekend.
So what happened? In all likelihood, it was a mixture of a difficult-to-market concept (Edge Of Tomorrow looked far more generic in trailers than it did on the big screen) and unexpectedly tough competition: Disney’s Maleficent proved to be popular enough to hold onto the number two spot in the charts, while the teen romance The Fault In Our Stars turned out to be the surprise hit of the summer so far, taking $48m on its opening weekend.
As Rob wrote earlier this week, a major film starring Tom Cruise found itself cast as the underdog at the summer box office – a disappointing state of affairs, given just how darkly funny and entertaining Edge Of Tomorrow proved to be. Although by no means flawless, Edge Of Tomorrow is an example of how entertaining a high-concept studio action film can be.
The reality, of course, is that expensive science fiction films – particularly ones that are either entirely original, or adapted from books that few moviegoers have heard of, as Edge Of Tomorrow was – are always a risk. Cast your eye over the lower-budget genre films of the past year or so, and it’s clear that the genre is still popular. Films such as Chronicle, Looper, The Purge and this year’s Her all did well when you compare their takings to their more modest budgets; The Purge was especially successful, given that it made almost $90m from a $3m investment.
The real worry is that the slow business of something like Edge Of Tomorrow will make studio executives think twice before risking their investors’ money on another stand-alone genre film in the future. When the Wachowski’s own original sci-fi film, Jupiter Ascending, was shoved from its July 2014 to 2015, it was reported that Edge Of Tomorrow’s lack of box office impact was to blame. Warner Bros, fearful of having two misfires in one summer, decided to push Jupiter Ascending back to February the following year.
There are some rays of hope on the horizon, however. Christopher Nolan’s next film, Interstellar, is due for release in November, and it follows a not dissimilar pattern to Inception: a major star in the lead (Matthew McConaughey), a sci-fi concept (this time about travelling through wormholes in space), and a sterling supporting cast. Then there’s Neill Blomkamp’s next film, the sci-fi comedy Chappie, which sounds like something of a return to the director’s quirkier, more independent roots, with a lower budget ($60m) and a script co-written by his District 9 collaborator, Terri Tatchell.
Between them, Nolan and Blomkamp did much to convince ever-cautious studios that original science fiction is worthy of investment. If Interstellar and Chappie are as good as we’re hoping they’ll be, maybe they can do the same thing again very soon.
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