Alita, and the Problems of New Sci-Fi

As of today, Alita: Battle Angel has made approximately 15% of what it needs to make for the studio to feel at least comfortable with its performance. Needless to say, that won’t happen (at least not here in the US). The Chinese movie market will most likely make up heavily for the poor performance here but the problem still stands: new sci-fi is risky business.

This made me wonder: Why are most original science-fiction films doomed to fail? Is there a consistency in this at all, or are science-fiction films just the loudest box office bombs due to their high cost? In this essay I’m going to focus on this current decade, 2010 and onward, and no it’s not because Avatar is the 2009 film that pokes an enormous hole in my theory. I’ll address that film here, don’t worry. But Avatar aside, let’s look at which recent sci-fi films fit into my these.

Below is a list of science fiction films that satisfy all of these conditions: released 2010 or after (at least 500 screens across the country), was not successful at the domestic box office (didn’t make more than it’s estimated cost of production and advertising which is around 2-3x production cost. We’ll go with 2.5x), and has a Rotten Tomatoes score of at least 60% (fresh). These conditions will show us recent theatrically-released sci-fi films that were received positively but ultimately failed financially in the United States.

About Time
Blade Runner 2049
Cloud Atlas
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edge of Tomorrow
Ender’s Game
Ex Machina
Mad Max Fury Road
Men in Black III
Midnight Special
Pacific Rim
Ready Player One
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Star Trek Beyond
The Wolverine
The World’s End
War for the Planet of the Apes
World War Z
X-Men: Days of Future Past

“But those films are great!”

Exactly, they are all positively reviewed but American audiences didn’t show up to them, or at least as much as foreign audiences did. And the above list doesn’t even mention the more obvious ones like The Mummy, Ghost in the Shell, The Lone Ranger, Ghostbusters, Geostorm, John Carter, Jupiter Ascending, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, King Arthur Legend of the Sword, Mortal Engines, Power Rangers, RIPD, The Great Wall, Alice Through the Looking Glass, A Wrinkle in Time, the list honestly goes on for quite a long time. And granted, some of these listen films are “fantasy” while the first list was exclusively science fiction, but still. The evidence is there: for some reason, science fiction films are a huge risk these days. Even Justice League cut it close…

Fine, Avatar. 

Looking back, it’s more clear to me that Avatar was big for three main reasons: visual technology, use of 3D, and accessibility. To those that argue “quality” as well, yes and no. While it’s one of my favorite films of all time, I still don’t see how it could contend in a race for Best Picture. The Academy as a whole likes to nominate whatever is popular and relevant (Get Out, Black Panther have both seemed to be sort of an act of pandering in the eyes of the fans) and the nomination of Avatar doesn’t win any debates. That aside, let’s discuss my three reasons.

  • Visual technology. James Cameron historically waited and waited to make this film; he wrote the script early on in his career but knew not to make it until the visual effects technology caught up to his vision. Needless to say, the effects were the best they’d ever been. With 20 or more years to create his vision, this is understandable.
  • The use of 3D. Also historically, James Cameron bashes most movies’ use of 3D technology as they’re usually post-converted to 3D as a gimmick. Cameron shot Avatar with IMAX and 3D in mind so that every frame of 3D footage would feel like it was truly meant to be in 3D. He treated it like an artform and it came across as such. It was really the first movie of this generation that amazed audiences with it’s visuals. That doesn’t happen much anymore, but when it does it’s truly remarkable.
  • Accessibility. It’s a film about saving mother nature from a militaristic force… that’s about as human of a story as they can get. Anybody could relate to this because this relates to everybody, even though it takes place in outer space. What’s not to be intrigued by?

If Avatar was popular for those reasons, then we should take those reasons and apply them to the other films I’ve mentioned to see where they went wrong. Of course, quality most certainly plays a role in a film’s success but beyond that, release date can also save or bury a movie. If we look at Mortal Engines, for example, we can see that although it wasn’t reviewed well, it’s release date is ultimately what made it fly under everybody’s radar. That, and it looked like Mad Max: PG-13 Road. 

Sci-fi is, in it’s very nature, a critique of society. The concepts it puts forth allows us to view ourselves with the lens of a distant outsider, offering up ideas disguised as abstract concepts simply to entertain. We’re getting to a point in moviegoing history where almost every box that a sci-fi film could check off would only be checking off boxes that another film has already marked. Visual effects? No. They have to be perfect to be considered “normal.” 3D? No. Nobody likes or trusts that anymore. Accessibility? These stories have already been told before. Quality? You better hope marketing was good enough to get people in, and those people are talkative to spread good worth of mouth. Critics no longer have the power to help or hurt a film as they once did. If it looks good to audiences, they’ll see it (Transformers, Venom, etc) or if it doesn’t, they won’t (every film mentioned at the beginning).

Since Alita started this conversation, let’s bring it back into the mix: what does this film show us? The first thing I would mention would be that poor marketing is ultimately a death sentence. Movies only get one chance at a first (and last?) impression; studios put that duty in the hands of trailer houses. If they don’t do a good job, the studio is out 200 million dollars. Alita is the latest film that clearly was hurt by it’s first trailer(s), but the problem doesn’t exactly end there. Even now that the film is out in theaters, I still have no idea what sort of film to expect. Is it more of a superhero film? A young adult action sci-fi? And what’s the audience? Would I enjoy this film if I went to see it?

That’s the million dollar question that every audience member (sub)consciously thinks before even considering seeing a movie. Most often, this is expressed in “oooh”s, “ahhh”s, or “ewww”s but the sentiment is the same: yay or nay. Since we’ve been burnt by films such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, collectively dismissed After Earth, missed out on Mad Max Fury Road, or actually all saw The Martian, few things become clear: we only see films nowadays that absolutely promise a good experience.

Pixar, Marvel, Fast and Furious: names that you can count on to be a good time no matter what. Arrival? No thanks, I don’t know what that is. Blade Runner 2049? What, like Total Recall, RoboCop, A Good Day to Die Hard, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? No thanks, I’d like to keep my childhood intact. Unfortunately, this preemptive dismissal can be a problem, especially when the dismissed films are actually spectacular. It’s also a problem because now, studios are less likely to take risks and make these sci-fi films…especially when they would be spectacular.

I only glossed over some of the notions in here but I think my ideas are at least laid out in a way that causes you to wonder as well.

Lastly, I’d like to recommend some science fiction films that I simply adore, but that I feel more people should have seen. Enjoy:)

About Time
Ex Machina
10 Cloverfield Lane
Edge of Tomorrow
Super 8
The Discovery
The Lobster (sort of scifi)
Children of Men
The Fountain
The Host (Korean)
Cloud Atlas
Never Let Me Go
Robot & Frank
Safety Not Guaranteed

As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon(er than two weeks from now)

Published by Blake Carson Schwarz

Indiana University graduate in Media and Creative Writing. I love to write my own stories as well as experience the work of others. On this site, I post reviews, essays, and other fun posts that I hope you have as much fun reading and I have writing. Please share any comments you have, I'd be happy to hear what you think! *Never a critic, always a fan*

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