Hollywood Has Sci-Fi On the Mind: Are They Risking Audience Fatigue?

A scene from Avatar
Photo: 20th Century Fox

As one of RopeofSilicon’s news contributors, I spend a lot of time scouring the web for casting news and updates on the progress of in-development projects to post in one of my news roundups. Something I’ve noticed over the past six months or so is a massive uptick in the number of sci-fi movies heading into production. It seems like every other day a new journey into space or story exploring the boundaries of human capabilities is getting the green light from a major studio.

This is clearly in response to the overwhelming success of recent movies like Star Trek, District 9 and, especially, Avatar. And now the success of Battle: Los Angeles has had its own influence on the market.

Before you start thinking “there have always been a lot of sci-fi films,” here’s a rundown of the titles I’m referring to:

Gravity: After flirting with Angelina Jolie as the lead this film is finally getting underway with Sandra Bullock starring as the sole survivor of a space mission trying to return home to Earth and her daughter. Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) will direct for Warner Bros and George Clooney co-stars.

Old Man’s War: Wolfgang Petersen (Troy) will direct for Paramount Pictures. The John Scalzi novel adaptation centers on a 75-year-old man who trades his body in for a new one, allowing him to combine the experience of age with the strength of youth and join an outer space military coalition sent to protect human colonies in outer space.

Horizons: Disney’s Horizons (once titled Oblivian), directed by TRON: Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski, takes place on a future Earth where civilization lives above the clouds and scavengers collect ancient artifacts from the polluted surface below. Karl Gajdusek (Trespass) was recently hired to give the script a rewrite.

The Runner: Disney is developing The Runner as a vehicle for director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace). The film takes place on a future Earth rendered uninhabitable by a devastating attack, where a small group of survivors in the Rocky Mountains send a man back in time to stop it. But it turns out their volunteer’s priority is with saving the love of his life.

Now: Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) is helming for 20th Century Fox. The film stars Amanda Seyfried, Justin Timberlake, Cillian Murphy and Olivia Wilde and revolves around a society in which aging stops at 25 and the rich are immortal, while the rest struggle to stay alive. Sound a tad like Logan’s Run to you, too? Just wait.

Logan’s Run: Warner Bros. is prepping an update of the 1976 sci-fi classic for Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) with Ryan Gosling in the lead role.

Sharlto Copley in District 9
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Elysium: Perhaps one of the most promising pictures on the board at the moment is Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9. Plot details are being kept under wraps, but the film stars Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley and has already set a March 8, 2013 release date. The legendary Syd Mean (Blade Runner) will design the sets.

Two more titles were announced just this week after Battle: Los Angeles claimed the #1 spot at the box-office, though this time the wars will be waged outside our planet. Sony has Agent OX, based on a spec script about a human spy living on an alien planet who must stop an invasion of Earth. 20th Century Fox picked up an untitled pitch that will be written by David Callaham (Doom, The Expendables) for producer/director McG (Terminator Salvation).

And how could I talk sci-fi without mentioning Prometheus, which will see genre legend Ridley Scott return to the Alien universe he introduced us to more than 30 years ago. 20th Century Fox will release the film in June 2012 with Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron and Idris Elba among the principal cast members.

Oh, and there was that news about Warner Bros-based production company Alcon Entertainment securing the rights to sequelize and/or prequelize a little film called Blade Runner.

A bit overwhelming, right? Like I said above, it seems like a clear response to the success of such films as Star Trek, District 9, Battle: Los Angeles and Avatar. It’s the process of looking for the “next” film in this iteration and I can’t help but recall previous moments when Hollywood flooded the market after one film saw overwhelming success.

In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween grossed $47 million on a shoestring budget of just $325,000. 1980s slasher producers and screenwriters literally began flipping through the calendar looking for new dates for their killings to take place, inspiring titles like Friday the 13th, Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine. By the late ’80s, the well had run dry.

More recently in the horror genre we had the “torture porn” phenomenon, where knockoffs like Hostel, Captivity and The Collecter shamelessly tried to capitalize on the surprise success of the Saw franchise. That seems to have passed now that Paranormal Activity has made low-budget found-footage ghost stories all the rage. Enter Area 51, The Devil Inside and Insidious.

Spider-Man inspired a slew of superhero adaptations when it crossed the $400 million domestic mark in 2002. Though dozens of comic book films followed, only The Dark Knight would top it. And that film was a perfect storm of sorts. The genre now seems to be trending downward, with fatigue being the leading cause. I predict The Dark Knight Rises will mark the end of the genre’s heyday.

Gladiator single-handedly revived the “sword and sandal” genre in 2000, grossing $187 million in the States and taking home five Oscars including Best Picture. Of all the impostors that followed (King Arthur, Alexander, etc.), only Troy bested Gladiator‘s worldwide gross. And none of them had the same success on the awards circuit. These movies were almost always compared to Gladiator. Usually unfavorably.

To this day, filmmakers are still trying to emulate the gritty look of Gladiator. Such is the case with Jonathan Liebesman, who wants his Wrath of the Titans to feel like Gladiator with fantasy elements added in. The guy must be a big Ridley Scott fan, as his Battle: Los Angeles was made to feel like a sci-fi version of another Scott film, Black Hawk Down.

That’s admirable. There are worse directors you could choose to emulate, but doing so sets you up for comparisons to the archetype. Good luck with that.

This sure seems like a whole lot of similar-sounding films that are going to be released within a two or three year span, but I’m sure Hollywood will ride this wave until it passes — just as they have in the past. But in my view, the only way to truly inspire an audience to show up en masse is to deliver something they haven’t seen before — or at least in a very long time.

If the aforementioned fads taught us anything, it’s that moviegoers are willing to embrace something new and exciting. But they are quickly desensitized — whether we’re talking decapitations via Jason’s machete or yet another CGI-fueled skyscraper fight sequence. It doesn’t take long for a fanbase to develop a “been there, seen that” attitude and start looking for something fresh.

Avatar offered nothing new story-wise, yet the visuals were unlike anything we’d ever seen and allowed most of us to look beyond that. But what happens when blue (or red, green, purple, what have you) motion-captured aliens start taking over movie screens once every month or so. The eye popping visuals aren’t going to have the same impact if we just finished sitting through four trailers of equally impressive effects and elaborate intergalactic landscapes.

I guess that brings us back to the reason most of us keep going to the movies: We want to be told good stories. Most, if not all, of the films I mentioned in this article will have production budgets up around (or beyond) the $100 million mark so they’ll likely all have astounding effects. The real question becomes which ones will stimulate our minds as well as our eyes and ears? There’s bound to be plenty of Ghost Riders and Daredevils among them, but is there a film in the bunch that will grab our attention and do for this wave of sci-fi what The Dark Knight did for the superhero genre?

Is Avatar just the tip of the iceberg? Or will it continue to be the stick by which all space adventures are measured? I can’t help but wonder what the marketplace will look like once James Cameron finally gets around to releasing Avatar 2 at the end of 2014. Will it be just far enough out to start the cycle all over again?

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Weekend: Feb. 27, 2020, Mar. 1, 2020

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