Monday, August 10, 2015

The Summer of 2015, An Early Assessment

The entertainment press has been bullish regarding Hollywood as of late, understandably enough in light of the fact that three of the highest-grossing films of all time came out in a two-and-a-half month period between the start of April and the middle of June--Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Furious 7 collectively taking in an astounding $4.5 billion worldwide.

Of course, this is partly a reflection of the expanding international box office, and their performance at the North American box office has not been as dramatic. Still, it has been impressive enough. Excluding the April release Furious, four movies broke the $300 million barrier this summer. (Two such hits have been more typical in recent years.) Two of those blew past the $400 million mark (not reached by any movie last summer, or even last year), with Jurassic World going on to take in over $600 million to date--making for a domestic success as spectacular as its international success. In all, the five highest-grossing films (Jurassic, Avengers, Inside Out, Minions, Pitch Perfect 2) have collected a stellar $1.9 billion between them--better than the average for May-August releases (which have generally been in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion since 2007), and so a respectable enough figure even if one takes inflation into account.

Still, while the top movies have done rather well, successes of a more modest kind have been elusive. In the relatively weak summer of 2014, we had seven movies pass the $200 million mark, eleven the $150 million mark, fourteen the $100 million. 2013 was similar, with six $200 million hits, eight $150 million hits, seventeen $100 million hits. And so on and so forth.

By contrast, this summer only four movies have made $200 million (the ones that shot past it to $300 million and beyond), six $150 million, and just ten have passed the $100 million mark. This reflects the number of underwhelming performances. San Andreas has been a solid earner (though not quite so solid as Godzilla was last year). Mad Max, too, especially in light of its being an R-rated installment in a franchise that has not produced a new movie in thirty years (even if those who put up the $150 million budget might feel differently when they do the math). And even Ant-Man has not done all that badly (while still falling far short of the mark that had people griping about last year's Spiderman and X-Men). However, there have also been the undeniable disappointments of, among others, Tomorrowland, Terminator 5 and Pixels, and the outright flop that the new Fantastic Four has proved to be (opening weekend: $26 million). Of course, the summer is not quite over yet, but the list of hits does not seem likely to get much longer. Mission: Impossible 5 is still making money (enough to have a shot at making a fifth movie to attain the $200 million mark), and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. might be another moneymaker, but that'll be about it, and will not change the overall picture.

Some of this may seem natural enough. Summers in which there are really giant hits tend to see a more skewed pattern of earnings, the top movies grabbing a larger share of the overall ticket sales. For example, 2012, which had The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, did not look quite so different from this year. (Just six reached $200 million, nine $150 million, twelve $100 million.) And of course, the earlier part of the year was packed with very large hits, most notably the aforementioned Furious 7, so audiences may have already had their appetite for big new movies partly sated.

However, one might also wonder if the "blockbuster strategy" is not leading to a situation where this kind of spread is the norm--a handful of mega-hits, while more films fail to justify the requisite colossal budgets. One might wonder, too, if the performance of Ant-Man, and still more, Fantastic Four, on top of that of Spiderman and X-Men last year (and perhaps even the less enthusiastic reception Avengers 2 got than its predecessor) are not hinting at a weariness with superhero movies--and especially the endless rebooting of the same franchises while the prior films are still fairly fresh in the memory.

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The American Box Office, First Half of 2015

Friday, August 7, 2015

Science Fiction's Sense of Mission

It has long been unfashionable to think of fiction as having a purpose. Still, what is "fashionable" has absolutely no value for anyone trying to understand anything. (All the more so as actually trying to understand things is also unfashionable.)

Looking back over science fiction in the past year, it has seemed undeniable that from H.G. Wells to John Campbell to Horace Gold, science fiction's prime movers regarded their genre as having a special purpose, apart from other kinds of fiction--and that the genre did realize that purpose. Science fiction helped us discuss science, technology, the future. It helped accustom us to talking about these subjects, and helped develop and popularize the tools for doing so--like the thought-experiments we call "extrapolation."

Science fiction also helped bring the fantastic back into literature more generally.

Yet, having accomplished all that, science fiction also became less special, less important. Pop science has come a long way since Wells' day. So too futurology. Someone who wants to publicly speculate about what some new technology will mean, for example, does not have to write up his ideas in fictional form. He can just as easily use those old science fiction tools in a piece of nonfiction--which may be all the more effective at its job for not having to work as a story, not having to bother with plot, characters and the like (as Wells did not in Anticipations, and decreasingly did even in his novels). And those who would go beyond mundane reality in telling their stories need not dress up the fantastic in scientific jargon (the way Wells felt he had to when he began writing his scientific romances). Indeed, today fantasy seems to have trumped science fiction, with the popular market and with the critics alike.

The old mission having run its course, science fiction writers, by the 1960s, increasingly prioritized other things--things which diminished their ability to deal with science fiction's traditional concerns. The emphasis of many on Modernist and postmodernist subjectivity and irrationality in their choice of content and style were absolutely at odds with the "science" in science fiction, and edged it out over time, as science fiction increasingly abandoned its old interests to the end of becoming regular old fiction which simply happened to have science fiction's trappings.

Indeed, even getting away from the highbrow, artier end of the genre, one suspects that many of the old formulas which retain their popularity are having an effect opposite to what science fiction once did. Rather than helping us think about science, technology, and the future, the genre trades in ideas inhibiting this. The Frankenstein complex (which had even Asimov's I, Robot present us with robot rebellion). The Edisonade (epitomized by Iron Man Tony Stark). Science fiction where the "science" is really pseudoscience (as Carl Sagan complained about The X-Files). There are plenty of reasons for all this, like the ease of fitting such material into a superficially character-centered dramatic narrative, the appeal of the sensational, and so forth. But really these ideas are lingering on past their time and cluttering and confusing things.

One way of looking at this may be to think that science fiction ran its course and, over the last half century, became increasingly decadent--reaching the condition that Paul Kincaid famously criticized a few years ago, recycling old ideas, more or less nostalgically, or playing the game ironically, or even being just fantasy (or even mundane) fiction passed off as sf. Certainly I have tended to that view in many of my writings on the subject. However, one might also imagine that the stage has been set for "science fiction 2.0"--for science fiction to set aside its old tasks (and old devices), and take on some new task, using speculative science to look at the world in a new way (or perhaps even an old way we've simply forgotten). In today's cultural climate it is hard to picture anyone actually doing anything like that--writers and editors and critics too leery of such seriousness. Yet, it seems to me that that possibility does exist.

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