Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Market for Retro-Science Fiction

In 2014 a fairly slow early summer gave way to a late summer season packed with surprising commercial successes (Guardians of the Galaxy).

2015 has proved a more typical year in that respect, with the bigger successes appearing early on, and the latter part of the season seeing the piling up of disappointment after disappointment--with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. lengthening the list.

It seems safe to say that one factor was the degree to which the late spring and early summer, packed with colossal successes (Fast and Furious 7, Avengers 2, Jurassic World) sated the audience's appetite for big action.

Indeed, 2015 had already sated the appetite for as specific a taste as that for '60s-style spies, with this spring's hit Kingsman, this summer's Spy, and Mission: Impossible 5--not just a '60s-style spy adventure, but one which, just like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., was spun off from a '60s TV show, and came out just two weeks earlier. And not incidentally, was yet another hit, so much so that it actually ended up making more money during The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s opening weekend than the new movie did.

In short, the timing of the movie's release was terrible.

However, the film had two other disadvantages as compared with Mission: Impossible.

The first has to do with each show's presence within the pop cultural universe.

The original show's run had begun in 1966 and continued for seven seasons and 171 episodes, to 1973. Then there was a two season, 35 episode revival, beginning in 1988 and running to 1990--just six years before the first of the Tom Cruise films hit theaters, and exploded at the box office, after which that movie was followed up by a money-making sequel every few years.

By contrast, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had just a four year run, from 1964 to 1968, and apart from a single reunion TV movie in 1983, has not produced anything since. So basically this is a show from a whole half century ago, which incidentally does not seem to have left any trace quite so recognizable as, for example, Mission: Impossible's famous self-destructing messages or Lalo Schifrin's theme music.

The result is that not only has that property simply been less visible, but Hollywood made the mistake of waiting much, much longer to get the movie made, making it that much more obscure.

The second was the fact that Mission: Impossible got updated to the present, while Man From U.N.C.L.E. stuck with the original period setting. In short, it is an atompunk film, as the publicity made clear. That genre has been a tough sell to audiences, even when it has been attached to a successful franchise, as the underperformance of X-Men: First Class and Men in Black 3 demonstrated. I wondered for a time if this would be the movie to change that, but unsurprisingly a movie based on an obscure franchise dropped into the marketplace at the end of a season crowded not just with action, but with '60s-style spy action in particular, did not prove to be that film.

The Summer of 2015, An Early Assessment
My Posts on Spy Fiction

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