Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Is the Sci-Fi Blockbuster Frozen in the Early '80s?

Those who have paid any attention to film history know how high concept and the action/science fiction blockbuster arrived in Hollywood in the mid-'70s, and in the subsequent three decades virtually swallowed up the market. (Because so many of the suck-up poptimist critics immediately "Nuh-uh!" any such claim, I afford some hard numbers about this here that should turn that pathetic "nuh-uh" into a spluttering "But, but, but . . .")

Looking back, I'm struck by the extent to which not just this broad trend, but the specific franchises date back to that time--and along with them, the common touchstones in discussion of science ficion film. Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator. (Indeed, it often seems that our hack journalists can't have a single discussion of artificial intelligence or robotics without bringing up an Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie from 1984. Am I really the only one who finds this pathetic and tiresome?)

This past weekend we got our tenth live-action Star Wars feature film, while the last three years saw brand-new, high-profile, big-budget installments in each and every one of these franchises. Our thirteenth Star Trek feature film in 2016 (while the franchise has also returned to TV--I hear, in debased form as Discovery), our sixth (or if you count the two Alien vs. Predator movies, eighth) Alien film last year, a Blade Runner sequel a few months after that, a fifth Terminator movie back in 2015 with the promise that the franchise had finally come to an end quickly broken when Kathryn Bigelow's ex-husband put off the sequels to the much more profitable Avatar yet again to reteam with his other ex-wife and the septugenarian former governor of California for what will apparently be an all senior citizen reboot of the movie they made back when the author of this post was too little even to know about R-rated movies.

Basically, it seems, Hollywood in that early, post-Star Wars boom period when high-concept and sci-fi action blockbusters were new amassed a certain number of properties and concepts that we can call "creative capital." To a great extent this side of its production has been living off that capital ever since, very little not connected with it in some way, coming from the same people, using its images, following in its footsteps. (Avatar, for instance, was a James Cameron production.) The principal exception would seem to be the comic book superhero-based blockbusters, which also had a crucial precedent in this period--the original Superman, somewhat ahead of its time, but with the slowness to tread the same path more than made up for in the enthusiasm that has left us up to our ears in movies based on comic books that are a half century old or older, with one Marvel movie barely leaving theaters before the next has arrived in them (indeed, the #1 position passed directly from Avengers 3 to Deadpool 2 this month, before passing again to Star Wars this weekend), and DC Comics failing to match Marvel but still taking a big bite out of the market in the process. (That disappointing Justice League movie was still the #10 hit of last year, while Wonder Woman, the champion of the previous summer, was #3.)

This is partly a testimony to how salable all this has been to a public extremely susceptible to brand name and nine figure marketing budgets, and very tolerant of repetition of the same material, even the same CGI imagery, far, far past the point of diminishing returns, but also a testimony to the sheer determination to keep milking an old IP, as the flops show. According to the figures over at, the last really impressive commercial performance by an Alien movie was in 1986, when Cameron's Aliens was #7 in its year at the American box office, and a very big hit internationally as well. Alien 3 was only #28 in 1992, Alien: Resurrection #43 in 1997, Prometheus a better but still less than stellar #24 in 2012, and last year's Alien: Covenant just #42, with room for doubt about whether there was any real profit in it. Compared with the colossal success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was also a less than stellar performer, while Terminators 4 and especially 5 were real disappointments. (Hence the reboot.) But to high concept-minded executives, hey, following up a string of underperformers or even outright flops with more of the same beats actually giving a new idea a chance. And the fact that government tax breaks, product placement, merchandising and foreign moviegoers to whom the experience of Hollywood's offerings are still more novel helps them get away with this approach by reducing their out-of-pocket expenses and relying less on the readiness of those moviegoers who have seen it all before to fork over twenty bucks to sit in front of a big screen in 3-D glasses.

For now.

Solo Flops?
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
Anticipating Solo?
Book Sale
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
My Posts on Star Wars

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