The New York Lottery was founded in 1967 under the beautifully succinct idea “Hey, you never know.” The motto is the perfect encapsulation of the system’s inherent optimism and cuts right to the core of its popularity. You have to be in it to win it and you have as much chance of winning as anyone else.
Strangely, that same paradigm helps fuel Hollywood’s continued investment in smart sci-fi blockbusters. The seeds planted by Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1968 feature 2001: A Space Odyssey have blossomed into an industry of hopeful redwoods fighting for the sunlight. All it takes is one to break through. The major obstacle, however, is that movie-goers appear increasingly disinterested in cerebral deconstructions of outer space and beyond.
Brad Pitt, arguably the most visible movie star of the last 20 years and currently enjoying a cultural renaissance, should have had a sure-fire hit with the space exploration drama Ad Astra. Instead, the $80 million feature has grossed just $35 million domestic through two weeks. It joins Denis Villenevue’s 2017 masterpiece Blade Runner 2049, which lost producer Alcon Entertainment up to $80 million, and Damien Chazelle’s underrated First Man, which couldn’t even crack $50 million domestic, as elevated existential meditations that drew rave reviews and few paying customers.
Has the proverbial meteor already struck to wipe out the big-budget thinking blockbuster? We asked box office experts to explore the issue.
“Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 were top notch sci-fi flicks, offering the best Hollywood has to offer, and yet, casual, blockbuster audiences seem to prefer their sci-fi doused in heavy doses of Marvel,” Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told Observer.
The superhero bubble isn’t popping. On the contrary, it’s still inflating by absorbing other genres. Marvel Cinematic Universe tentpoles are all things at once: comedies, action flicks, sci-fi space exploration and more. Deadpool is a raunchy R-rated action comedy and Logan is a neo-Western. This weekend’s Joker straddles the line between Oscars-drama and straight up psychological horror. In some ways, mainstream cinema has left individualization behind in favor of amalgamation as the viability of a theatrical investment continues to shrink in the streaming age.
“Thor, Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers are all steeped in sci-fi and are massively successful,” Bock said. “Hardcore sci-fi has always been a tough genre to greenlight for studios.”
Fresh attraction is difficult at a time when an endless sea of content is available to audiences at the push of a button. Ad Astra and First Man are high-quality films, but arguably didn’t present enough new spectacle to convert jaded audiences. 2049, meanwhile, was a philosophical revelation, but hardly the action sci-fi adventure that $1 billion hits are made of. Warner Bros. is betting big on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, but we already have a failed adaptation that warns of audience indifference.
How do you dazzle an audience with never-before-seen spectacle when viewers these days have seen it all?
Like a malfunctioning MacGuffin posing a threat to our protagonists, the raw economics of the space exploration/sci-fi lanes also make the path to success a uniquely difficult one.
“Other genres such as comedy, horror and drama don’t require the massive buy-in investment that serious movies that traverse the great beyond of outer space do,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told Observer. “It’s expensive to manifest these ideas and settings on screen in a way that an earth-bound human drama doesn’t need to consider.”
Blade Runner 2049 won cinematographer Roger Deakins his first (and long overdue) Oscar as all $155 million of its lofty budget is right there on the screen. Ad Astra ($80 million), First Man ($70 million), Alien: Covenant ($100 million) are all gorgeous spectacles to gaze upon because anything less would derail the experience of a theatrical space film. The goal is to breathlessly mesmerize with pulsating atmospheric appeal, but that is no inexpensive proposition and requires masters of the craft to deliver. For every Arrival ($47 million budget) and Ex Machina ($15 million), pared down but effective entries in the genre, there is 2001’s Planet of the Apes ($100 million) and 2015’s Jupiter Ascending ($200 million), bloated expenditures that made profitability a tall order from the jump.
“This is a niche genre that has become far too expensive to be niche,” Dergarabedian said. “Perhaps their destiny is as loss leaders—prestige pictures and compelling movie-going experiences that filmmakers and producers love even if they don’t make a ton of money.”
The currency of good reviews still holds sways. But, ultimately, these are films that may have to be subsidized by other hits.
The Future of Smart Sci-Fi
Star Wars is the happy medium between mass appeal blockbuster and boundary pushing space exploration, particularly George Lucas’ original trilogy. It is a brand that has transcended the more common issues plaguing the genre, which elevates it to its own pedestal (when The Last Jedi‘s $1.3 billion misses Wall Street expectations, you know you’re in rarefied territory). But that doesn’t mean successful and smart sci-fi is entirely lost to the cobwebs of time.
Christopher Nolan has made a career out of marrying big-budget sci-fi spectacle with complex puzzle-piece narratives. His 2014 Interstellar earned nearly $680 million worldwide and his $200 million-plus budgeted Tenet is eyed as 2020’s big summer blockbuster. Alfonso Cuaron’s equilibrium-altering Gravity did even better with more than $720 million worldwide. Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise may have fizzled out, but The Martian scored more than $630 million. There’s still a market out there.
Kubrick inspired endless devotion to the idea that mind-bending and thought-provoking science fiction could be a legacy defining game-changer in cinema, which is why top-tier filmmaking talent is drawn to the genre like pen to paper. Unfortunately, the financial track record paints a picture of risk followed by unmet expectations. But every so often, a bold new feature arrives to harness the lightning of the zeitgeist and deliver a bankable blockbuster with more on its mind. That’s why studios will continue to play the lottery.
Hey, you never know.