For fans of mainstream science fiction, 2017 is going to be a busy year. Per Disney’s new tradition, there will be another new Star Wars film coming at the end of the year, which will be preceded by other new stalwart sequels like Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant, and Star Trek: Discovery. But the landscape of filmed science fiction always looks like this now: familiar brands either being rebooted, revived, or continued. There’s nothing wrong with loving any of these properties, but they’re no longer calling cards for nerd street cred; they’ve gone from cool fictional universes to “geek brands.” And the demographics of people who are interested in mainstream science fiction have no problem thinking about these other worlds as products, instead of art.
A new Star Wars film today feels more like a product than it does a piece of creative expression, because the last time Star Wars movies reflected the genuine creative desires of George Lucas, fans went insane. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is another good example. Startlingly different from Alien, this 2012 film nonetheless served as a prequel to Scott’s beloved 1978 sci-fi/horror flick. But, because it was so aggressively different, philosophical, and lacked the money-shots of chest-bursting aliens from Alien, Prometheus was called “an epic failure.” But early buzz for Alien: Covenant is positive, mostly because it looks more like a “regular” Alien movie than the movie that preceded it.
Fan complaints carry an amazing amount of sway, and over the last decade, they have boiled down to demands for the status quo. Often times, the biggest complaint is that the latest installment in a particular franchise is just way too different than its beloved predecessor. The entire Star Trek community has been doing this since 1982, as fans have been completely unable to get over the “perfection” of The Wrath of Khan. With Star Wars, it’s The Empire Strikes Back. How many people do you know who said that Rogue One was the best Star Wars since Empire? How many of those same people will say that about The Last Jedi?
Obviously, the reason why science fiction franchises have become inexhaustible sequel machines is directly connected to money. If these movies didn’t make money, they wouldn’t get made. Their nine figure box office pulls make them no-brainers for studios, and yet, when Blade Runner was released in 1982, it wasn’t well reviewed. It also cost $28 million to produce and only took in $33 million at the box office. But, countless writers (including this one) believe that the reason why Blade Runner is such a groundbreaking and important science fiction is because it was different, risky, and hoped for a wide audience. Now, this years Blade Runner 2049 only exists because it’s banking on that audience already being there. A new Blade Runner is about as risky as the Ramones being used to sell Apple products. It’s ironic, as no new movie that performed as poorly as Blade Runner did initially would ever get a sequel now.
The same year Blade Runner hit theaters, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan also premiered. Throwing in a bunch of Moby Dick references into a sci-fi action movie and killing off Spock — the most popular character in the franchise — wasn’t a calculated move: It was a risky, tricky gambit. Now, killing off anyone — like Han Solo — is predictable to the point of being expected.
So, where is the new non-franchised science fiction, and why isn’t it more popular? It exists! It’s just not getting the same amount of coverage or fan-excitement the other franchise stuff is getting. Think of a franchise like Star Wars as a boombox blaring on the corner of the street. It makes it harder to hear about other stuff around you, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Interstellar took in $675 million at the box office in 2014, while 2016’s excellent alien-film Arrival was a nominee for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and was just nominated for several Academy awards. On television, the sci-fi show Sense8 continues to garner a following, which demonstrates the writing talents of the Wachowskis, as well as J. Michael Straczynski. Notably, all of these people created franchises in the past — the Wachowskis made The Matrix and Straczynski made Babylon 5. However, these people aren’t returning to their Matrix or Babylon 5 wells, but instead, they’re writing original science fiction.
The past five years have seen other great non-franchised science fiction movies, too. After his early success with District 9, Neill Blomkamp continued his socially relevant science fiction pretty hard with Elysium. And while many fans are disappointed that Blomkamp’s iteration of more Aliens sequels aren’t happening fast enough, giving this writer/director another shot at original sci-fi after his so-so robot film Chappie seems like a good bet. Elysium and District 9 are solid, meaning Blomkamp must have something good rattling around in his mind.
And then there’s Ex Machina, the 2015 Alex Garland robot film, which redefined what a robot film could be. Garland’s previous writing credits include the original 28 Days Later, as well as the sci-fi movie Sunshine. His next movie is coming out this year. It’s called Annihilation, and it’s a science fiction thriller based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. Because of the excellence of Ex Machina, getting excited about Garland’s next sci-fi movie should be easy for fans.
Director Rian Johnson also made an exciting original time-travel sci-fi movie in 2012 called Looper, but he’s now directing the next Star Wars. In this case, franchise science fiction isn’t just stealing fans away from original science fiction, it’s taking talent away from original science fiction, too. What would Rian Johnson’s next original sci-fi film have been like after Looper? We’ll probably never know. If you liked Denis Villeneuve’s excellent non-franchised science fiction film Arrival and hoped for more stand-alone fare, forget it. After Villeneuve’s new Blade Runner 2049 comes out, he’ll be tackling the new Dune franchise. Make no mistake, Rian Johnson and Denis Villeneuve making big franchise sci-fi inherently means they’re not making original sci-fi.
With the excellent exception of the self-contained episodes of Black Mirror, most other new science fiction on TV is an old-school sci-fi brand which has reinvented itself as a “dark and gritty” concept. In 2003, Battlestar Galactica’s reinvention of a 1978 show was risky-ish (there was a fan boycott at one point), but now, the same thing done with Westworld (originally a 1973 robot movie) is pretty old-hat. And the craziest thing about it is that fans of science fiction seem to revel in this unoriginality.
So, should fans of science fiction reject the name-brand stuff all together? Of course not. But some of these big franchises should be approached with a little more skepticism. Should fans at comic cons start cosplaying as Ava from Ex Machina instead of Princess Leia? YES. Sci-fi fans should try to get more pumped for original sci-fi movies and TV series. Black Mirror should be more popular than it is, and so should The Expanse. Here’s an under-the-radar example: There’s an original sci-fi thriller coming out next month called Life. Everybody go see it, okay? Because if we only support franchise science fiction movies, franchise science fiction movies will be the only films we get.
This doesn’t seem like a problem now, but there’s a durability question to all art, even pulp art. And the franchise nostalgia feedback loop isn’t sustainable for cinematic and television sci-fi art. If sci-fi becomes overtly referential, it ceases to speak to the future, which is what sci-fi should do. If popular science fiction in movies and TV continues to look backward, it’s in danger of vanishing all together. Reading good, new, and challenging science fiction books and supporting TV shows based on those books — like The Expanse — is a good start.
But the medium of sci-fi in the movies and TV is where many fans access the genre first. So, maybe the next time someone says The OA sucked, respond with “hey, at least it was new.” Also, go see Arrival again, and continue to make a big deal out of it and other movies like it being nominated for big awards.
Among all of William Shatner’s over-the-top Captain Kirk inspirational Star Trek speeches, the one where he says “risk is our business” remains a fan-favorite for a reason. Kirk could have been talking about the risky business of filmed science fiction in general — the idea that sci-fi on TV and in cinema could push interesting concepts and stories into the mainstream. Back then, when science fiction claimed to be boldly going, it was in fact, actually very bold. And if fans decide to create a diet of fairly balanced new science fiction, alongside old favorites, the genre will continue to be bold and survive well into the future. Which is where it belongs anyway.