The Growing Need For More Independent Science Fiction Films (and More Sci-Fi in General)
A Look Forward: Prospect, High Life, Dune, and the Future of the Genre
When someone talks about independent films, most minds tend to focus on more personal, grounded stories being told. Comedy, drama, and horror are the most popular genres among indie audiences. It seems with Blumhouse pumping out more horror movies (and the occasional Whiplash) than anyone can keep up with that they have officially cornered the market on independent horror movies. Then there is A24, the name that many now attribute with greatness after releases such as Room and Moonlight, officially launching them to the forefront of the indie niche with Eighth Grade, Lady Bird, and Mid90s all also being incredibly successful in the last two years. However, one genre that rarely seems to get much attention when it comes to independent films is science fiction.
Before you decide to argue that the previous statement is false, looking at recent *Popular* independent sci-fi movies would bring you to a list looking something along the lines of the following:
- Ex Machina (2014)
- Looper (2012)
- *Cloud Atlas (2012)
- Moon (2009)
- District 9 (2009)
- Primer (2004)
Each of these films other than Cloud Atlas actually did pretty well or have gone on to do very well post-release. Ex Machina, Looper, and District 9 were all financial success as the box office upon release. Even Primer, a movie made on a $7,000 budget made $ 841,926 at the box office.
Out of all of these Cloud Atlas is is without a doubt the least impressive, but is also barely even an independent film with the film having had an almost $130 million budget, as well as being more of a cross between science fiction and fantasy. The film also received more of a mixed response than overwhelmingly positive.
One argument that many may attribute to indie sci-fi flicks not being a big draw is that nowawadays science fiction films do not seem to be nearly as successful as they once were. Star Wars and Transformers are the only two big film series in the genre, and both have started to see diminishes in their box office returns (sidenote: I love the Star Wars films, so no I am not bashing them). And yes, there are other independent science fiction films besides the ones listed above, with 2013’s mind-bending Coherence being a personal favorite of mine. The point is that while other genres are seeing a massive increase of productions and profitability in the independent market, science fiction is not.
Annihilation and Blade Runner 2049 are two examples of non-indie high-brow science fiction films that expected to do well and just did not. Both movies garnered immense critical acclaim as well as positive audience responses as well, but failed to make much of any sort of dent at the box office. For Annihilation, many consider the film’s poor release internationally as the main reason for it doing poorly, however the marketing can also be blamed as it was not really clear what the movie was for general audiences and most likely turned many moviegoers off to the idea of dropping money on something they did not know anything about.
In Blade Runner 2049’s case, this can be attributed to it being a sequel to a cult film that also bombed at the box office as well as being released 40+ years after the original film’s release. Again, both of these films garnered lots of praise from both audiences and critics, but even with studios backing them did not see the high return in profits that anyone had hoped for.
As the title of the article suggests, this is a look forward at science fiction films, more directly independent ones, namely at two films; Prospect, which saw a very limited release in 2018 and is available on VOD in March this year, and High Life, a sci-fi film being directed by Claire Denis and distributed by the indie darling A24. Both films seem to be taking the more slow burn approach than being action or horror based, and legitimately look like fantastic pieces of sci-fi cinema. Some of the visuals specifically shown in the Prospect trailer look haunting enough to sell that movie just off of the short few minutes shown. As for High Life, it looks as if it is going to be a more psychological look at imagintive life in deep space, something that seems extremely interesting due to mental health being such a hot button topic in today’s climate. Sadly, mainstream audiences are not up for these types of films right now (for the most part, obviously there are occasional outliers) which most likely means that neither film will be wildly successful in terms of financial return even on a small scale. However, if one were to take a guess at which of these two films will do better, it is easy to say that High Life will do better for three reasons;
- Name Brand: The A24 brand is on fire right now, and seemingly with every release there is at least some level of mild to high hype from audiences.
- Casting: Robert Pattinson may no longer be a Twilight teen idol, but after roles in Damsel, Good Time, and The Lost City of Z, he has shed the perception of being a wooden actor who was simply adored for his looks for praise due to his versatility and range. Also Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) is beginning to make the transition from music to movies and it should be interesting to see.
- Release: It is not confirmed as to if High Life will see a wide worldwide release, but it will most likely make it into more theaters than Prospect did meaning more cash return.
It really is a shame that there is a high potential that neither of the aforementioned films will do well as both have already garnered positive reviews with Prospect currently holding an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 68 out of 100 on Metacritic. In comparison, High Life has an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 81 out of 100 on Metacritic. Both films are getting a lot of praise from critics which is a good start, but audiences need to see these in theaters if given the opportunity rather than waiting to stream them on Netflix/Amazon/Hulu or even worse, streaming them illegally.
It is imperative that if you are interested in these films that you spend the money to see them so that more can follow in their paths. People always question why there has not been a District 9 sequel and that film made approximately $210 million on a $30 million budget. Despite making a considerable amount of money it is not hard to see why both big movie studios and independent ones are not willing to take the risk with the recent failures in the genre. When there is a scare for large-scale studio sci-fi films to bomb hard at the box office, it also has a big effect on the indie releases. For every Arrival ($203 million on a $47 million budget) there is a Blade Runner 2049 ($259 million, with only $92 million coming from the United States, on a budget between $150–185 million). There needs to be demand if indie filmmakers and big studios are going to produce the supply to meet said demand.
The elephant in the room that has yet to be mentioned here is the superhero movie. This is the current cash cow of Hollywood with more of these movies being released every year and seemingly becoming more profitable with each release. While some may consider superhero movies as part of the science fiction genre, it seems as the majority agree that they are in their own category, with that being the comic book movie. So for the sake of this argument I am counting them as a separate entity, somewhere in the speculative fiction area.
As for Star Wars, alarmists and anti-Rian Johnson-er’s will tell you that Star Wars, literally the biggest science fiction franchise, is dying. While I would not say that Star Wars is dying, I think it is probably clear by now that the argument I am raising is that the genre of the science fiction film is on a steady decline. Looking at 2018’s big sci-fi releases is pretty telling in this category (time for another list!):
- Annihilation (Critically acclaimed, bombed at box office)
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (Positive Reception, low box office return)
- Ready Player One (Positive Reception, actually made quite a bit of money)
- Pacific Rim: Uprising (Critically panned, did turn a slight profit)
- The Cloverfield Paradox (Netflix Exclusive, critically panned)
- Bumblebee (Critically Acclaimed, underperformed despite being the highest rated Transformers movie)
- A Wrinkle in Time (Critically Panned, barely made back its budget)
Out of these seven films, only three received overwhelmingly negative responses (one of which was a Netflix exclusive), and yet box office performance was lower than expected for all of them besides Ready Player One. These movies can receive all the praise in the world, but when it comes down to it the film industry is a business and these movies need to make money in order to keep being made. So if you consider yourself to be a fan of science fiction, independent filmmaking, or both, please do the right thing and go out to see these movies if possible, and if not rent/buy them.
The subtitle for this article did in fact mention Dune. This is not meant to reference David Lynch’s Dune, rather the new remake/reboot that is coming from Denis Villinueve, Director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 (hence the comparison earlier). This new adaptation of the acclaimed science fiction novel(s) is already receiving lots of attention and hype with new casting announcements coming rapidly. The film’s cast is currently made up of Timothée Chalamet, Dave Bautista, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, and is rumored to also have Zendaya and Javier Bardem featured as well. This cast, along with the acclaimed director offer a very promising return to the world of Dune, however this was also the case when news of Blade Runner 2049 began to come out, hype that only increased when the first footage was released before the film subsequently bombed at the box office. This is troubling when you consider that this could very much be heading in the same direction.
When I first sat down and started typing this article out, it was completely different. It was originally just going to be a short piece trying to garner some hype for both Prospect and High Life, but as I typed it really got to me that the science fiction genre has fallen this much in the last 10 years. It went from Avatar earning $2.788 Billion and becoming the highest grossing film of all time, to last year having Ready Player One earn approximately $582 Million. Some may say that they are not comparable because Avatar was an event rather than just a movie, but in terms of “events” Ready Player One was that movie last year. Even if you were looking at 2019's film slate, the name that sticks out is Alita: Battle Angel (being produced by James Cameron) which looks to be on par with Avatar in terms of wildly impressive visuals, however most are expecting it to be the first big box office flop of the year despite the obvious comparisons it is drawing between itself and Avatar.
The point is while science fiction is not immediately dying and there are still big releases within the genre each year, the need for more attention is glaringly clear. There are legitimately groundbreaking films within the sci-fi genre being released each year and going completely unnoticed and unwatched due to poor marketing and lack of availability, issues that can be easily fixed by studios willing to take the risk of spending some extra money on these films. While they may not turn out as profitable as Looper or District 9, there is always the possibility that they could or could even do better if given the chance.
Films are a form of escape for many, and science fiction has been at the forefront of escapism in cinema. Filmmakers create these vastly imaginative and distant feeling worlds that they bring audiences to. Without them there would never be a world like Pandora from Avatar, or Tatooine from Star Wars, these iconic yet fictional planets have been the place that inspired and will continue to inspire younger generations of filmmakers, a tradition that needs to continue if we wish to keep the sci-fi film genre alive and well for generations to come. See these films in theaters. Rent or buy them if they are only available for VOD. Spread the word and support science fiction films.
If you liked this article please be sure to check out any of my other stories either by clicking my profile and peeking around, or by clicking the following link to my article taking a look at Ridley Scott’s 1989 Film Black Rain: