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Creative Failures and Failing to be Creative: Sci-Fi Cinema in 2017

If the Hollywood sci-fi movies of 2017 have one unifying special effect that will come to epitomize the collective output of the year, it won’t be disk-shaped space ships, plastic actors reincarnated from the uncanny valley, or unending dustscapes of an orange-tinted future; it would be the damp-squib of disappointment.

Simply put, 2017 should have been a golden year for sci-fi cinema. Heck, it could have ushered in a New Golden Age. Surrounded by comic book movies (Thor: Ragnarock, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Spider-Man: Homecoming), or fantasy adaptations and cyber-punk reboots, all with a sci-fi element (The Dark Tower, Ghost in the Shell, Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes), the three big chevrons of Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars all aligned and locked into place like 2017 was set to be a sensorial Stargate, ready to warp us away with Kurt Russell to far-flung galaxies through lights, cameras, and action.

Someone got the Kurt Russell memo, and I thank them for that, but instead of a Big Bang, the stars and the streams were crossed, and we somehow arrived at the worst weekend box office takings in 16 years (August 25-27) and the most abysmal summer takings this side of 2006, more than a decade ago. Expectations are down across the board, and this is largely down to apathy on the part of both the film industry and the viewing public.

It would be easy to lay the blame at our era of reboots-masquerading-as-sequels. It would equally be an understatement to say that Alien: Covenant, for example, is hugely derivative of earlier films in the franchise to the point where one could argue the classic "chest-burster" monster only comes out of someone’s spine because of how backward facing the whole film is. From the Ripley-like figure flushing inconveniences out of an air-lock, through to malevolent man-droids, and the classic “What could possibly be inside the gooey center of an expectorating space-egg?”, Covenant offers very little that could be considered new to fans or especially exciting to anyone from any point of orientation. In what may be construed as an act of solidarity with the languishing Xenomorph, audiences turned their own backs on the film.

It’s like Ridley Scott looked at Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and took away that the quickest way to earn a billion bucks is to make one film that condenses the entire series of films that preceded it, the problem being that he forgot to make his pocket universe fun, exciting, or interesting to be in. This is why the best Alien film released in 2017 is Life, which revels in its B-movie horror silliness. Not that Life handles things in a more sophisticated manner; the movie is simply more aware of what it is. Like the alien organism itself, it adapts to prosper but sticks to its strengths.

Compared to Scott’s unimaginative Covenant, Blade Runner 2049 adheres largely to the same qualities that make Scott’s original Blade Runner so culturally indelible and visually incredible, but innovates in a way that makes the movie feel like a true sequel. For many, though, this continuation of an old classic (by Millennial standards) also counts against the film.  

Covenant enjoyed nothing like the critical success of 2049. Where Covenant is "equally uninspired and perhaps more blatantly derivative" of the past, turning away prospective viewers, 2049 is seen to be cerebral, beautiful, and building on the original: "Despite all the overlaps, this is not a simulacrum of a Ridley Scott film. It is unmistakably a Denis Villeneuve film, inviting us to tumble, tense with anticipation, into his doomy clutches." Either way, cinema goers apparently still didn’t have the time for it, believing the film to be too long, with The Guardian musing "Has Blade Runner 2049’s failure killed off the smart sci-fi blockbuster?" If 2016 saw Villeneuve’s Arrival, then 2017 might have seen his… departure?

One might argue that the smart sci-fi now resides off the big screens with their three-hour slots and no toilet breaks, but in the homes, with bite-sized chunks ready to be binged on like Mama Netflix wants her chicks to stay full until the next incoming feast of electronic satisfaction goodness. In 2017, Okja, Westworld, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Black Mirror nestle alongside Stranger Things, The Orville, Legion, and Star Trek: Discovery. So, while fandoms may choose to quibble over the specifics of certain aspects (like the Klingon race in Star Trek), these prestige shows can afford to be a little more thematically experimental, as long as they still follow traditional, long-form narrative techniques for pre-paid television.  

From a production budget of $150 million, 2049 made a total worldwide gross of just $257 million. This is pretty much the benchmark for poorly received sci-fi at the 2017 box office. Covenant scraped $240 million and Valerian crawled over the line at $225 million. To put these figures into context, the new Star Wars has just had the second-highest domestic opening weekend ever at $220 million, coming second only to The Force Awakens. But even a tent-pole flick like Justice League is being reported as a failure at $613 million, and the utterly execrable The Mummy even managed $409 million, and this is a film so critically terrible and financially under-performing, it may have (thankfully) torpedoed Universal’s Dark Universe franchise plans.

"Boring" is probably the most commonly used adjective to describe Hollywood Cinema in 2017. The consensus seems to be that Justice League is an "Embarrassing, BORING, ugly mess," as is The Dark Tower and Ghost in the Shell. As adaptations of pre-existing properties, this adaptation not only to the source material, but to the expectations of movie studios bent on franchises and audience appeasement, is both stifling and constraining.

Regarding The Dark Tower, Stephen King himself thought the task impossible as "the major challenge was to do a film based on a series of books that’s really long, about 3,000 pages. The other part of it was the decision to do a PG-13 feature adaptation of books that are extremely violent and deal with violent behavior in a fairly graphic way." Inevitably, the movie of The Dark Tower now stands as a grand edifice devoted to tedious compromise.

Johansson, on the other hand, was considered by many to be the wrong ethnicity to play Major Kusanagi in the live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Japanese graphic novel, Ghost in the Shell. This caused Paramount, its own studio, to partially disown the project and distance itself from the whitewashing argument that it had created. Where The Dark Tower was met with muted indifference, Ghost in the Shell was met with flaming outrage then cool indifference as people realized it just wasn’t that great a film anyway (especially when compared to the beloved 1995 anime version, which also took liberties with the original manga form).   

With less impetus on conforming to the strictures of their predecessors, Planet of the Apes, Kong, and Valerian chose to do their own thing. This is an odd thing to say for two ape-filled films that both liberally borrow from the war genre, taking a note or three from 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the other movie being an adaptation of a comic book, which itself directly inspired many elements of the Star Wars franchise.

Planet of the Apes and Kong are solid films. Neither are on the visual or emotional scale of Dunkirk, but both are far more entertaining than the wrung-out flannels that are this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean and Despicable Me annual churnings to the gods of mediocrity. Valerian made a decent, out-of-Hollywood stab at original, grand sci-fi, primarily coming under fire for the lack of quality control in the execution of its one million novel ideas. Unfortunately, with an actual Star Wars film coming out the same year, Valerian was always going to suffer, serving more as a placeholder reminder that there will always be a Star Wars film "coming out soon." The market place is now so saturated that even Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has already been pushed back from Christmas 2017 to March 2018, so that it won’t directly compete with the Star Wars hyper drive.

The only financially successful sci-fi "competition" this year to Star Wars has been from the Marvel movies, with the two new efforts having a greater sci-fi bend than before (presumably as the spectacle of CGI space travel gets cheaper and audience expectations intensify). Yet, one might begin to speculate how, with The Walt Disney Company owning both Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm, there is no actual competition but an increasing focus on homogenized products and branding across the company, with each film containing the "correct" level of emotions and visual stimuli deployed just as precisely as they are released within the right windows for absolute yearly dominance.

For all that, the real winners in the excitement stakes this year are still Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor. Thor has not only broken away from the tone of the preceding two films in the series, it has rebooted the drive of the titular character and tinged his entire world with one comedy skit after another to make it exactly more like the other sci-fi comedy series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Guardians of the Galaxy. Thor and Star-Lord continue the legacies of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, with a large part of their humour modelled after the action-comedy movies of the ‘80s.

With Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy being a tag-team of retro-neon frivolity and care-free mayhem spreading out over the year, the DC Extended Universe’s Justice League is brought into sharp relief, even after Joss Whedon (the originator of Marvel humor with The Avengers) was brought in to carry out extensive reshoots, essentially inserting jokes into the end of each scene in order to lighten the mood. In this game of escalation and imitation, it will be interesting to see how far both studios go in 2018, with suggestions already beginning to circulate that "Marvel is hurting itself with humor," compared to the balance struck by tempered films such as Wonder Woman.  

Too dark or too light, a balance must be struck in The Force. Star Wars: The Last Jedi precedes Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film project that fired its directors for making the movie too funny, but follows 2016’s Rogue One, a film that also underwent extensive reshoots as it was considered too dark, with "the final battle as originally devised […] deemed too downbeat for comfort." The Last Jedi may be breaking box office records, but the response to the film has been as divided as Chewbacca losing a lightsaber limbo dance contest.    

Goldilocked-fans are finding problems with the three-Porgs and the middle bowl of trilogy porridge, finding issues "chief among the film’s criticisms has been its slapstick humor." The film is currently being "review bombed" and as of last count, 20,099 people have signed a petition to "Have Disney strike Star Wars Episode VIII from the official canon." Even before the film premiered, the Star Wars Battlefront II videogame was "destroying fans’ trust" in the curated Star Wars universe, causing Disney to become involved as "There was no way that Disney would let EA do any more damage to the stellar Star Wars name."

While Disney are cyclically fighting fires with the huge wads of paper money people keep throwing at them, the year ends with an event to eclipse the Star Wars themselves: Disney is buying 21st Century Fox for $52 billion. Fox’s summer-hit, Spider-Man, features the line "those people up there, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, like you and me... they don't care about us," while Disney continues to make its own decisions about the Marvel Universe, or Star Wars (The next 10 years are already being planned out!), Pixar films, or anything that Fox owned, it would appear that 2018 will also be the year in which intensified fan expectations further clash with growing corporate demands.  

Yet, for all of the negativity this year has wrought upon our salivating sci-fi souls, there is hope. IndieWire believes that "The New Golden Age of Studio Science-Fiction is Upon Us" as "We’ll be seeing a lot of major studios releasing auteur-driven science-fiction over the next couple years," films such as Downsizing, Annihilation, Gemini, and Ad Astra.  

All we have to do is wait for the signal and watch (if we’re not too busy being despondent and shouting at each other). 

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