It seems every year recently there has been a massive-budget, CGI-heavy sci-fi/fantasy movie that nosedives hard at the box office. The numbers below speak for themselves:
- John Carter (2012) – Budget: $250 million. Gross: $284 million.
- Jupiter Ascending (2015) – Budget: $176 million. Gross: $184 million.
- Gods of Egypt (2016) – Budget: $140 million. Gross: $151 million.
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) – Budget: $177.2 million. Gross: $226 million.
- Mortal Engines (2018) – Budget: $100 million. Gross: $102 million.
What’s more, this is often after having their release dates delayed at least once, indicating the studios behind these projects seem to have as little confidence in them as the audiences they’re for. However, the reason Hollywood continues to give these a try is obvious: desperately searching for the next Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc. in a story with characters who have never previously graced the screen, surrounded by an industry currently thriving on sequels to known franchises. With that, it’s sad that they continue to fail.
But are they actually bad? While I adore any type of film, getting to know me you’d quickly understand that sci-fi and fantasy are the genres that have the firmest grip around my heart, and especially after seeing Alita: Battle Angel recently, this has increasingly become a question I want to address.
First, a History Lesson
To me, the most baffling aspect of these film’s failures is that, at their core, they aren’t much different from successes of the past. Building a rough (very rough, bear with me) timeline:
The 1930s saw the birth of the monument fantasy adventure in King Kong (1933), which earned three times its budget at the box office, and The Wizard of Oz (1939), which was an awards powerhouse at its Oscars. No story like these and of their scale was seen again until the 1950s and 60s. Then, the industry was in a weird post-war lull that prompted spunky, though usually ironic and depressing films such as Forbidden Planet (1956), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing from Another World (1951), The Blob (1958), The Time Machine (1960), Planet of the Apes (1968), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Barbarella (1968). Each of these provided audiences an escape to creative, well-versed far-away lands, and were all successes critically and/or financially. Ultimately, they cleared the highway for the nostalgia-inducing boom that followed.
The 1970s and 80s brought the popularity of this genre to the mainstream, planting the origins for successful franchises that the industry and audiences have communally never stopped turning away from since.
Alien (1979), Star Wars (1977), Mad Max (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Superman (1978), Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), Tron (1982), Robocop (1987), Predator (1987), Westworld (1973), Ghostbusters (1984), and oh so many sequels. Even with lesser-known properties like Flash Gordon (1980), Logan’s Run (1976), and The Last Starfighter (1984),Hollywood seems determined to re-purpose for the modern eye.
This era nailed the writing — most of the time laying out well-structured, hopeful stories with actable, unbantering dialogue, intricate character dynamics, fascinating mystery, and cutting-edge emotional turning points first, then overlaying and mapping them to sprawling fantasy landscapes second. They are legitimately great, and the cultural impact they made is understandable.
The 90s were obsessed with anticapitalism and antifascism, delivering such unhinged (see: incredible) films as Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Total Recall (1990), 12 Monkeys (1995), The Fifth Element (1997), Starship Troopers (1997), Strange Days (1995), Demolition Man (1993), and last but not least The Matrix (1999).
There are three important things to note from these: 1) Most were completely stand-alone outings; 2) Many of them depicted a significant amount of hopelessness for humanity, similar to those of the 50s and 60s; and 3) This was when CGI began to be recognized as a useful and completely feasible tool in fleshing out complex, imaginative worlds. And with that…
Entering the 21st century we got more Star Wars, more Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, sequels, reboots, sequels, reboots, forty gazillion superhero movies (no disrespect, I love a lot of them), and people have generally expressed distaste for just about every expensive original sci-fi/fantasy story that has graced the screen since.
What’s Still Good: Committing to a Bombastic Premise
From here on, I’m going to focus my discussion on four particular films: Jupiter Ascending, Gods of Egypt, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and Alita: Battle Angel.
I think what can make or break a sci-fi/fantasy film is how boldly it commits to the potential ludicrousness of its premise. The inciting incident of Gods of Egypt sees two Egyptian gods (Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) fighting for a throne, transforming between their slightly-up-scaled-from-regular-size human forms and metallic winged beasts — culminating with Set (Butler) ripping out Horus’ (Coster-Waldau) eyes. From there, the film becomes a series of rising set-pieces with the end-goal of reacquiring Horus’ eyes in order to reunite a young couple that’s been separated by death.
In Jupiter Ascending, a young woman bogged down by a repetitive routine and high family expectations comes to learn she possesses genes that identify her as part of a royal lineage from across the universe and is to be granted immortality and inheritance of Earth itself. Valerian follows two federal agents saving a planet from extinction by fighting the higher-ups of a city supposedly uniting a galaxy in peace. Alita is about a robot girl and her cyborg-doctor father torn between vigilantly staying safe and achieving greatness through a robot racing game.
Yes, all of this is real.
But what else is real? A movie about a film crew traveling across the ocean to an island where the lead actress falls in love with a towering gorilla. A movie about a boy living on a sand planet who must help destroy a planet-sized space laser alongside a princess, a smuggler and his man-dog, and a space wizard. A movie where an ordinary man realizes he’s been living in a simulation being run in a dystopian future ruled by machines. And don’t even get me started on some of the things in Star Trek.
What’s most important is that not one actor in these movie acts as if what they’re in is as stupid as it sounds. Geoffrey Rush (as the sun god Ra) sits on a boat drifting through space drawing energy from the sun, and roars at the top of his lungs as he vaporizes giant space worms to protect the flat Earth below. Channing Tatum humbly scoots around on his hover-boots fending off alien bounty hunters in dark alleyways. Rihanna performs a musical number with strict authenticity as she shape-shifts to comically no end.
Even actors like Chadwick Boseman, Elodie Yung, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, and Eddie Redmayne (truly so far off the wall it no longer exists) dig into the quirky grit of their roles.
This care extends to behind the camera as well, with sequences built off lenses whipping and slithering through environments of textured effects-heavy chases, battles, escapes, and then some. The best example of this: the smooth and dynamic motion of Alita‘s astonishing Motorball sequence.
My point is that sci-fi/fantasy has always thrived on such insane concepts. That has never changed. It’s part of what makes them fun. What makes the difference is how hard the people involved allow a story to commit to that fun. And these films commit hard.
Simple But Strong Protagonists to Follow
Across each of these films, I’ve found – regardless of anything else – that what the protagonists represent in their stories make them easy to cling to. Alita is the best example of this, so I’ll start with her.
Alita is about identity. She’s forced into a body that’s not her own, broken again and again, then is finally able to reach the apex of her potential and become her most powerful self when allowed to live in the body she knows is hers. Simply put, it’s a beautiful arc. In addition to this, Rosa Salazar provides an invariably genuine performance all at once full of spirit, memorable personality, and adorable purity.
Jupiter is actually quite similar. Faced with deceitful temptation for gargantuan riches and immortality by three people genetically defined as her children, she is lead to believe she hasn’t a choice in personally defining who she is. Overtime, she comes to understand that our genes don’t have to define who we are even at the level of the universe dating back millions of years. It’s the Wachoswki Sisters’ most powerful expression of identity.
Less powerful, though still effective, the protagonists of both Valerian and Gods of Egypt are defined by a sudden responsibility to defeat the evil enslaving their worlds. And more akin to the films of the 70s and 80s than the 90s, each of these arcs are ultimately hopeful, which I’d argue is highly necessary in the sociopolitical challenges of our society today.
Altogether, these protagonists don’t necessarily possess any specific deeply held thoughts or tumultuous sources of inner turmoil, which I’m sure is partly why these films are ridiculed in the writing department (and that’s understandable). But their goals and changes are defined with clear positivity, and permitted boisterous passage across their stories. Couple this with the aforementioned heavy commitment by the actors behind them, and you have characters who are a blast to watch float through the conflicts thrown their way.
The Visuals that Construct these Worlds
This is the best part. Some of the things in these films look, just, so damn good.
The environments look beautiful and fitting to the stories at play. In Gods of Egypt, the frequent gold interiors and sand-orange exteriors are contrasted strikingly with deep blacks and enveloping sunsets. In Alita, structures comprised of glossy metal surfaces shine against more scrappy and cobbled ones. And across all four films, particularly in Valerian, complimentary colors are used without restraint, emitting a vibrant depth of feel.
In the characters, there is a synergy between costumes, production design, and makeup and computer-generated effects alike that is too distinct and weighted to look away from. Whether it’s the diverse array of cyborg designs in Alita (differing in size, proportionality, and structure), the seamless animal-human hybrids and exaggerated pompous royal wear in Jupiter Ascending, or the ever-changing wardrobes in Valerian, the characters inhabiting these lush environments are perfectly suited to compliment them.
For whatever reason, I gravitate toward the extra menacing-looking lizard henchman in Jupiter Ascending as my favourite example of this.
In sticking together the elements of environment and character, there is a relentless creativity coursing through everything — in the background, in movements and mannerisms, in characters without even a minute of screen time, it sincerely exists in every image from top to bottom. Like these cute little creatures from Valerian…
Or this elephant man in Jupiter Ascending who makes an elephant sound before flying his spaceship away. I love it all.
What’s Not as Good: The Central Romances
The one that works best is between Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Their constant banter is conversational, witty yet un-fabricated, and flows even through moments of action, which a lot of blockbusters don’t get right these days. In this respect, their relationship emulates that between Han and Leia in Star Wars.
With that said, their eccentricities are a tad heavy-handed – Valerian often coming off too toxic, and Laureline too tolerant of his selfish persistence. (also, the movie should have been titled Valerian and Laureline because Cara Delevigne is so good in this).
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those in the other films, which are at times shallow and boring. Some lack energy (Jupiter and Caine), some feel forced (Alita and Hugo), and some aren’t given enough time to really be anything (Bek and Zaya, though one could argue the friendship between Bek and Horus is more central and works way better).
Applicable to each of them seems to be a disconnect from the greater story being told. In many cases it feels there is a romance subplot for no other reason than that there should probably be a romance subplot. Alita meets Hugo within her first minute of being outside for the first time, and immediately something is off. It’s reasonable that this is where some audiences are lost, because functioning as a force of the story rather than alongside it might provide that energy and justification they need.
The Underlying Implications for Sequels
$equels!!! — everybody’s gotta have them, I suppose. These days it may appear foolish if you’re a mega-budget studio film not planting seeds throughout for more films to follow. To a far greater extent than the central romance problems, I think this is where these films tend to lose people.
I don’t even just mean in cliffhangers and open endings. A lot of this setup is simply in the exposition.
You know what I mean: they’ve all got that scene where a computer or elder character halts the task at hand to give a history and layout of everything that needs to be known from locations to important people to scientific concepts.
From what I can see, in doing this, they leave little to be desired for future stories, and audiences are tired by the time the cliffhangers present themselves. In Star Wars (1977), only just enough is told, painting massive gaps in information that pretty much automatically call for more to be desired. Look at that scene in Luke’s house where he sits down with Obi-Wan for the first time. And look where that got it.
Jupiter Ascending actually actively avoids this error, often interrupting or malfunctioning whatever device is about to reveal everything, then instead allowing Jupiter to experience it herself shortly after. So, honestly, in its case I’m not exactly sure what part of it didn’t work for the majority.
Look, I can’t speak for everyone. I don’t have all the answers to why these so consistently fail. But I do know this: they have premises as maximally fun as history’s best sci-fi/fantasy films, they have strong protagonists who represent ultimately hopeful ideologies just like our favorites from the nostalgia era, and they showcase the height of computer generated capabilities in displaying some of the most visually impressive worlds maybe ever(?).
Alita seems to be making a mark overseas, so perhaps attitudes are beginning to shift. But to anyone who’s made it to the end of this article, for your consideration…can we please finally start to give movies like these a chance?
(HINT: Denis Villeneuve’s Dune releases on November 20th, 2020).