Science fiction is a tricky genre to pin down, and defining it tends to change depending on your audience. Even experts cannot agree on when it started or a true definition. A quick Google search offers up several different viewpoints.
They range from the purposefully obtuse:
“Science fiction is anything published as science fiction” – Norman Spinrad
To the amorphous:
“a selective tradition, continuously reinvented in the present, through which the boundaries of the genre are continuously policed, challenged, and disrupted, and the cultural identity of the Science Fiction community continuously established, preserved, and transformed. It is thus essentially and necessarily a site of contestation.” – Andrew Milner
One thing we do know is that, at this point, it is an exceptionally successful genre within television, film, video games, and literature; and not something that is on the outskirts any longer. This difficulty in definition is even more challenging as science fiction gets split up into subgenres.
Speaking of subgenres, the focus here is on one of those, which we will term “Big Idea Science Fiction.” The wonderful thing about science fiction is that it is a safe space for big (even impossible) ideas to flourish. If the story makes no sense on a planet we are familiar with, no problem. Put it out in space somewhere (or the future) and no more realism issues! This makes science fiction the perfect genre in which to poke holes into our modern experience and think on a grand scale about who we were, who we are, and who we should become. This subgenre is incredibly flexible and provides creators with many options. A film can be based in action, experimentation, or even comedy. There are also few constraints regarding budget. A Big Idea Science Fiction film can be made on a shoestring budget or on a huge studio lot. Before continuing, we really need to define Big Idea Science Fiction. In this writer’s mind, it is the following: Science Fiction that contains a theme of the big questions that plague us as a species. These themes can be about creation, purpose, power, free will, belief, and many, many others. This subgenre is a difficult one, as it is likely the easiest to be dismissed as pretentious or preachy. But it is also important for artists to ask these questions, to give us the opportunity to think deeply, even while being entertained.
This brings us to Big Idea Science Fiction in film. Does it have a place, in a big budget sense, in a landscape filled to the brim with nostalgia and retreads? It is interesting that this thought process began with the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, whose creation is arguably tied strongly to nostalgia and is a clear prequel to an uber successful franchise. But honestly, if you watch Prometheus and Covenant and do not see the Big Idea Science Fiction coursing through its veins, you might be blind. Scott is not attempting in any way to be subtle or to hide his themes of creation, purpose, and human fallibility.
Now it is no secret that Alien: Covenant did not exactly light the world on fire in terms of financial success in its opening weekend. There were numerous stories about how it barely beat Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in its third week and made less money than the consistently reviled Alien vs. Predator on its opening. Of course, there are as many possible reasons for this as there are opinions on the internet. But one reason could be our seemingly insatiable hunger for nostalgia, seeing the movies we imagine we want to see (instead of director’s and writer’s creative vision), and the heavy, difficult themes characterized by Big Idea Science Fiction in Alien: Covenant.
This article is not interested in opinion on the quality of Alien: Covenant. It certainly seems that it is a divisive film much like Prometheus before it. Many reasons have already been discussed online and in great detail; lack of originality, Ridley Scott having too much creative control, and quality of writing and characterization not living up to the original Alien being just a few of them. The relative failure of Alien: Covenant, financially speaking, may shed some light on a problem in the film industry. There is certainly room for films that are escapist in nature, and those that have deeper thoughts behind them. However, given the focus that most studios have on creating connected universes (MCU, DCEU, Universal Monsters), one begins to wonder where the big ideas will come from. Most fans of these universes will readily admit that these films are no longer only for hardcore fans. The goal is to get every butt in a seat. Are big ideas possible when preaching to the lowest common denominator? Maybe. But translating big ideas to the screen in an entertaining fashion is inherently difficult, even in the best of circumstances. And in this world where only a billion is enough, these circumstances are in the highest degree of difficulty.
The real concern here is not giant directors like Ridley Scott, who can basically write his own check and make the movies that he wants. Nor is the concern for successful franchises like Alien, which will likely always survive. The concern is that if nothing changes and movies like this continue to not be resounding successes, Big Idea Science Fiction is relegated to small studios and even smaller audiences. There are many examples of great small budget science fiction, so this is not meant to slight them in any way. Films like Ex Machina, Primer, and Predestination immediately jump to mind as impressive works in this subgenre. Together their budgets amount to around $20 million. As a comparison, this is about 20% of the budget of Alien: Covenant. And their grosses amount to around $40 million, with Ex Machina taking the lion’s share. It is unfortunate that, in most cases, directors will get to put these big ideas in tiny budgets and audiences, and then will jump to franchises or studios, in which they will have a more difficult time pushing risky, thought provoking ideas. These smaller movies, overall seen as successes, are seen that way because of the low risk involved. This means that they are thought highly of in cinema circles, but in real world terms, no one has seen them.
There are of course, exceptions to this seeming rule. These successes do not truly have a lot in common, aside from being included in the genre of science fiction. Some are action films at their core, others wear their deeper themes on their sleeves. But they all have big ideas and will likely be remembered by audiences long after leaving the theater. Probably the most successful example is the Matrix trilogy. All of the films in the series were financial successes, regardless of critical reaction. These films made over $1.6 billion over three outings in a time when those dollar amounts were almost unheard of. Another example, which is the ultimate in Big Idea Science Fiction; 2001: A Space Odyssey made $50 million. More recently, Interstellar, despite mixed reviews, brought in nearly $700 million dollars worldwide. With this film, there seemed to be a “You gotta see this” reaction to the visuals. It is possible that a space horror film (that is also Rated R) like Alien: Covenant does not have that kind of pull with general audiences. It also helps that Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar, was coming off Inception and the Dark Knight Trilogy. In comparison, Ridley Scott can certainly be hit or miss, with movies ranging from The Martian to Exodus: Gods and Kings on his recent filmography.
This is probably a difficult time to sell people on these big ideas. There is certainly a great need for escapism in these troubled times. So, is there hope currently for big budget Big Idea Science Fiction? We will find out very soon, as there is another film on the horizon. Critical darling Denis Villenueve is directing the sequel to another Ridley Scott big idea, Blade Runner 2049. Setting it apart from Alien: Covenant, it not only focuses on big ideas and nostalgia, it also boasts known stars, Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling. Villenueve, who is also set to direct another science fiction classic in Dune, is certainly trusted and well-versed in the subgenre after the financial and critical success of Arrival. But this will be a true test for Big Idea Science Fiction in the big budget realm. Blade Runner 2049 is rumored to cost $200 million. This is in the budget range of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film and double that of Alien: Covenant. To call this a risky decision is certainly putting it lightly. If you add in money spent on advertisement, a success is probably somewhere around $500 million at the box office. It is possible, but given the current landscape, not probable. This is especially difficult given that the source material, although revered, debuted 35 years ago.
Looking at the successes in this subgenre, filmmakers may need to be more subtle with their themes and be more memorable with their visual style. After all, films like The Matrix certainly discussed heavy themes, but also contained action sequences that were not only new, but groundbreaking. In some ways, this allows an audience member to enjoy a deeper film on a surface level. However, on rewatch (or even first watch), these themes do get through to the audience and make us think. On a certain level, this is unfortunate because it may hamstring many important creators. But the fact remains that the more of these films fail on this epic scale, the less likely we receive these big, important ideas outside of the arthouse theater. More importantly, this means that the general public is bereft of these ideas from cinema, and we think about these grand ideas even less. Some viewers might wonder why this is important at all. Frankly, these ideas are what sets us apart as humans. We have the ability to think about our futures, as well as the mistakes of our past. Entertainment may sometimes seem trite, but it can also be our most important means of expression and change. If subgenres like Big Idea Science Fiction failed and disappeared from big budget film making, that would be a damn shame.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox