The Great Sci-Fi Revival?

With the release of several highly successful and critically well-received sci-fi films over the last few years, are we witnessing a great revival within the science fiction genre?

In the last 18 months, sci-fi has returned to the top of the box office. Unadjusted for inflation, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most successful film of all time, coming in just shy of $1bn in box office revenue. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story sits nicely at number 7 on that list, having grossed $500 million.

Let’s put that in some kind of context. Adjusted for inflation, The Force Awakens outperformed every Lord of the Rings film, every Batman film, every Indiana Jones film, every Star Wars film except A New Hope, Jurassic Park,  The Lion King, and every Disney film ever made except – narrowly – for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In short, it’s been a success.

Other notable films have popped into this list of highest grossing films of all time in the last few years: Captain America Civil War, Deadpool, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hunger Games (both Mockingjay – Part 1 and Catching Fire.)

On television, Star Trek: Discovery is on the way, and shows like The OA, Westworld and a revived X-Files have been gracing our screens.

All this, without listing the innumerable comic book and fantasy shows being produced (Game of Thrones. ‘Nuff said.)

On paper, it looks pretty good, right?

I can’t argue with that, but I have several key concerns.

Too Good To Be True?

The first, and largest concern, is simply to do with originality. Star Wars builds on a fantastic universe created over forty years ago, Star Trek recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The X-Files was a 90s staple, and most of these comic book characters have been around for years. The 2010’s have been the decade of the reboot.

There’s plenty of original television being produced; much of it is exemplary. I thoroughly enjoyed Stranger Things, for instance. I binge watched Jessica Jones. I’ve heard very good things about The OA. But the fact remains: it’s mostly genre-blending, with science fiction mixed in. It’s diluted, and whilst it’s excellent, has an appetite for true science fiction really returned beyond the desire for nostalgia-ridden reboots and re-imaginings?

Can we really envisage a brand new, space-based, television show, for instance? A new Firefly – set in a brand new spaceship in a brand new sci-fi universe? It feels like it’s been a while.

In the interests of fairness, I should point out that Syfy has recently produced the well-received The Expanse, which I haven’t yet seen.

Nonetheless, it seems a far cry from the 90s where there seemed to be a glut of now-cult shows. Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe, Farscape, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager to name but a few. So too in the early 00s, with FireflyStar Trek: Enterprise, Battlestar Galactica and hundreds of Stargate episodes following suit.

Time Changes Everything

Has time moved on? Have we simply lost the desire for this setting, or is it that the very nature of such a show is rooted in the memory of cheap sets, cheesy acting and episodic plots that have very much fallen out of fashion in favour of long-term story arcs. I’m certainly not advocating a return to any of these, but surely a space-based opera could work with modern qualities attached? I still feel a pang of anger about the under-appreciation of Stargate Universe, which gave blending a space opera through a modern lens a damn, good shot yet was panned by many fans as being too dark.

Too dark.

In an era when the very wonderful Breaking Bad is held up as the most critically acclaimed show of the last decade, I don’t think darkness is too tall a hurdle to overcome.

Star Trek: Discovery could well be something of a litmus test. Can it work? Can it reimagine Roddenberry’s vision in arguably even darker social times, modernise it, and make it appealing? If not, I don’t think we’ll see much movement on the television front for some time. If it does, it will still be a well established franchise, but we might see an increased willingness on the part of television executives to – pardon the pun – go a little more boldly where no man has gone before.

And what for film? With Star Wars and – again – Star Trek set to sweep the box office for at least the next three to five years, and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of Marvel comic films landing, what does the future hold?

Looking Forward

I think the nature of our viewing has changed in the last few decades. I think the movie studios will reserve the investment for the money-spinners: the franchises, reboots and re-imaginings they know will guarantee their millions. We might get the odd Interstellar, where the director’s weight carries enough clout to justify the spend. After all, just 39% of Hollywood movies between 2005 and 2014 were “truly original” ie. not a sequel, remake or reboot.

It is in the Netflix-era of premium subscription services where more artistic license is being afforded. If Star Trek: Discovery thrives, I’d expect to see a few more out and out sci-fi series hit the services in the coming years where writers are afforded the freedom to flex their creative muscle and thrash out new and innovative ideas.

Watch this space.

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