Where Are All the New Sci-Fi Movie Franchises?


Well, there’s going to be a new Alien movie, and for some reason, this is good news. Word broke yesterday that Neill Blomkamp, writer/director of District 9 and the forthcoming Chappie, closed a deal with 20th Century Fox to helm a new film in the sci-fi/monster franchise, and everyone is very excited, somehow ignoring the fact that Ridley Scott’s 1979 original has yielded exactly one good sequel (James Cameron’s Aliens) and no fewer than five more that are varying degrees of terrible (Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, Alien vs. Predator, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, and Scott’s own Prometheus). That’s a 16 percent sequel success rate, kids, so let’s maybe keep it in our pants for a minute — particularly as Variety is reporting that the Blomkamp Alien is “separate from Prometheus 2, which Fox is still making with Ridley Scott.” Oh, cool, so they’re making like a whole Alien Cinematic Universe, awesome idea, A-plus you guys. But here’s the more pressing issue: in this era of mega budgets and limitless effects possibilities, why has science fiction fallen so specifically prey to the endless sequel-remake-reboot machine? Where are the new sci-fi franchises?

To be clear, there’s no shortage of good sci-fi franchises. Two films in, the rebooted Planet of the Apes movies have proven worthy successors to the original series, replicating those pictures’ ability to mix character drama, social commentary, action, and adventure. Though its follow-up was something of a botch job, J.J. Abrams admirably managed to reignite the seemingly comatose Star Trek series back in 2009 with a reboot that worked simultaneously as science fiction, glossy 21st-century blockbuster, and (most importantly) ensemble comedy. And for his trouble, Abrams was handed the keys to the Star Wars kingdom, which will continue under the capable hands of filmmakers like Rian Johnson (Looper) and Gareth Edwards (Godzilla).

Which is not to say that a franchise has to be good to keep cranking through the assembly line. This summer will see the unleashing of the comically titled Terminator: Genisys, a fairly comparable franchise to Alien: one unquestionably great (perhaps even better than the original) sequel, followed by two far inferior entries and an already-forgotten television spin-off. The franchise has been watered down and cut with baking soda to the point where Genisys looks less like canon than fan-fiction — but it’s a new Terminator movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in spite of the fact that everyone knows it’ll be terrible, it’s going to make a bajillion dollars.

Why? Because genre fans are reliably brand-loyal. Even if you watched that Terminator TV show and hated it, even if you sat through that one Terminator movie with Christian Bale and the guy from Avatar, you still have to see what they’re doing in this new one. Even if you loathed all of the Star Wars prequels (and really, who can blame you), you can’t resist seeing what a fan like Abrams brings to the series, nor the idea of watching Ford, Hamill, and Fisher back in action. And even if you’re totally clear on how much difficulty anyone but Cameron — including Ridley Scott himself — has had recapturing the magic of Alien, well, Blomkamp’s concept art was pretty neat, so maybe he’ll figure it out, right?

Blomkamp knows how forgiving/hopeful sci-fi fans are, and in an odd (and somewhat unprecedented) way, he used that loyalty to land the gig. His Alien had, by all accounts (including his own) stalled out before he started posting those images on Instagram last month, with a subtext of, “Man, I sure do wish I could make this, HEAVY SIGH.” And then, next thing you know he’s directing an Alien movie. Maybe the whole thing was a setup, creating buzz for a deal that was already made; maybe it really was a dormant project that got a shot of life via the clamoring of fans.

Any way you slice it, it’s a savvy bit of timing; the deal has been made before the release of Blomkamp’s next film, Chappie, a Short Circuit/Robocop mash-up which (let’s be honest) doesn’t look very good. His last release, 2013’s Elysium, was widely perceived as a critical and commercial disappointment — at least when compared to the rapturous notices and handsome profitability of District 9. But District 9 was also a bit of an anomaly: an original science-fiction film that found an audience.

Look, you can blame the studios for this endless cycle of sequels and reboots and remakes (and we frequently do). But in the specific area of science fiction, the fans bear at least some of the responsibility. It’s tempting to lump sci-fi boosters with horror fans, the most carnivorous of genre moviegoers, but to their credit (if not their personal detriment), horror fans go see everything: Michael Bay-produced remakes, yet another found-footage ghost story, one more damned Insidious, sure, but also original stories from up and comers. Science fiction fans passed on duds like After Earth — but also, to a great extent, on strikingly original stuff like Edge of Tomorrow, In Time, and Children of Men, and even problematic but ultimately ambitious efforts like Jupiter Ascending, John Carter, and the aforementioned Elysium. And as long as they continue to endorse established but unreliable brands rather than taking risks on new voices, they can’t expect the people who bankroll those movies to do anything but follow suit.