X-Men: The Last Stand broke all sorts of box-office records when it opened last month over Memorial Day weekend. It can claim the fourth-highest Friday-to-Sunday opening weekend ever, the second-biggest single day ever (for its opening day), and—most importantly to box-office watchers—the most successful, by far, Memorial Day weekend ever. It left the 1997 Memorial Day opening of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in the dust, smashing JP2's then-record four-day opening of just over $90 million by raking in almost $123 million.
That's good, right? X-Men: The Last Stand brought SFnal concepts before millions of moviegoers. Or did it?
It didn't. It might look impressive, to fans of science fiction, that one movie ostensibly full of what-if ideas (about the cultural and political impact of the rise of genetically mutated humans) replaced another (about the organizational misdeeds of a corporation that pushes back the frontiers of science) at the pinnacle of one kind of highly coveted success in Hollywood. But you don't need to look much closer to see that The Last Stand is SF only in its trappings: the film is far more concerned with mutant-combat setpieces and showing off its exorbitant FX budget than it is with exploring the consequences of its what-if scenario. In fact, even when it appears to give itself the opportunity for a short detour into contemplating the ideas it itself raises, the movie backs off: although the central conflict it presents its mutant heroes is the possibility of a "cure" for their mutations, it resolutely avoids even the barest discussion of the ramifications of the "cure" on the new and evolving mutant culture. When it comes up against the genuinely science fictional, The Last Stand retreats to the safety of cinematic action.
What happened? Only six years ago, the first X-Men movie managed to combine action and ideas; nine years ago, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which the latest X-Men movie trumped at the box office, did not avoid detours into the consequences and corollaries of its speculative circumstances. Go back even further, to the 1950s and 60s and 70s, and the lack of real science fiction today becomes even more obvious. How did we go from The Day the Earth Stood Still to The Day After Tomorrow, from Westworld to I, Robot, from When Worlds Collide to Armageddon?
What happened is the blockbuster. The blockbuster killed the science fiction movie.
Now, that's just silly, you say. Everyone knows that blockbusters are science-fiction movies. Well, not really. Not unless you stretch the term "science fiction" to include fantasy: there are plenty of very good films appearing on recent annual and all-time box-office-blockbuster lists that qualify as fantasy, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Shrek and Spider-Man. But science fiction, the literature of ideas: where is its cinematic equivalent? Not easy to find these days. It's true that Armageddon—the action movie about oil-well grunts sent into space in order to destroy an asteroid on a collision course with Earth—was the second biggest moneymaker of 1998, hauling in more than $200 million in North America alone. But it is far more interested in the idea of blowing things up than in any SFnal concepts about threats from outer space to human civilization—it is SF only in its stage dressing. Ditto 1996's Independence Day, number 14 on the list of biggest moneymakers globally (it's number 20 domestically). Even the few true SF movies that become huge hits with audiences today—the first Matrix film, for instance—are, it appears, SF almost accidentally, or as an afterthought. It's action and violence and disaster that drive the science fiction films Hollywood gives us today, and if we happen to also get some intriguing what-if speculation along with the martial-arts combat and car crashes, well, that's merely a bonus.
It started in the mid 1970s with two films that became worldwide hits unlike anything Hollywood had seen before: 1975's Jaws and 1977's Star Wars, which demonstrated to the studios that the right movie could be all but a license to print money. Lessons were learned from those films and the numerous imitators they spawned over the next ten years: Movies that appeal to teenagers and young adults—that is, big, loud, fast action movies—make more money than those geared to sophisticated adult audiences—that is, quieter, more introspective, more focused on character than plot. Movies that translate easily and comprehensibly into other languages and have crosscultural appeal make more money worldwide than those that don't—which is why the biggest movie stars in the world are action heroes, not comics; humor is greatly informed by culture and rarely translates readily into overseas success. None of which boded well for the kind of science fiction that genuine fans of the genre want: intelligent, measured, exploratory.
So, while the process took decades and is still continuing (though it may be showing signs of wearing itself out), Hollywood retooled from an industry that opened films in a few theaters and let them succeed through word of a mouth, critical acclaim, and slow touring releases to one in which saturation marketing and saturation releases rotate butts in and out of multiplex seats in a merry-go-round of moviegoing. Discriminating audiences of grownups gave way to undemanding audiences of children—there's no time anymore for a movie that requires thought or reflection, not in Hollywood. In all of 1968, there were only 29 new theatrical releases vying for the attention of moviegoers; in 2005, there were 581. In 1977, Star Wars opened on 43 screens, and at its widest release was playing on only 1,750 screens; it was still playing theatrically in first-run well into 1978. X-Men: The Last Stand opened on an astonishing 8,700-plus screens at 3,690 theaters; it will see precipitous drops in attendance in its first month of release, will disappear from multiplexes before summer is over, and will likely be available on DVD by October. Long before then, it will have been supplanted in the minds of moviegoers by a dozen other massively hyped would-be blockbusters.
Certainly, serious, thoughtful science fiction is not the only genre to have suffered in this paradigm shift—anything not aimed at the 14-to-25 demographic is generally considered marginal from a business perspective, if such films get produced at all. (Of course, there are films that do not feature invading aliens blowing up the White House that are very successful today—one recent nongenre example: Brokeback Mountain—but the industry of late always seems shocked by such success in a way that it is not when it's warring genetic mutants who storm the box office.) But science fiction suffers doubly. Because its frills—space ships and aliens and the like—disguise the mundane roots of many an action-adventure flick, there is a perception that SF is alive and well in Hollywood. But it's almost impossible to name a major studio release since the turn of the millennium that qualifies as science fiction aimed at adults, SF that is not buried under gun battles and massive explosions, SF that actually posits a what-if and follows its implications to a logical conclusion. Hollywood offers us no modern equivalents of, say, 1966's Fahrenheit 451, with its considered cultural extrapolation, or, more recently, 1984's Starman, a charming SF romance. The closest we can come is, perhaps, in the films of M. Night Shyamalan, but his reach exceeds his grasp: his Signs, from 2002, descends into mushy religious pseudophilosophy, and his follow-up, 2004's The Village, is but a warmed-over Twilight Zone episode. Lilo & Stitch, from 2002, is real science fiction, and enchanting to boot, but it is a child's trifle; most of the SF, real and pretend, aimed at the kiddie crowd—2003's Spy Kids 3D: Game Over, 2005's Robots—is simply dreadful.
There is good SF to be found at the movies these days, if rarely. Deep Impact was practically a smack in the face to Armageddon that same summer of 1998, a far more thoughtful and idea-oriented take on the giant-incoming-asteroid plot; the film recalls 1951's When Worlds Collide in its exploration of how society might face the prospect of extinction. Steven Spielberg, who unwittingly started us down this road with his Jaws, continues to make introspective SF movies that are primarily about ideas, for all that they may be packed with action: his recent AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds would all collapse without their scientific speculation.
The second Star Wars trilogy has seen George Lucas go, alas, in the opposite direction. With their over-reliance on inorganic CGI-animated battles and action sequences, these movies exemplify all that is wrong with big-budget Hollywood SF movies today: the more they look and feel like videogames, the better their creators seem to like them, and the more unsatisfied fans of real science fiction are. But the tropes of action movies are weighing down even the good stuff: The Matrix was thrilling, but its sequels sacrificed metaphor and symbolism for concrete physicality; Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a wicked satire of itself, but it fails to introduce any significant new SFnal concepts in its mad rush to blow things up.
Movies have always been product, a means to separate audiences from their money. But somewhere between the nexus of Jaws/Star Wars and today, Hollywood stopped disguising that fact, stopped catering to the smart audiences that made films like 2001: A Space Odyssey the blockbusters of their day and started aiming its sights directly at the easiest crowd to please, the easiest one to separate from its money. Fortunately, independent and foreign filmmakers have taken up the torch of serious science fiction—as they have with the other sophisticated genres abandoned by Hollywood—and have given us such excellent SF flicks as the recent Primer, Donnie Darko, and Code 46. But as our real lives become more science fictional, the smart and erudite SF that was once considered part of the Hollywood mainstream, like 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, has now been marginalized and minimized. The all-important act of contemplating where we may be going as a society, which is an exercise all thinking people should be engaging in (and once were), has become nothing but another niche market.
This essay was inspired by a panel I sat on at Lunacon in March 2006.