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Can Standalone Sci-Fi Movies Still Be Successful?

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May 09, 2014 | 3:00pm EDT

Transcendence, Johnny DeppWarner Bros. via Everett Collection

In the past year, we’ve seen many sci-fi films flop at the box office and in reviews. Most recently, Transcendence underwhelmed critics, science fiction buffs, and casual moviegoers alike. Though it may have looked like a gripping sci-fi thriller from the trailers, it ultimately tried to set up overarching themes and ideas that the film never fully accomplished.However, Transcendence isn’t the only film in the past year to disappoint sci-fi genre fans.

Science fiction releases from 2013 like After Earth, Oblivion, and Elysium failed to impress audiences and critics in the same way as the superhero box office homeruns like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3. So, can Hollywood sci-fi keep up with the burgeoning superhero genre?

Short answer: yes, but it’s becoming harder and harder.

There were, of course, highly successful science fiction films of 2013: Alfonso Cuarón’s Academy Award-winning Gravity, Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning Her, and Guillermo del Toro’s huge box office hit (if we're talking international numbers as opposed to domestic) Pacific Rim. These movies proved that the science fiction genre is not, by all means, dead. That being said, though, fans of sci-fi are starved for originality within the genre.

When Transcendence first debuted in theaters, it was likened to Her, as well as other, older films that featured artificial intelligence. Similarly, last year when After Earth, Oblivion, and Elysium premiered, they were also compared to older science fiction films as well as to one another. At this point, it’s almost impossible to look at a sci-fi movie and not question, “Wasn’t this a Twilight Zone episode?”

Gravity, Her, and Pacific Rim were successful because they had an original take on a genre that has been around for a long, long time. As this past year and a half has proven, fans may turn out for science fiction movies, but they also have higher expectations for the genre.

Hollywood cannot churn out any old movie about artificial intelligence and expect fans to flock to the theaters. We’ve seen far too many films with the same basic plot that unless the filmmakers innovate the idea enough, viewers will feel as if they’ve already seen the movie. However, as long as directors like del Toro, Jonze, and Cuarón continue to have fresh ideas, sci-fi films are not going anywhere.

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