Is there a future for original sci-fi movies?

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Apr 29, 2019, 7:22 AM EDT (Updated)

The recent box-office failure of Tom Cruise's sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow may portend a gloomy future for original sci-fi projects on the big screen.

Edge of Tomorrow earned just under $30 million in its first weekend in theaters earlier this month, even less than Cruise's 2013 genre effort, Oblivion, which took in $37 million on it way to a tepid $89 million at the U.S. box office. After three weeks of release, Edge has hauled in an equally flat $74 million. With a reported budget of somewhere around $170 million, there is no way Edge turns a profit unless it performs strongly in foreign markets.

There are a lot of reasons Edge may be tanking: First, Cruise is not the superstar that he once was. Secondly, the marketing for Edge (including its terrible title) made it look like just another generic alien-invasion movie or even similar to Oblivionwithout accentuating the clever time-travel hook. And third, this was not a sequel or part of a branded franchise (like Marvel) but for all intents and purposes an original story, even though it was based on a Japanese light novel called All You Need Is Kill.

That last aspect is the most troubling one, because it fits a pattern developing at the U.S. box office: Original science fiction films not based on a major license or an existing property are having a tough time capturing an audience, which could lead to studios shying away from these movies more and more to rely on sequels, remakes and pre-branded entertainment.

When I say "original," I mean movies either based on original screenplays or adapted from novels, stories or even comics that are not widely known to mainstream audiences (so we're not talking about The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner). In those terms, original science fiction is having a tough time at your local multiplex, and that's not good.

A lot of people are probably going to go this weekend to see Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth installment in Michael Bay's exhausting series of destruction-porn movies starring indistinguishable giant robots. The first three movies have made $2.7 billion worldwide, and there's no reason to suspect that the new one will do any worse. The franchise is nominally science fiction -- it does, after all, feature alien robots from space -- but it's really just a big-budget series of advertisements for a toy line. As with the others in the series, there is not even a storyline in this one that makes a lick of sense.

On the other hand, there is a far superior and more truly sci-fi movie, called Snowpiercer, opening at the same time. In it, the last remnants of humanity circle the frozen Earth endlessly on a sort of supertrain, with the poor crowded into the rear and the privileged living a good life up front. Directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host), Snowpiercer has its flaws, but it's far more original, visionary and full of ideas than Michael Bay's entire filmography. And yet there is not an iota of a chance that Snowpiercer will do half the business of Age of Extinction.

Just look at the evidence: Edge of Tomorrow is just the latest original sci-fi film to hit the skids in the past few years. John Carter was a major loser for Disney, to the tune of $100 million, while Elysium, Ender's Game, After Earth, Oblivion and Pacific Rim all underperformed (the latter at least did well enough overseas to warrant talk of a sequel, but still). 

There are exceptions, of course: The highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar, is an original sci-fi film (Dances with Na'vi jokes aside). Christopher Nolan's Inception was a massive hit back in 2010. But the failures are more frequent, and the question remains: Why? Are audiences just not that willing to spend their hard-earned money on something totally unfamiliar without a number or a superhero's name in the title? Have the studios lost the ability to market these films effectively? Is science fiction just not that interesting to mainstream audiences? 

I'll say no to the latter -- and ask you to help me prove it. Below is a list of science fiction films, some tiny indies, others Hollywood behemoths, that are coming out in the next year or so. What do they have in common? They are all either wholly original ideas or adapted from lesser-known books and graphic novels. They are not sequels, remakes or reboots. Will you check some of them out? 

As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I almost feel like it's a sacred duty to go out and support the genre in all its incarnations -- movies, books, comics and so on. Surely, if fans are willing to troop out in droves to see the latest Transformers, then Edge of Tomorrow -- or any other original science fiction movie -- deserves some love, too. Don't you think so?

What do you think? Is original sci-fi in danger of being drowned out by big-budget franchise fare, or can it bounce back at the box office? Let us know in the comments!