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The New Golden Age of Studio Science-Fiction is Upon Us

From heavyweights like James Cameron to indie darlings like James Gray, studios are risking it all to make science-fiction great again.

Blade Runner 2049” is going to struggle to make it past the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, hardly the response Warner Bros. was looking for given the film’s estimated $300 million production and marketing budget. In a way, the odds were always against “2049” given that its predecessor was also a financial disappointment and only went on to become a cult classic with a very specific demographic of moviegoers. “Blade Runner” is no multi-generational favorite a la “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park.”

But while the sequel is a box office dud, it’s unquestionably a huge step in the right direction for studio filmmaking.

Read More: ‘Blade Runner 2049’ Was Never Going to Be a Blockbuster, But It Can Become Something Cooler: a Cult Classic

In a blockbuster age dominated by comic book fare and endless cash-grabbing sequels, it has become increasingly rare to see a big-budget studio film driven not by mind-numbing spectacle or the demands of universe-building but by an auteur’s singular vision. “2049” lacks the epic action set pieces that define Marvel movies, but it has a kind of patience and cerebral edge any superhero movie wouldn’t dare touch. The film has a gun fight or two, but it’s largely made up of characters reflecting on their own shifting perceptions of what it means to be human.

Making a blockbuster like “2049” in 2017 is a huge risk, but it’s the kind of risk studios need to keep taking. Director Denis Villeneuve was able to make a pure Villeneuve movie for $300 million, and that alone should be celebrated by cinephiles, regardless of the film’s financial outcome.

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

Villeneuve did the exact same thing just last year with “Arrival,” another cerebral slice of science-fiction that traded in action scenes for thought-provoking human drama. “Arrival” was made for a fraction of the cost of “2049,” but it was a similar creative risk. Villeneuve made an alien invasion movie and didn’t destroy a single skyscraper; instead, he pieced together the past and future memories of a grieving mother, which isn’t exactly your typical major studio release. “Arrival” ended up grossing over $100 million and earning eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but the film is the exception, not the rule. More times than not, allowing a director to see his or her vision through without studio censorship will have a polarizing result with fans and at the box office. Just look at what’s happening to “2049” or what happened to Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” earlier this year for proof.

Fortunately, the post-“2049” future for studio films looks somewhat bright, and it appears we have the science-fiction genre to thank for that. More so than any other genre right now, science-fiction has become the one area where major Hollywood studios seem comfortable taking a risk and giving an auteur the budget he needs to try something bold and different. We saw it with “Arrival” and “2049,” and we even saw it with Matt Reeves’ more elegiac and mournful “War For the Planet of the Apes” (which also struggled at the box office over the summer). Usually, audience would have to go indie if you wanted to see challenging sci-fi (“Ex Machina,” “Coherence,” “Primer,” and “Moon” being some examples), but it looks like that’s no longer the case.

We’ll be seeing a lot of major studios releasing auteur-driven science-fiction over the next couple years. Here are some of the titles you need to know about:

“Downsizing,” Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne is well regarded as a humanist and a sharp observer of middle-aged existential crises, which makes the thought of him directing a science-fiction movie all the more intriguing. “Downsizing” could certainly be seen as Payne’s first foray into genre filmmaking, although it’s more of a hybrid film in which the filmmaker blends his own humanist touches with science-fiction story elements. The film is set in the near future where scientists have introduced a solution to over-population that gives people the opportunity to shrink themselves. Matt Damon’s character, Paul Safranek, chooses to live a smaller life, but downsizing opens his world up to unexpected conflicts. Paramount opens “Downsizing” in theaters December 22.

“Annihilation,” Alex Garland

Alex Garland first made a name for himself in Hollywood as the screenwriter of great sci-fi indies like “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” and “Never Let Me Go,” but his career skyrocketed as the director of “Ex Machina.” The 2014 breakthrough was a stimulating science-fiction tale disguised as a morality play, and it earned massive critical acclaim and an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. IndieWire even named it one of the greatest sci-fi movies of the 21st century.

Studios were clearly paying attention to “Ex Machina’s” success, as Paramount quickly landed Garland to direct the big budget adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel “Annihilation.” Natalie Portman plays the head of a group of female scientists who venture into an environmental disaster zone in order to find a cure for her ailing husband, played by Oscar Isaac. The trailer teased a hugely ambitious storyline for a major studio release, and early rumors claim the movie reaches levels of Kubrick and Tarkovsky in its brain-melting third act. “Annihilation” opens February 23, 2018.

Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg

You’d have to go back to “War of the Worlds” in 2006 to find the last pure Steven Spielberg science-fiction blockbuster. The director has spent the last decade concerned with family adventures (“Tintin,” “The BFG”) and historical dramas (“Bridge of Spies,” “War Horse,” and “Lincoln”), and he even has the upcoming newspaper drama “The Post” ready for release sometime in December. Fans of “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Minority Report,” “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” and more have desperately been waiting for Spielberg to return to his sci-fi roots, and he’ll finally do so next March with “Ready Player One.”

Based on Ernest Cline’s science-fiction novel of the same name, the movie is set in 2045 among a population that has turned to a virtual reality known as The OASIS to escape their dystopian world. The simulator’s creator has buried easter eggs inside the VR world, promising his fortune to whoever finds them all. That’s where we meet teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), whose hunt for the easter eggs is disrupted when a new corporation seeks to put an end to OASIS. Warner Bros. releases the film nationwide March 30.

Taiwanese Director Ang Lee Poses For Photograph During the Asian Premiere of His Movie 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' in Taipei Taiwan 02 November 2016 Taiwan TaipeiTaiwan Cinema - Nov 2016 Taiwanese director Ang Lee poses for photograph during the Asian premiere of his movie 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' in Taipei, Taiwan, 02 November 2016.

Ang Lee

B. Tongo/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

“Gemini,” Ang Lee

And Lee’s unpredictable career has taken him from gay romances to historical dramas, war films, literary adaptations, and period pieces, but with “Gemini” he’s finally set to bring his boundless visual scope to the science-fiction genre. Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” stumbled at the box office, but “Gemini” should be a return to commercial success given the intriguing premise and the star power of Will Smith front and center. The film has been floating around Hollywood for years, with Curtis Hanson and Tony Scott attached to direct at different points of development, and the original script was written by “Game of Thrones” co-creator David Benioff. The plot evokes “Looper” as it concerns a senior NASA official being hunted by his younger clone. Lee has proven to be a knockout with visual effects (see his Oscar winner “Life of Pi” for example), so the sky is the limit for whatever he has planned for the sci-fi genre.

“Ad Astra,” James Gray

James Gray has been upping the stakes of his narratives and working with larger budgets with each new film, so it was only a matter of time before the director would join forces with a studio to make something truly epic. “Ad Astra” sounds like that kind of mainstream breakthrough after the indie success of “The Lost City of Z.” Brad Pitt plays an astronaut who sets out on a mission through the solar system to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared 20 years earlier on a one-way mission to Neptune.

Gray has compared the film to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and he told Collider earlier this year that he’s taking the most grounded approach possible to the genre. “What I’m trying to do is the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie and to basically say, ‘Space is awfully hostile to us,'” he said. 20th Century Fox has already set a January 11, 2019 release date for the movie.

Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez

Daniel Bergeron

“Alita: Battle Angel,” Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez has only ever made big-budget action films for family audiences (see the “Spy Kids” franchise and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl”), which is part of the reason the upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel” could mark a whole new chapter in the director’s career. The idea for a film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s acclaimed manga series was first brought to James Cameron by Guillermo del Toro, but the director’s work on “Avatar” kept the project from being properly developed. Rodriguez boarded the film in April 2016 with Cameron producing, and the budget from 20th Century Fox is estimated between $175-$200 million. It’s clear “Alita’ is going to be a massive risk given its budget, but the studio should have all the faith in the world with Rodriguez and Cameron behind the scenes.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future where an amnesiac cyborg trains to become a bounty hunter. Rosa Salazar, Mahershala Ali, Michelle Rodriguez, and Christoph Waltz star. Fox has set a July 20, 2018 release date.

“The Predator,” Shane Black

Normally a studio reboot of “The Predator” franchise wouldn’t inspire much anticipation (and fans clearly weren’t too interested in the 2010 installment directed by Nimród Antal), but 20th Century Fox has made the exciting decision of putting none other than Shane Black in the director’s chair. Black has blockbuster experience under his belt thanks to “Iron Man 3,” and his films all share a wisecracking banter that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a “Predator” movie. Black is an unorthodox choice for Fox, which is only more of a reason to be excited for a new “Predator” entry. As long as the studio doesn’t stand in his way, Black should have no problem surprising franchise fans and bringing in several newcomers to the “Predator” universe.

Read More: ‘Blade Runner 2049’: Denis Villeneuve on the Challenges of Three-Way Sex Scenes and His Very Real Need for a Nap

“Avatar” Sequels, James Cameron

The second “Avatar” movie will arrive over a decade after the original became the highest grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). It’s been so long since “Avatar” conquered the box office that no one is really begging for a sequel anymore, and yet you’d have to be crazy not to be at least a little excited for another opportunity for James Cameron to play on the biggest canvas imaginable.

The director is shooting four sequels set for release between 2020 and 2025 and they’re set to cost 20th Century Fox an estimated $1 billion. No other director in history could probably inspire that kind of confidence but Cameron, whose technological innovations always prove groundbreaking for the movies. Whether you’re a fan of “Avatar” or not, Cameron remains one of the science-fiction genre’s legendary auteurs (“Aliens” and “The Terminator” being hallmarks of the genre) and therefore you can’t count out the sequels just yet. “Avatar 2” is scheduled for release December 18, 2020.

Other Sci-Fi Related Highlights: Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams finish off the new “Star Wars” trilogy in December’s “The Last Jedi” and 2019’s “Episode XI.” Marvel turns to Taika Waititi for “Thor: Ragnarok” and Ryan Coogler for “Black Panther.” Ava DuVernay takes charge of Disney’s science-fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” adaptation. Villeneuve, meanwhile, will jumpstart another beloved science-fiction property with the upcoming “Dune” remake.

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