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Sci-fi searches for a new angle
Sci-fi searches for a new angle
By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
Posted 7/15/2004 10:30 PM
With five of the top-10-grossing movies of all time steeped in science fiction, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why Hollywood keeps churning them out.
I, Robot's producers promise a film more substantial than most sci-fi fare.
20th Century Fox
The latest, Will Smith's much-anticipated I, Robot, opens today on the heels of sci-fi-tinged summer blockbusters Spider-Man 2 and The Day After Tomorrow. Thunderbirds (July 30), Code 46 (Aug. 6), Alien vs. Predator (Aug. 13) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Sept. 17) follow.
Among other sci-fi movies in the pipeline are the third Star Wars prequel, Fantastic Four and A Scanner Darkly in 2005, and updates of classics Fahrenheit 451 and War of the Worlds
Yet for many studios zapped by box office disasters — think The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Battlefield Earth — sci-fi films are bottom-line horror stories. Soaring costs and long production cycles are prime reasons the genre has averaged fewer than 11 annual major releases — and far fewer blockbusters — since 1994, according to tracker Nielsen/EDI.
Top 10 grossing sci-fi films
1. Star Wars (includes reissues), $461 M
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, $493 M
3. Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, $431.1 M
4. Jurassic Park, $357.1 M
5. Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, $310.7 M
6. Return of the Jedi (includes reissues), $309.2 M
7. Independence Day, $306.2 M
8. The Empire Strikes Back (includes reissues), $290.3 M
9. The Matrix Reloaded, $281.5 M
10. Men in Black, $250.7 M
Source: Nielsen EDI
"People think these are easy, but for most studios they're risky," says Tom Rothman, chairman of 20th Century Fox, Hollywood's most prolific big-budget sci-fi studio, behind Star Wars, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Alien vs. Predator. "The reality is, they're hard to do well, take hundreds of people and years of work."
I, Robot is Rothman's latest sci-fi gamble, and it's big. Chock-full of special effects and an A-list star, I, Robot cost $120 million to produce. Marketing and advertising could propel the price tag to $170 million.
Set in 2035 Chicago, where robots are about to become as affordable and plentiful as laptops, I, Robot features Smith as techno-phobic homicide detective Del Spooner, a troubled loner who threatens to undermine robots' burgeoning appeal while investigating if one has murdered a human.
Weighing in with almost 1,000 computer-generated special effects, including ubiquitous car-of-the-future chases and oodles of robots, I, Robot is unmistakably sci-fi. But the Alex Proyas-directed film, which pays homage to The Terminator, Blade Runner, The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey, has several plot twists and a dark, noirish look.
Whether I, Robot reaps galactic box office heights or implodes like current summer sci-fi releases Chronicles of Riddick and Stepford Wives hinges largely on Smith, whose humor and action-star pathos should provide, at the least, a large weekend opening, says Paul Dergarabedian of box office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
Smith says I, Robot is his best action work since Independence Day, and Spooner his most complex performance since his Academy Award-nominated role in Ali.
"It's more than science fiction; it's a beautiful little art film wrapped in a big action movie," says Smith, 35. Reportedly paid $20 million for his role and listed as an executive producer, Smith is understandably prone to promotional hyperbole. But the former Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a bona fide sci-fi box office king.
His sci-fi threesome —Independence Day,Men in Black and Men in Black I I —pulled in $1.8 billion in global box office sales, outmuscling Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator trio and Keanu Reeves' Matrix trilogy. Only Harrison Ford — whose Star Wars threesome reaped $1.9 billion — has done better, Nielsen EDI says.
It came ... from Hollywood
An industry staple from the 1930s Buck Rogers era to the cheesy aliens-from-outer-space films of the 1950s, sci-fi has since acquired shades and permutations as varied as the robotic dominatrix of Terminator 3.
Hollywood has mutated sci-fi into horror flicks (Alien), comedies (Spaceballs), soft porn (Barbarella) and disaster fare (Armageddon) It has substituted extraterrestrials for wayward pets (E.T.) and lost loves (Star Man) Traded outer space for underwater (The Abyss) and transformed everything from moderately successful TV shows (Lost in Space) to comic book heroes (The Hulk). It has even parodied its own sci-fi schlock-fests (Mars Attacks!).
Smith's sci-fi films,the Matrix trilogy, the latest Star Wars installments and comic-book turned film fare such as Spider-Man have been huge box-office winners. But critics complain that most are formulaic and rely too heavily on special effects to attract broader audiences beyond the guys-under-25 target demographic.
"Hollywood thinks it's making something good when a movie is an IMAX-sized Game Boy or a testosterone pinple-fest for boys," says Susan Shwartz, a Wall Street exec and author of several Star Trek books. "Frankly, most insult an audience's intelligence. (Studios) are listening too much to focus groups and marketers than audiences," she says. "They think most of us are fools who will pay to see anything. I'll see I, Robot because Will Smith is fun, intelligent and was fabulous in Independence Day, but I think I'll be disappointed."
Even hard-core sci-fi fans have been dulled by an overload of too-similar computer games, effects-laden fantasy films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and more textured, plot-driven TV sci-fi programs.
"Science fiction literature's focus is on ideas, the concept of change and the impact on humanity," says James Gunn, head of the University of Kansas Center for the Study of Science Fiction. "Those concepts are hard to capture on film. They work better in the mind."
Yet film formulas, no matter the genre, tend to be milked if they're a commercial success. When it comes to sci-fi, that's meant more focus on costly special effects than appealing stories, says Gunn, author of some 30 science fiction books, including The Immortals.
"Hollywood is spending too much money on special effects, and the more money that's spent, the more gasoline is burned — you have to have a big finale where everything's blown up," says Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury, whose latest short-story collection, Cat's Pajamas, was released July 6. "The public comes to expect what you give them.
"The best science fiction films had good scripts and screenplays," says Bradbury, 84. Outside of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there's been no outstanding sci-fi movie in 25 years, he says.
Blade Runner, a commercial flop with just $27.6 million in ticket sales, is regarded by many aficionados as the genre's best since 1968's 2001. But purists have yet to forgive Hollywood for mucking up the film, based on Philip K. ****'s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
****'s novel ends with bounty hunter Rick Deckard committing suicide. But in the 1982 film, Ford's Deckard drives off into the sunset with a comely robot played by Sean Young.
"It gets to the point where you hope they don't make movies out of the classics," says Maggie Nowakowska, a Seattle graphics planner at aerospace giant Boeing who began devouring science fiction books as an 8-year-old in the 1950s. "They don't have to have happy endings. Maybe if they were more character-driven, they'd be more fun. Too many are action-thrillers that don't explore the tactile ideas of science fiction."
Harlan Ellison, a veteran sci-fi writer who wrote an I, Robot screenplay in 1978, agrees.
"The beauty of science fiction is each story is different. They postulate a 'what if' scenario that's logical," he says. "But the people making science fiction movies are not trained in storytelling. They don't understand science. So they make stupid, silly stuff that's been made five or six times before."
Bringing a book to screen
Ellison is understandably bitter. Warner Bros. sat on his screenplay for decades. 20th Century Fox later acquired rights to the I, Robot title, abandoning Ellison's work.
Asimov's concepts were eventually melded with Jeff Vintar's Hardwired screenplay — which also languished for years — by Proyas, veteran screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and Smith.
What appears on screen "is a robot-run-amok special-effects marathon," says Ellison, who has seen only parts of I, Robot. "If Asimov could see this, he would be spinning like a gyroscope. It's a movie that won't be remembered a year from now."
Some sci-fi diehards have urged a boycott of the film, contending that beyond the title and references to Asimov's laws of robotics, the film has virtually nothing in common with his 1950 book.
Ellison's screenplay closely followed Asimov's work, nine tales of robotic development told Citizen Kane-like through 75-year-old "robo-pyschologist" Susan Calvin. In the film, Calvin is a 30ish action babe played by Bridget Moynahan, second fiddle to Smith's Spooner.
Studio exec Rothman says Ellison's screenplay simply wasn't effective, underscoring the difficulty of bringing a concept to the screen.
"Harlan's literal retelling of a collection of short stories didn't make for an exciting movie," Rothman says. "We took the spirit of Asimov's ideas and his universe and we developed a movie around those principals."
Asimov died in 1992 at the age of 72. His daughter Robyn applauds the film, which "conveys the essence and spirit of his stories," she says.
"If this attracts a new generation to buy my father's books, to interest them about the future, to perhaps encourage and educate people to have ideas and participate in the creation of the future he foresaw, then this movie does right by him."
After signing on, Smith wanted to work on the script to ensure I, Robot wasn't a top-heavy special-effects blockbuster with little plot, like his widely panned Wild Wild West in 1999. The $170 million movie brought in just $114 million. "The audience is too smart for that," Smith says.
Smith connected with Goldsman at the 2002 Academy Awards, where Goldsman won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for A Beautiful Mind and Smith was nominated for best actor for Ali.
"We spent six weeks going through the script, paying attention to details and scenes. We wanted to create a story that was aggressively smart, that could stand without depending on special effects," says Smith, who insists I, Robot is deeper, more thought-provoking and character-driven than typical sci-fi fare. "The special effects are very cool, but they're like an added treat to the story."
Says Goldsman: "Will's a sci-fi geek in a movie star's body. He has a fever and passion for sci-fi."
Veteran Hollywood producer John Davis, whose 60-plus movies include Predator, Waterworld and Alien vs. Predator, says Hollywood is on the verge of exploiting scores of sci-fi novels and short stories.
"There's such a rich trove out there," Davis says. "I think science fiction will be hot the next four to five years."
Smith, an aficionado since watching Star Wars as a second-grader in 1977, hopes I, Robot will lead a new sci-fi film wave. He'd like to star in several.
"I'm not settling for a trilogy," he says. "I'm going for an octilogy."
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