Science fiction movies, by and large, fall into two camps: the big, huge blockbuster spectacles or the small-budget think pieces. Almost never do the two go together, and almost never do they attempt to. For the most part, the sci-fi movies that have done well financially have been the bigger ones, but more than that have been the name franchise movies. Attempts by studios to make a new, untested properties have been met with mediocre box office returns and a stopping of suits taking chances on new ideas. There have been a few exceptions of course. With this week seeing the release of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that’s at once another in a long saga and a completely untested property, I thought I’d take a look at why it seems to be franchise or nothing when it comes to science fiction.
This year saw the release of one of the freshest, most interesting, most entertaining science fiction movies I’ve seen in years. It had a huge budget, a huge box office draw of a star, and a smart screenplay full of humor, depth, and ideas. That movie is Edge of Tomorrow which still stands as my favorite of the summer. This is a movie that, if its 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes was any indication, critics were practically begging you to go see. And yet, it didn’t make much at all domestically. Here at home, it took only a little over half its production budget and currently ranks as the 11th highest-grossing film of the summer, ahead of Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy and well behind The Fault in Our Stars, both of which are still in theaters and could conceivably make more money still.
But why did Edge of Tomorrow not do well when everybody who saw it seemed to rave about it? Certainly some of it could be the public’s increasing fed-uppedness with its star, Tom Cruise, whose off-camera behavior, be it true or just tabloid rumor, seems to be wearing thin for a lot of people. In fact, it might be more than some of it; however, people will go see a movie that looks cool regardless, except this one had nothing for people to latch onto besides Tom Cruise being in it. It wasn’t a name anyone recognized. Even if they had chosen to call it All You Need Is Kill, which was the title of the Japanese book upon which it was based, most Americans still wouldn’t have known what it was. And if people don’t know what a thing is, studios don’t know how to market it.
Let’s have a gander at the movie’s trailer.
Edge of Tomorrow, as I said earlier, is one of the most fun and enjoyable movies of the year, but you wouldn’t know it from that. The movie is hysterically funny and incredibly heartfelt, but the trailer makes it seem very po-faced and hyper serious, and that will turn anyone off. Who wants to see a big sci-fi war movie that looks about as sad as real war? Probably no one, no matter how cool the exo-suits and explosions are. It also isn’t showing us anything we haven’t already seen. What makes this movie stand out is its script, concept, and characters yet the trailer focuses only on the visuals, which are great, but not why people should see the movie. The trailer makes it look kind of derivative; just another Tom Cruise movie with aliens and crap.
Let’s now take a look at another trailer for a similarly intelligent sci-fi movie from a few years ago.
Inception’s trailer tells us the same level of nothing as Edge of Tomorrow’s does, and this one also has a bankable star and a director with credits people enjoy. The difference here is that it’s showing us things we haven’t seen; it’s using the strange visuals of the movie to accentuate what’s special about it. Who’d ever seen a whole city begin to fold in on itself like that, or the floaty-guys-in-a-hallway fight? Nobody! This trailer did what it had to do – give people an idea of what the movie is by showing them reasons why it’s different. This trailer accurately gets the tone of Inception while Edge of Tomorrow’s flatly did not.
If we examine all of this summer science fiction movies, the ones that have done the best are the ones with the most movies under their belt. Heaven help us, Transformers: Age of Extinction is the highest grossing of the summer, and that’s largely because people know what they’re getting when they go to a Transformers movie, even if it’s something they will ultimately think is stupid. The next in line is X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I adored because of its smart script and interesting characters, but that people saw because they already like the X-Men movies, or are at least willing to go with it based on name recognition (the last few movies, The Wolverine excluded, haven’t been very good but they made money). The third highest of the summer is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is total butt and made a lot less than its predecessor, but still people went to see it.
Now, with something like Guardians of the Galaxy we have a bit of a pickle. On the one hand, it’s the tenth movie in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe that stretches all the way back to 2008. People have grown to love those movies and the characters within them, and there has only been one and a half of the movies in the MCU that I personally have just not liked. So there’s a lot of goodwill going into Guardians built up over time and good yield. On the other hand, it’s a completely new title with characters most people will not have heard of, unless they started reading a third-tier comics title in the mid-2000s.
Marvel obviously knows that they can’t just rest on their laurels in this instance because this has been one of the most marketed and advertised movies that’s come out in a really long time. Even at Comic-Con just this past week, there were banners and posters and things every few feet all hoping to give the movie one final push. The early buzz on the movie is excellent, and having seen the movie myself I can tell you that it is excellent, but that’s no guarantee that the larger movie-going public will be interested; clearly good reviews didn’t help Edge.
But, we go again to the marketing – Guardians of the Galaxy has been marketed pretty perfectly. It conveys the style of the movie (colorful characters, big spaceship sequences, neat vistas) and it conveys the tone of the movie (funny dialogue, likable people, adventure in spades), which are very hard to do. I don’t think anyone will walk out of Guardians and think they got anything other than what was promised them. And for all the clips that have been shown, there’s still a whole lot of the movie that will be surprising.
Regardless of my love for the movie, I hope Guardians performs well, simply for the idea that maybe it’ll give science fiction that wants big spectacle but doesn’t have the kind of name or star power that some of the bigger players do. Marvel certainly isn’t a small studio, but they’re resting their new franchise in the hands of a guy best known for playing a doughy idiot on a sitcom. Science fiction is my passion and I want to see space battles and alien worlds for a long time to come. It’d be really nice if those movies didn’t HAVE to be dependent on having words like Star Wars and Star Trek in the titles. One-off, non-franchise science fiction is a hard thing to pull off, but there are enough creative people who can do it – it just depends on if the public is willing to give it a chance.