If the Hollywood sci-fi movies of 2017 have one unifying special effect that will come to epitomize the collective output of the year, it won’t be disk-shaped space ships, plastic actors reincarnated from the uncanny valley, or unending dustscapes of an orange-tinted future; it would be the damp-squib of disappointment.
Simply put, 2017 should have been a golden year for sci-fi cinema. Heck, it could have ushered in a New Golden Age. Surrounded by comic book movies (Thor: Ragnarock, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Spider-Man: Homecoming), or fantasy adaptations and cyber-punk reboots, all with a sci-fi element (The Dark Tower, Ghost in the Shell, Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes), the three big chevrons of Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars all aligned and locked into place like 2017 was set to be a sensorial Stargate, ready to warp us away with Kurt Russell to far-flung galaxies through lights, cameras, and action.
Someone got the Kurt Russell memo, and I thank them for that, but instead of a Big Bang, the stars and the streams were crossed, and we somehow arrived at the worst weekend box office takings in 16 years (August 25-27) and the most abysmal summer takings this side of 2006, more than a decade ago. Expectations are down across the board, and this is largely down to apathy on the part of both the film industry and the viewing public.
It would be easy to lay the blame at our era of reboots-masquerading-as-sequels. It would equally be an understatement to say that Alien: Covenant, for example, is hugely derivative of earlier films in the franchise to the point where one could argue the classic “chest-burster” monster only comes out of someone’s spine because of how backward facing the whole film is. From the Ripley-like figure flushing inconveniences out of an air-lock, through to malevolent man-droids, and the classic “What could possibly be inside the gooey center of an expectorating space-egg?”, Covenant offers very little that could be considered new to fans or especially exciting to anyone from any point of orientation. In what may be construed as an act of solidarity with the languishing Xenomorph, audiences turned their own backs on the film.
It’s like Ridley Scott looked at Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and took away that the quickest way to earn a billion bucks is to make one film that condenses the entire series of films that preceded it, the problem being that he forgot to make his pocket universe fun, exciting, or interesting to be in. This is why the best Alien film released in 2017 is Life, which revels in its B-movie horror silliness. Not that Life handles things in a more sophisticated manner; the movie is simply more aware of what it is. Like the alien organism itself, it adapts to prosper but sticks to its strengths.
Compared to Scott’s unimaginative Covenant, Blade Runner 2049 adheres largely to the same qualities that make Scott’s original Blade Runner so culturally indelible and visually incredible, but innovates in a way that makes the movie feel like a true sequel. For many, though, this continuation of an old classic (by Millennial standards) also counts against the film…
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