The standalone science fiction movie was once a unicorn of the mainstream cinematic landscape, a refreshing rarity of feature-length sci-fi visual artwork that not only couldn’t guarantee commercial success, but also wasn’t immediately destined to become a franchise.
It almost doesn’t sound real. It sounds like a superhero movie with only one villain against one protagonist, or Adam Sandler trying.
And recently, we’ve seen more and more standalone sci-fi movies, which begs the question: is the 21st century their Golden Age?
Let’s be clear on a few things. I’m not referring to a sci-fi movie that stunk to high heaven and died in obscurity. And I’m not saying that the Standalone Sci-Fi Movie Golden Age would indicate — by any conceivable stretch of the imagination — the end of sci-fi franchises. We all know that when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, sagas are just going to come with the territory, and nothing will ever change that.
However, I am including sci-fi movies meant to be standalones that spawned sequels, prequels, franchising, etc., because this Golden Age isn’t so much about literal standalones without exception, this is about the commonality of studios greenlighting standalone sci-fi movies.
Did you know that only one out of every three thousand screenplays picked up by major studios actually gets made? (Of course I made that up, but the idea is sort of true.) Even if you wrote a phenomenal screenplay that a studio jumped on, it very well might die as a manuscript, and that’s especially true if it requires a large budget without any ROI assurance. The newest Star Wars movie is an investment guaranteed to pay off. A three-hour sci-fi movie involving space scenes and aliens and brand-new characters audiences need to be introduced to, get behind, and then say goodbye to once the credits roll? That could very easily bomb in the theaters. And it has. Take, for example, Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine. Phenomenal science fiction movie that was never going to get a sequel. Its budget was $40 million, and it made $32 million in the box office. Yikes.
What’s weird is that, once the movie industry really started to take off, people could have easily predicted a long and endless stream of standalone science fiction films. From the 1950s until the mid-1970s, it was standalone sci-fi galore: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Doctor Strangelove (1964), Planet of the Apes (1968), goddamn 2001 (1968), Solaris (1972), Close Encounters (1977).
But then Alien came around in 1979. And Star Wars. And the first Star Trek movie. And sure, there are plenty of exceptions, but no one can deny that the late 1970s through today is far more prevalently franchise sci-fi than it is standalone. And now they’re remaking some of the more old school sci-fi movies into new movies or TV shows (a 12 Monkeys TV series? Really, guys?) So, even great standalone is being franchised. I’m sick of people asking, “Is nothing sacred?” when they remake a movie. No, nothing is sacred. It’s high time we stop asking a question we know the answer to.
Okay, deep breath. Can we all just take a moment to reflect on how hilariously necessary the They Live (1988) fist fight was? And sometimes I like to just close my eyes and imagine if The Matrix (1999) wasn’t a trilogy, if it simply ended with Neo dying after being riddled with bullets, the agents just walking away from his dead body, and all of us being left to feel like we’re nothing more than batteries in a robot world’s power generator. I mean, yeah, the second and third could have just been good, but they were not, and it would have cost far, far less money to just slightly change the ending of the first than it would have been to attempt those two wastes of time.
The point is, standalone sci-fi movies were unique gems hidden here and there throughout the history of filmmaking.
But then the 21st century came along. Was it the accessibility of realistic special effects capabilities? Did the internet generate a newfound fascination for science and learning and discovery? Did the internet introduce more people to the wide range of potential sci-fi enjoyment? Did the internet reframe being a nerd as a positive thing and encourage people to embrace their love for sci-fi? Is charging people for internet access a human rights violation?
Whatever spawned it, the 21st century has made way for some of the best sci-fi films of all time, but the Golden Age hadn’t officially begun until recently. Is 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind one of the best sci-fi movies ever made? Absolutely. But it’s also a romantic dramedy starring two A-list actors. Doesn’t count. Same goes for Children of Men, which is a near-nonstop action movie with Oscar buzz. Wall-E (2008)? Pixar. Doesn’t count. Moon (2009)? It was so low budget (in comparison), we might as well start pointing to indie excellence and throw Shane Carruth movies into the conversation.
When did the Golden Age of mainstream standalone science fiction really begin? I want to say 2009’s District 9, but that was originally supposed to be a Halo movie. No, I think it all began with Inception (2010), the Christopher Nolan movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It was absolutely guaranteed to pull people into theaters, but the rabid embrace of it, that’s what surprised me. And when it became a smash hit, everyone was thirsty for more like it. Even if you hated it, you were still just longing for something that wasn’t so…to use Peter Griffin’s words: “[Inception] insisted on itself.”
Think about it, though. The amount of mid-to-high-budget standalone sci-fi that came out after Inception was unprecedented. We had Looper (2012), Her (2013), Interstellar (2014) Ex Machina (2015), The Martian (2015), and Arrival (2016). And let’s not look past Take Shelter (2011) and Midnight Special (2016), two understated sci-fi gems Jeff Nichols gifted us.
Inception was like a sci-fi standalone movie inception. By proving that the concept could be understood and embraced at that level, more and more riskier projects have been greenlit, and the curve of the graph has taken a sharp upward turn. If the 21st century isn’t regarded as the Golden Age twenty years from now, it’s because, mark my words, the 2020s are going to claim that title.
For screenwriters, this could mean a whole new renaissance of potential storylines that could have felt like a waste of time before. Sure, Christopher Nolan could get a standalone sci-fi movie produced, but what hope did some nobody have before Inception? A very low hope, to answer my own rhetorical question. But not anymore. Now, you could safely assume that your sci-fi standalone has nearly as good a chance of being produced as a drama. Sci-fi writers were probably going to write them anyway, so if nothing else, this should be a hopeful time.
For hardcore sci-fi fans, I know you’re not necessarily wanting for more high-quality sci-fi mediums. With the novels, graphic novels, and comics alone, you’re pretty set, not to mention animation and TV. Plus, there’s a good chance that the upheaval of standalone sci-fi will mean your favorite sci-fi novels being turned into movies, which can result in some unabashed trashiness that taints (if not completely ruins) your initial appreciation. And by good chance, I mean that it’s definitely going to happen, and I’m preemptively sorry for when that day comes. Still, here’s another guarantee: as long as the return on investment stays viable, they’ll continue to greenlight original, standalone sci-fi, so with the bad, you’ll also get some amazing stories, stories that needed the medium of film to be properly told, stories that would have otherwise remained dormant for all eternity.
The Golden Age of Standalone Sci-Fi Movies is upon us, and it’s making the future look a little brighter (even as those very same movies tend to warn us of the opposite future.)