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John Scalzi – Five Lessons From the SciFi Summer That Was

This upcoming weekend marks the traditional end of summer, and I ask you: What productive thing did you do with your summer? If your answer is “not a damn thing, you fool, it’s summer,” then I congratulate you. Well done. However, Hollywood had a productive summer, science fiction even more so, and as the kids go back to school it’s time for us to tally up some of the lessons we’ve all learned.

Lesson 1: Stupid SciFi Still Flies
When Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — two of the objectively stupidest movies in human memory — gross half a billion domestic dollars between them, you can either despair that America’s failing educational system has led us to this moment, or recognize that escapism has ever been with us, that these are this year’s models, and that the people walking into the theater were not exactly expecting a heady intellectual experience, so, you know, relax. Hey, there’s a recession going on — people want not to think for a while. That said, Transformers is indeed aggressively stupid, and one suspects director Michael Bay actually enjoys the idea that at this point, even just saying his name out loud is enough to cause normal human brain cells to die.

Lesson 2: Smart SciFi Gets Lots of Press
When the terrific District 9 came out of nowhere to grab a $37 million opening, writers and pundits wet themselves a bit declaring how it was the future of filmed science fiction, sort of conveniently forgetting: A) The movie had a genuinely masterful marketing campaign; B) It banked on massive geek goodwill for producer Peter Jackson; C) It opened in August when not much else was going on; and D) It will still probably make less than either G.I. Joe or G-Force, much less Star Trek or Transformers. Deep breaths, everyone. Same with Moon, which got a huge amount of press and $4 million in box office, although to be fair it really is probably the best science fiction movie of the year so far, so there.

Lesson 3: SciFi Doesn’t Need Celebrities
This is something we’ve known since the original Star Wars, but it’s always good to be reminded. Transformers made $400 million domestically, but no one thinks it’s because of screaming masses of Shia LaBeouf fans. Star Trek purposefully cast unknowns. G.I. Joe’s biggest stars were Dennis Quaid and Marlon Wayans, which is terrifying if you think about it. And District 9 literally featured no actor you had ever seen before, unless you were South African, and even then it was a crap shoot. The science fiction movies that did have stars in them? Land of the Lost was a flop, Terminator Salvation underperformed domestically and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, while sucking up $180 million in business, had a star who’s only really a star in X-Men movies.

This is excellent news for Hollywood, incidentally, since huge stars are expensive and drive up the already insane production costs. It’s less good for stars, since one of Hollywood’s primary engines is these special-effects laden extravaganzas. That said, Will Smith will still get a silly amount of money for the next science fiction movie he decides to star in.

Lesson 4: People Really Wanted to Love Star Trek Again
Just before the new Star Trek came out, I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me if the new movie would incorporate the famous Star Trek moral themes, including tolerance, diversity and so on. My reply was that the mission of this Star Trek movie was simply to get butts in seats, and after it did that, maybe the sequels would touch on all that stuff. And that’s pretty much how this one worked out; the reboot let people who dropped off the Star Trek bandwagon an easy way to climb back on, gave them back the original characters they cared about (more or less) and wrapped it all up in a bow made of pretty effects and explosions. And because the movie made it easy, the series got everybody back: This was the most successful Trek even after adjusting for inflation. Apparently everyone’s a Trekkie (or, if you’re stuffy, a Trekker) deep down inside.

Lesson 5: Family-Friendly SciFi is a Good Bet
Monsters vs. Aliens cruised to just under $200 million in business, Up (which I think of as fantasy, but with scifi elements) did close to $290 million, and the conceptually rather appalling G-Force (They’re Guinea pigs! They’re spies!) zipped past $100 million without too much problem. Of course it’s possible to go wrong with family-friendly scifi (witness Aliens in the Attic, which stiffed at a $22 million box office), but the concept of giving a whole family a science fiction experience seems to be firing on all cylinders.

Any Hollywood scifi summer lessons I missed? Put them in the comments.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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