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“In Time” and “The Thing”: What Happened?

This week, two questions about recent (and sadly underperforming) science fiction films, for which I provide two separate answers. Double your pleasure! Double your fun!

First question:

You mentioned the connection between V for Vendetta and the Occupy movement in last week’s column. Do you have any thoughts about the connection between In Time and the same movement?

Yes, it’s not been lost on me that some people have called In Time, with its stark future in which time is a currency the poor drop dead from lack of while the rich live forever, Occupy Wall Street: The Movie.

This is an issue of coincidental timing more than anything else; the
movie was being developed long before the Occupy movement got started —
indeed, possibly even before the “Tea Party” movement, to which the
Occupy movement is seen as a political counterbalance, got underway.
Movies take a long time to make, folks.

Even so, it would seem
like the movie is in the right place at the right time with the right
message. But maybe not: With a current domestic box office take of about
$30 million against a $40 million budget, the movie seems unlikely to
recoup its production costs here at home (it’s made $83 million
worldwide so far, which is OK). This seems underwhelming, considering
the ripped-from-the-headlines connection people want to make between
current events and the movie. One way to explain it would be to joke
that the movie’s natural audience — the Occupy protestors — were too
busy in the streets to occupy a movie theater.

A more realistic
explanation would be to note that the movie was respectfully if tepidly
reviewed, and while it featured a cast of hot young things, including
Justin Timberlake, none of them have a particularly good track record of
putting butts into seats (except Amanda Seyfried, but her specialty is
romance, not science fiction). Director Andrew Nicoll has been down this
road before; his best-known film is Gattaca,
a respectfully reviewed science fiction film with a cast of (then) hot
young things, including Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law. It did
mediocre business but then got a second life in video. I suspect that In Time is going to go that route as well, and that the “Occupy” association will be more meaningful then than it is now.

Next question:

What happened to The Thing? I thought it would be a hit, considering the popularity of the original.

By “the original,” I’m assuming my correspondent means John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing, which is in fact a remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World.
The latest version is meant to be a prequel to the 1982 movie. And as
for the popularity of that version, it’s worth remembering that when the
film came out, it wasn’t hugely successful at all — it was generally
poorly reviewed and made about $20 million in box office off a $15
million budget. It was in fact the number three science fiction movie at
the box office its opening week. What was number two? Blade Runner. Number one? E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Yes, it was a tough week.

The 2011 version of The Thing
brought in $8.5 million its first weekend at the box office — which is
almost exactly what the 1982 film made its first weekend, when you
adjust for inflation. Unfortunately for the new movie, it came out in an
era when horror movies (even science fiction horror movies) take up to
half their box office in the first weekend. That was certainly the case
here, since the new movie is currently scraping toward $17 million. What
it will need to hope for is some additional international revenue and
then home video and TV sales to close the gap. This is where the 1982
version of The Thing became a hit; its long afterlife in home video is what fuels its current status as a classic.

suspect there may be a lesson here for filmmakers, which is that a
movie becoming a hit on home video does not necessarily mean the
remake/prequel/whatever is going to be a huge hit on the big screen.
Likewise, it’s a rare horror remake that comes close to the success of
its original. Another John Carpenter movie stands testament to this: Halloween, which in 1978 raked in about $47 million, or about $160 million in today’s dollars. The 2007 remake, by Rob Zombie,
brought in $58 million, which is just over a third of the adjusted
gross of the original. As it happens, the $17 million gross of the 2011 Thing comes out to just under a third of the 1982 movie’s box office, when adjusted into current dollars.

And, again, perhaps a relevant thing for today’s filmmakers to be aware
of, when they’re ransacking past films for ideas.

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