Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to District 9, is another bold, bloody sci-fi action flick packed with sociopolitical commentary on issues ranging from healthcare and immigration reform to class warfare. The film, set in the dystopian future of 2154, explores the poverty gap between the ultra-wealthy, who have migrated to an orbiting space habitat known as Elysium, and the rest of mankind, who are left to toil in the factories and shantytowns of a desperately overpopulated Earth.
Visually arresting but thematically heavy-handed, Blomkamp’s movie is nonetheless a welcome addition to this summer’s crop of blockbusters, mainly because it’s one of the few not based on a pre-existing TV show, video game, toy line, board game or worldwide bestseller. The reason for this dearth of fresh material is not, as some have argued, a lack of imagination within the industry, but rather the studios’ longstanding reluctance to greenlight original or unestablished properties that lack the assurance of built-in audiences.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas raised plenty of eyebrows during last June’s unveiling of the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Building, where the two legendary filmmakers, often cited as the progenitors of the modern blockbuster, railed against Hollywood’s dependence on mega-budgeted, mass-appeal entertainment. Spielberg predicted the inevitable “implosion” of the studio system, and an industry-wide paradigm shift towards online and VOD content (and the niche markets they represent) that would be heralded by a series of high-profile theatrical flops.
If this summer’s box office returns are any indication, the pair’s apocalyptic auguring might not be that far off. Though profits are continuing to soar thanks to franchise stalwarts such as Iron Man 3, Monsters University and Fast & Furious 6, a number of unestablished tentpole releases have either dramatically underperformed (White House Down) or tanked outright (R.I.P.D.) in the face of critical scorn and general audience malaise.
Mitchell Block, an adjunct professor in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Peter Stark Producing Program, stresses the importance of “pre-selling” viewers through brand familiarity.
“Our whole world works on selling brand names,” Block said. “In the history of film, there have only been a handful of brand names. Hitchcock, Disney and Pixar, for example. And adaptation is everything. If you adapt a story from a previously successful movie or literary property, it’s much easier to sell. It’s hard to be excited about something you’ve never heard of.”
In a season sustained by a constant deluge of sequels, prequels and reboots, some of the summer’s costliest casualties have been franchise non-starters, such as Disney’s universally derided The Lone Ranger. Gore Verbinski’s and Johnny Depp’s bloated, tonally haphazard action-western risked upward of $215 million on a supposedly built-in audience that flocked to see Despicable Me 2 instead. Standalone efforts like Sony Pictures’ $130 million After Earth, the Will and Jaden Smith sci-fi vehicle that grossed a paltry $27 million during its first weekend, also did not fare well against Fast & Furious 6, which was in its third week of release.
“The Lone Ranger was just a bad movie,” Block says. “A brand name will only get you so far, and star power still requires something people want to see.”
With their smaller budgets and speedier production schedules, horror and comedy are often more conducive to telling original stories, as evidenced by several of the summer’s most successful releases. Paul Feig’s The Heat drew on Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock’s combined talents to charm both male and female audiences, spoofing the masculine excesses of the buddy cop flick and ultimately raking in $153 million (the movie’s budget was $43 million, pricey for a comedy but negligible compared to the average superhero sequel). The $3 million budget home invasion thriller The Purge, meanwhile, earned upwards of $64 million, while James Wan’s suspense-laden haunted house chiller The Conjuring grossed more than $120 million thanks to strong word-of-mouth surrounding the $20 million film’s atmospheric creepiness and a top-drawer cast (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) that added gravitas to the goosebumps.
So how does Elysium stack up against the summer’s biggest winners and losers? Despite the financial boost of an IMAX release and the fearsome sight of District 9 star Sharlto Copley playing a samurai sword-wielding mercenary with the vocabulary of a deranged football hooligan, Blomkamp’s sophomore effort nabbed a solid but unremarkable $29 million during its opening weekend, topping the box office but failing to match District 9 ’s impressive $37 million haul from four years ago. Those figures are even more disheartening considering District 9 only cost around $30 million to produce in the first place, whereas Elysium’s production budget weighed in at a comparatively hefty $115 million.
A below-average domestic opening doesn’t mean all is lost, however. Elysium grossed an additional $10 million overseas, meaning the film still has a reasonable shot at succeeding at the global box office. If it does, it will be in excellent company. Though considered an underachiever stateside, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim has proven a bonafide triumph in China, Japan and the rest of East Asia, where the Mexican auteur’s dazzling monster mash has earned a stunning $247 million thus far, prompting Warner Bros. and their ex-partner Legendary Pictures to reconsider the idea of a sequel.
Pacific Rim’s journey from underperformer to probable franchise breeder illustrates the rapid ascendance of foreign markets, a shift Hollywood has been quick to capitalize on, allowing moviegoers in countries like Australia, Germany and India to preview films like Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness weeks before their official U.S. release dates. Foreign audiences are also more likely to embrace the sound and fury of action blockbusters, where giant robots, busty love interests and interminable gunplay transcend all but the most stringent lingual and cultural barriers.
Perhaps this renewed focus on the global box office reflects the studio system’s final push to preserve the mass-appeal blockbuster, the same model Spielberg and Lucas seem convinced is ripe for a reckoning. How many more mega-flops like The Lone Ranger and last year’s John Carter can the industry successfully weather? What hope is there for large-scale original content in a business increasingly reliant on the safe and familiar? Will Hollywood ever again show us something with the grim vitality of Apocalypse Now or the sprawling ambition of Lawrence of Arabia? The answers seem about as remote and unattainable as Elysium itself.
Follow Landon McDonald on Twitter @McMovieMan