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As we wrap up the decade in science fiction movies, let's look at a list of the twenty most financially successful science fiction movies since 2000 -- as collated by IMDb Pro -- to see what we can learn. Are these flicks especially creative? Do they have big stars? Are they director driven? Put simply, if you're making science fiction, what is your easiest path to ridiculous levels of success?
Easy: Toys, Comics, Sequels, Remakes. Out of the top twenty scifi movies of the last decade, 80 percent -- that's sixteen out of twenty, if you don't want to do the math -- are based on comics or toys and/or a sequel and/or a remake.
Lets go to the numbers, which represent domestic box office take:
1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($402 million): Sequel, Toys
2. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith ($380 million): Sequel
3. Transformers ($319 million): Toys, Remake (if you count the '80s animated flick, and yeah, I do. Hey, it had Orson Welles in it. And Leonard Nimoy!)
4. Iron Man ($318 million): Comics
5. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones ($311 million): Sequel
6. The Matrix Reloaded ($281 million): Sequel
7. Star Trek ($250 million): Remake and Sequel, which is a nice trick if you think about it
8. I Am Legend ($256 million): Remake
9. X-Men: The Last Stand ($234 million): Sequel, Comics
10. War of the Worlds ($234 million): Remake
So the entire top ten science movies of the 2000s were Toys, Comics, Sequels, Remakes. What about the next ten?
11. Signs ($228 million): Original
12. Wall*E ($224 million): Original
13. X2: X-Men United ($215 million): Sequel, Comic.
14. Superman Returns ($200 million): Sequel, and also sort of Remake in that it follows Superman II, thus snipping off the storylines of Supermans III and IV.
15. Monsters Vs. Aliens ($198 million): Original (but playing off all sorts of established scifi movie tropes)
16. Men in Black II ($190 million): Sequel, Comics
17. The Day After Tomorrow ($187 million): Original
18. Jurassic Park III ($181 million): Sequel
19. Planet of the Apes ($180 million): Remake
20. X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($180): Sequel (well, Prequel, but actively schlepping off the established X-Men brand), Comics
IMDb Pro's list chooses not to include any of the Spider-Man or Batman movies, but if they were there, they wouldn't change its overall composition, as they are all remakes, sequels or based on comics.
Using this as a guidepost, one thing is clear: If Michael Bay ever makes Transformers III: The Rise of ROM the Spaceknight, it will be THE MOST SUCCESSFUL SCIENCE FICTION MOVIE EVER. At which point, mind you, global death by asteroid might not be a bad thing.
What does this list and its oversaturation of Toys, Comics, Sequels and Remakes tell us? Basically, it tells us what we should have already known, which is that Hollywood, despite its reputation of being a city of crazy liberals, is in fact horribly conservative with its business; if something is successful, the thing to do is make more of it. If it was successful once, redo it so it will be successful again. If it's a huge success in another medium, leverage that success into another medium. And so on.
To be clear, movie folks aren't the only ones who do this (said the fellow who wrote three sequels to his first novel, and works on a TV series, based on other TV series, themselves based on a movie). But on the other hand, movies do especially seem to be in its grip. Transformers are more than a quarter century old. Star Wars is 32 years old; Star Trek a decade older than that. The 1954 novel I Am Legend was first made into a movie in 1964. Iron Man made his first appearance in 1963, as did the X-Men. And as for War of the Worlds, it was a remake of a 50 year old movie, based on a novel that came out 111 years ago now. Science fiction is the genre of the future, but on the business end, it's very much rooted in the past.
Which really is a shame. I don't have a beef with toys, comics, remakes and sequels; I've seen every movie in the Top 20 up there, you know. But I do hope that in the next decade we see more new work at the top of the scifi charts. This might be a self-correcting problem: There are only so many sequels and remakes you can do, and all the easy pickings for toys and comics have been made. Hollywood might have to start pushing original material simply because it has no choice.
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 Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.