Splice, Artificial Life, and the Summer Box Office So Far


This column is always about me, me, me. Let’s take a couple of questions from readers.

First question:

Scientist Craig Venter announced a couple of weeks ago that he and his fellow scientists had created an artificial life cell. Do you think news like that could have an impact on Splice, the movie in which scientists create artificial life?

You’d think it would, wouldn’t you? Although, of course, the two scenarios are wildly different in the details: Splice has its scientists basically going the Species route of mixing their improved genetics with the human genome, with typically “We probably shouldn’t have done that” results, while the real-life scientists have merely been about to coax a single-celled organism whose genes had been partially human designed into dividing and forming a small colony. And while it should be noted that my “merely” notation here is like saying Orville and Wilbur Wright merely flew a couple hundred feet on that first flight of theirs, you get what I’m saying, which is that the real-life version of this particular miracle is less cinematically dramatic.

Nevertheless, creating artificial life of any sort is a hell of a
thing. I expect that when Venter and company announced their work, the
producers and director of Splice were happily punching the air
and thrilled that there was a significant real-world incident on the
same theme as their film. It’s free advertising of a sort; the public is
made aware of a significant real-life event, and so they might be
primed, subconsciously or otherwise, for a film on that same general
theme. It also certainly gives the filmmakers and their actors a hook to
discuss during the press interviews, leading up to the release of the
film.

That said, I wonder in this particular case how much the
real-world news is going to matter for the film. While taking nothing
away from the rather awesome (in the genuine sense of the word)
achievement of the real-world scientists, news of their feat and
commentary about it quickly took a backseat to a story of technology
failing on a massive scale, i.e., the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill story,
which, I suspect, took up a lot of the bandwidth that might have otherwise gone to the artificial-life story.

So
my expectation is that, while the real-world artificial-life story
certainly doesn’t hurt Splice, it’s not going to help it as much
as it otherwise might have. It’ll have to stand on its own cinematic
qualities. Which, as it happens, dovetails a bit into the next question:

“With
the exception of Iron Man 2, it seems like most of the big releases of
the summer so far haven’t done as well as Hollywood hoped they would. I
can’t help notice that Iron Man 2 is the only science fiction-related
film of the bunch. Do you think Hollywood now regrets not having more
science fiction in the summer schedule?”

Well, it’s
only just after Memorial Day, so it’s a little early to be writing any
obits on that score. It’s also probably a little early to call most of
these other films disappointments. As I noted last week, it’s possible
that Shrek will follow in the path of fellow 3-D films Avatar and How to
Train Your Dragon
, with a (relatively) modest opening but with longer
legs in the box-office race. And while another big film, Robin Hood, has
not exactly wowed the domestic box office, it’s on pace to finish
near $100 million, and its international box office is double its
domestic take.

I know Sex and the City 2 and Prince of Persia:
The Sands of Time
had softer than expected openings, but that probably
has something to do with the films being more or less universally
thumped upon, rather than them not being science fiction. And, finally,
while we can claim Iron Man 2 for science fiction — it’s the suit! — I
think we all also know it really belongs to the comic-book genre of
films first, and science-fiction boosters have to bask in reflected glory
with that one.

With all of that noted, I will say that the box-office expectations for Splice are probably relatively modest:
it’s a sensibly budgeted genre film with affordable actors and an
unknown director, so if it outperforms at the box office next weekend
(which I’m going to say means bringing in $25 million or better) then there’s a good chance the bean counters and studio heads will be wondering
why they don’t have more films like it on the summer schedule. (Although,
in fact, they do have another sensibly budgeted genre flick with
affordable actors and a no-name director on the schedule: Predators,
which, like Splice, stars Adrien Brody.)

So, as always,
we’ll have to see what happens next. That’s what makes the summer film
season so much darn fun.

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