In recent years, there’s been a clear separation between audience-friendly sci-fi movies and darker visions of the genre, a division that mirrors the Hollywood gap between blockbuster haves and the indie have-nots. For an optimistic execution of sci-fi tropes and devices like robots, spaceships, or time-travel, fans can turn to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where these genre trappings have been integrated into the master brand. Meanwhile, for darker or more nuanced explorations of sci-fi ideas, there are any number of low-budget sci-fi movies that do a lot with a little, like 2020’s brilliant The Vast of Night.
But once in a while, we’re treated to heedlessly defiant major releases that don’t attempt to spend their blockbuster budgets responsibly or respectably, instead embracing the excesses of sci-fi and fantasy while blurring the lines between the two. One example: Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of the beloved manga series that spent decades in development before exploding onto movie screens with a story of cyborgs, class war, bounty hunters, and deadly professional athletics. (And also some readings as an allegory for the trans experience.) Another case in point: Jupiter Ascending, where the Wachowski sisters give Channing Tatum rocket boots and dog ears.
And then there’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, featuring a planet-sized space station packed with Star Wars-worthy alien life. These are the type of movies where every creature and spaceship seems designed to stand out, even if they’re passing across the screen for mere seconds. The very existence of this version of sci-fi feels wildly optimistic, even when the worlds it depicts are in states of disrepair.
Some of the built-in optimism in these movies is necessary because each release feels like it could be the last of its kind. It’s not that Hollywood will suddenly stop making expensive blockbusters. It’s just that Marvel has made the house-style approach to genre movies look awfully attractive. In the last five or 10 years, expensive sci-fi blockbusters made outside that model have tended to fail somewhere between mildly and spectacularly at the box office. Jupiter Ascending and Valerian were major flops. Mortal Engines, set in a series of steampunk-ish cities on wheels, barely opened. Alita was a minor hit, if you don’t take its substantial budget into account. The Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises were probably used as evidence that these projects could make money, but Jupiter Ascending and Mortal Engines will be used as evidence that big-budget sci-fi is best confined to the margins of superhero movies.
In the meantime, though, those riskier movies keep attracting appreciative cult followings. The dedicated fans love them despite, or maybe because of, the way they flout so many supposed rules of good storytelling. These sci-fi excess movies load up on exposition (both Jupiter and Alita are still explaining the rules of their worlds well past the halfway mark), take plenty of detours, and emphasize visuals over clear, concise, relatable screenwriting.
Valerian, for example, is oddly rewatchable not because of its lead characters’ banter — most charitably described as charmingly stilted — but because of all the business swirling around them. Its plot is episodic, overlong, and difficult to follow, which means it’s easy to get distracted by all the imaginative throwaway details, like the various alien species and environments that riddle the film. With so much eye-candy, why not return for a second look? Jupiter Ascending features a sequence inspired by Terry Gilliam (who even appears in a cameo), where the heroine must navigate a densely populated bureaucracy just to claim her supposed birthright as an intergalactic royal. The fact that this scene could have been dropped without any real story impact could be a metaphor for the glorious excesses of Jupiter itself. The overload is what makes these movies stand out.
Video essayist Patrick Willems has attempted to define these boondoggle movies as “gonzo blockbusters.” His definition isn’t exclusive to sci-fi — it folds in movies that skew more toward fantasy, including Aquaman, a superhero story that grossed a billion dollars. Looking at these projects in terms of sci-fi, Aquaman feels like the exception that proves the rule: It’s the fantastical, brightly colored feat of imagination that shows these movies can be a hit, as long as they center on a well-known superhero and skew closer to chosen-one fantasy than futuristic sci-fi.
But science fiction may be the genre that has the most to gain from this kind of messy, expansive filmmaking sensibility. Look at 1997’s The Fifth Element, which now feels like a major influence on this aesthetic (not least because disgraced filmmaker Luc Besson conceived it from his fevered teenage imagingings, and made a companion piece of sorts with Valerian). Fifth Element took cues from two of the usual sci-fi suspects, Blade Runner (in its teeming cityscapes) and Star Wars (in its casually eccentric menagerie of humans and aliens), while methodically stripping out the menace from both movies. Fifth Element’s city isn’t oppressively rainy or smoggy, no one in it undergoes a major moral or existential crisis, and there’s no Empire-style organization to loom over the adventure. The human bad guy, played by Gary Oldman, is so abstract and nonthreatening that he never actually meets the story’s heroes.
Surgically removing the struggles of Darth Vader or Rick Deckard is the perfect grand, foolhardy gesture for these movies. It shouldn’t work — and indeed, The Fifth Element, with its message about the power of love, isn’t exactly Blade Runner. But Element’s willingness to rip off style, rather than substance, sets it free from the shadow of those genre touchstones. The Fifth Element-style movies of today also take unlikely inspiration from the Star Wars galaxy, though not the overmined 1977 original film, so much as the prequel trilogy. Though maligned in some quarters, the Star Wars prequels were advanced in their whole-cloth creation of visually striking planets, technology, and creatures, wielding digital tools at a scale that has since become more commonplace.
That’s one reason the Star Wars prequels have continued to win over fans long after conventional internet wisdom left them for dead: There’s something inviting about sci-fi that’s happy to fill every corner of the frame with bits and pieces of imagination, throwing back to the days before supporting characters were primarily designed to carry eventual spinoffs. Minor characters like McTeague, the Alita bounty hunter who keeps company with a pack of cyborg dogs, or Nesh, the elephant-like pilot glimpsed in Jupiter Ascending, wouldn’t feel out of place in a box of old Phantom Menace action figures. They inspire a sense of wonder that transcends questions of story utility.
When so many special effects are employed to knock down virtual buildings or launch similar-looking airships, focusing resources on world-building that’s more crazy than dutiful feels like an act of optimism. While the tone of these maximalist sci-fi epics tends to be lighter than a Ridley Scott joint, they aren’t really utopian stories. Valerian paints a somewhat cheerful picture of a thousand planets united at a cross-cultural hub (including an adorable opening montage of alien encounters scored to David Bowie), but its actual plot is still about the cover-up of genocide.
Alita, on the other hand, is nominally a class-divided dystopia, but it never makes life in Iron City look as awful as it’s probably supposed to be. Mortal Engines is genuinely post-apocalyptic. Yet all of these movies do scan as somewhat optimistic, deriving that optimism from science fiction itself. Apart from the ideas they develop individually, they have similar metatext: They’re all about how sci-fi makes us feel when it’s able to show us something that seems impossible, maybe something we’d given up hopes of seeing, or never knew we wanted to see.
As such, movies like Alita and Jupiter Ascending are surprisingly malleable and nuanced in the ways they look into the future. Again, this is reflected metatextually: Almost all of them are clearly made with the optimistic hope for future sequels, but the filmmakers were clearly pessimistic enough about those prospects to fit as much as they can into the kickoff installment, cramming in battles, creatures, and subplots while the checks are still clearing. Even with the occasional sequel tease, these sci-fi boondoggles rarely take for granted that their sagas will continue in perpetuity, and they’re messier than the average franchise installment for that exact reason.
That means the boondoggle sci-fi of a Jupiter Ascending or Fifth Element may not feel as well-ordered as a movie that’s part of a four-year phase. But isn’t that how a lot of us try to live our lives? Hoping for a prosperous future while wary about whether we’ll actually get there? “Time is the single most precious commodity in the universe,” posits a character in Jupiter Ascending. These movies all share that rueful understanding. None of them fit the definition of “hard” sci-fi. Yet they remain highlights of recent sci-fi cinema through their sheer, stubborn ability to look forward.