Yet To Come: Will The Year’s Barrage Of Big-Screen Science Fiction Soar Or Stumble?

By David Wharton | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

This year is a good one for science fiction. Scratch that, I should have said potentially great. Because even though 2013 is stacked stem-to-stern with big-screen science fiction, each of those upcoming movies is currently hanging out in Schrodinger’s cat box, trapped between “good” and “bad” until we can actually lay eyes on them. Sadly, the early reviews for Oblivion suggest it’s leaning more toward the latter than the former. If so, it’s an inauspicious beginning for a year packed with SF, but instead of mourning Oblivion, we’re looking ahead at the most promising films on the horizon. Let’s see if we can figure out whether 2013 will ultimately be an amazing year for the genre…or a disappointing one.

Star Trek Into Darkness Star Trek Into Darkness (May 17th)
After a devastating terrorist attack on Starfleet, Kirk and company must race across the galaxy to stop a “one-man weapon of mass destruction.” Who may or may not be Khan.

Why It Might Be Awesome: Star Trek Into Darkness looks to improve on its predecessor in every way, with the trailers teasing some truly jaw-dropping action sequences, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison could very well be worth a ticket price in and of himself. I’m not a bandwagon Abrams hater, but neither am I an apologist for the guy. I think his first Trek film had some good moments and a lot of problems. The sequel has the seeds of a genuinely good movie, if he can avoid the problems (ugh, slapstick)  or the previous film and get a better script.

Why It Might Not: While I’m not an outright hater…there’s no question that Abrams’ resume is a hit-or-miss affair. Even more troubling, Into Darkness is written the same two guys who wrote the first one: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, a pair whose credits include the forgettable Cowboys & Aliens and the execrable Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But hey, there is a third writer to consider! Damon Lindelof, the guy who wrote Prometheus. So…yeah. This one is all going to come down to the script. I’m hoping they get it right this time.

After EarthAfter Earth (June 7th)
After a crash landing leaves a legendary general (Will Smith) stranded on an abandoned Earth with his son, they must survive a landscape overrun with dangerous creatures that have evolved in mankind’s absence.

Why It Might Be Awesome: The Sixth Sense. Unbreakable. Hell, even Signs is two-thirds of a good movie before it derails in the third act. There’s a reason people were heaping praise on M. Night Shyamalan in the early years, even calling him the next Spielberg. Whatever else you may think about him, he has shown he has the talent and the ability to tell stories well on the big screen. The question remains, however, if he has lost touch with what made him burn so bright in the beginning. Having interviewed the guy, I honestly think some of the problems come down to ego, to buying into his own myth. Now that he’s had a run of bad movie after bad movie, I keep hoping he’ll turn it around and redeem himself. Maybe After Earth will be that redemption.

Why It Might Not: The Village. Lady in the Water. The Happening. The Last Airbender. Shyamalan has been on such a spectacular downward spiral for the past decade that I half suspect it’s some sort of elaborate performance art. Much as I would love to see the man recover, each new film suggests he isn’t learning any lessons from it all. And then there are the trailers, which have some promising moments but also showcase strangely stilted dialogue and a stiff-looking Will Smith. Let’s just say I’m not laying down any cash that After Earth put an end to Shyamalan’s bad run.

This Is the End This Is the End (June 12th)
A party at James Franco’s house takes a turn for the worse when the Apocalypse breaks out. A group of surviving celebrities including Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and more do their level best to survive.

Why It Might Be Awesome: The script was written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, the same team who gave us Superbad and Pineapple Express. This group of comedians and actors — call them the “Apatow bunch” — when they’re firing on all cylinders, the results can be downright side-splitting. Also, the concept of having movie actors trying to survive the Apocalypse is rich with inherent comedy, and these guys are all talented at improvisation. Simply setting them loose in an outlandish situation like this could make for comedic gold.

Why It Might Not: On the other hand, the Rogen/Goldberg writing team doesn’t exactly have a spotless record. They’re the ones who shat out last year’s The Watch and 2011’s Green Hornet movie. And improv is a inherently a hit-or-miss affair, and when it misses it means you may get an experience that’s like watching an unfunny blooper reel for ninety minutes. And you paid fifteen bucks to watch it.

World War ZWorld War Z (June 21st)
In the midst of a global outbreak of sprinting flesh-eaters, U.N. employee Gerry Lane (Brad PItt) traverses the globe, trying to discover what started epidemic and how to stop it. Also, zombies can apparently “swarm” now.

Why It Might Be Awesome: It’s going to be an uphill battle for the film to win over fans of Max Brooks’ original book, but ultimately World War Z is going to have to appeal to a larger fan base anyway. Assuming you can get past the whole fast/swarming zombies thing, World War Z does look to have some potentially amazing set pieces, and that poster of zombies hanging onto a departing helicopter is a genuinely striking visual. World War Z may or may not succeed as an adaptation, but the more important factor is whether it succeeds as a good movie. If it can pull that off, and generate enough good word of mouth to bring in audiences, it won’t matter whether the movie lines up with the book. It’s a cynical truth, but it is a truth. Still, I try never to root for science fiction movies to fail, so I’m hoping — perhaps naively — that World War Z will pleasantly surprise me.

Why It Might Not: The movie has seemed to be cursed from the get-go, with multiple behind-the-scenes problems and reshoots. That doesn’t usually bode well for any movie. Also, pop culture currently glutted with zombies, and by veering away from the source material, World War Z has abandoned the structure and storytelling style that could have set it apart from the other undead outings. Honestly, it almost seems inevitable that this thing is going to be a mess.

Pacific RimPacific Rim (July 12th)
After a portal opens beneath the Pacific Ocean, huge monsters begin spilling into our world from another dimension. Rather than calmly accepting the apocalypse, mankind strikes back with skyscraper-tall combat mechs called Jaegers. In humanity’s darkest hour, a washed-up pilot and an untested rookie may be our last hope.

Why It Might Be Awesome: Director Guillermo del Toro is damn near incapable of making a bad movie (okay, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), and that doesn’t seem likely to change with Pacific Rim. This is a movie fanboys and girls have been dreaming about for years, a multi-million-dollar version of the crazy childhood fantasies we all cooked up in the sandbox. It was also written by Travis Beacham, a crazy-talented who’s just been breaking in these past few years. His Clash of the Titans script was far more entertaining than the final movie we got, and he’s also responsible for one of my favorite spec scripts I’ve ever read, a noir steampunk fantasy called A Killing on Carnival Row. This movie is going to be amazing.

Why It Might Not: Yeah…I’ve got nothing. It looks amazing, the early reviews are amazing…it’s gonna be amazing. Unless I spontaneously combust in the middle of the screening, I’m expecting Pacific Rim to be the most fun I have in a theater this summer.

ElysiumElysium (August 9th)
In a future where the rich live in an extravagant orbiting space station and the poor toil away on the overcrowded Earth below, a man dying of cancer (Matt Damon) undertakes a mission to infiltrate the Elysium station, in search of a cure. The Powers That Be won’t have that, so they send a bounty hunter (Sharlto Copley) to stop him.

Why It Might Be Awesome: Director Neill Blomkamp’s last movie was District 9, one of the best movies in recent memory and a certified science fiction classic. Working with a comparatively tiny budget of $30 million, he made a movie that looked like it cost twice that. Even more impressive than the technical feats, his script deftly married the genre elements with metaphorical examinations of racism in his native South Africa. Elysium’s budget is rumored to be around $120 million, so I fully expect my mind to be blown by what Blomkamp can accomplish with the freedom that budget allows. The first trailer is amazing, and everything points to this being even more successful than District 9.

Why It Might Not: Even though his first film was justifiably acclaimed, Elysium is still only Blomkamp’s second full-length feature film. Even though the early looks point to Elysium knocking it out of the park, a lot can go wrong in two hours. It’s possible, however unlikely, that Blomkamp will fumble. After all, as I mentioned above, there was a time when it seemed like M. Night Shyamalan could do no wrong too. Also, you never know when an inexplicable Spider-Man 3-style song and dance sequence might pop up out of nowhere.

The World's EndThe World’s End (August 23rd)
Five friends gather to recreate an epic bar crawl of their youth. Unfortunately, something goes Very Very Wrong, and they’re suddenly thrown into the midst of impossible events and reluctantly forced to save the world or die drinking.

Why It Might Be Awesome: It’s the reunion of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, and the third film in their so-called “Three Flavors Cornetto” trilogy — or “Blood & Ice Cream” trilogy if you prefer. The trilogy began with Shaun of the Dead, continued in Hot Fuzz, and wraps up here. Each of them satirized a different filmic genre, from zombies to buddy-cop action films to, for The World’s End, apocalypse movies. Pegg and Wright are one of those duos who just click, and who strengthen each other’s talents, so The World’s End should have them making cinematic magic once again.

Why It Might Not: Honestly, this falls nearly in the same category as Pacific Rim and Elysium, movies where’s it’s all but impossible to imagine them being bad. That said, Pegg and Wright are hardly infallible. I liked Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but it’s also one of the more divisive movies I’ve encountered in a while. We also still don’t know much at all about The World’s End, so who knows what disasters that ignorance could be obscuring.

RiddickRiddick (September 6th)
Trapped on a deadly alien world, Riddick comes up with an unorthodox escape plan: leaking his locations to the bounty hunters who have been tracking him across the galaxy. As they descend to the planet in search of him, a three-way battle begins between the hunters, Riddick, and the ferocious local wildlife.

Why It Might Be Awesome: After a disappointing sequel that shoehorned the antiheroic Richard B. Riddick into a galaxy-spanning, mythology-heavy storyline, Riddick looks to be getting back to basics. You’ve got a harsh environment, you’ve got bounty hunters trying to capture or kill the galaxy’s most notorious convict, and you’ve got Riddick himself, in the shadows, with a blade. This can only go down one way… and it should be thrilling to watch. Riddick is a compelling, charismatic character, and it’ll be good to see Vin Diesel back in the role.

Why It Might Not: While Diesel and writer/director David Twohy made a genre classic with Pitch Black…but they also made Chronicles of Riddick. While the sequel definitely has some solid moments (tea cup), as a whole it seemed to lose touch with what made the character of Riddick compelling. And while trying to make Riddick more in line with the first film is probably wise, they also run the risk of adjusting too far back in that direction, resulting in a lame rehash of Pitch Black. My fingers are crossed.

Ender's GameEnder’s Game (November 1st)
Orson Scott Card’s acclaimed science fiction novel finally comes to the big screen. Will the tale of Ender Wiggin’s rise through the harsh conditions of Battle School prove cinematic gold, or will the script take too many departures from the source material? One thing’s for sure: die-hard Ender’s Game fans will be judging this one with a particularly suspicious eye.

Why It Might Be Awesome: There’s a reason Ender’s Game has become such a timeless classic. In Ender we have a complex, sympathetic protagonist going through the same sort of struggles everyone does during adolescence, only with the stakes and the pressure magnified immensely. Whether he knows it or not, humanity’s survival may depends on the keen mind and cunning of a young boy whose teachers seem to be going out of their way to make his life miserable.

Why It Might Not: The good news is that Ender’s Game is based on a classic of the genre that is beloved by generations of science fiction fans. The bad news is that Ender’s Game is based on a classic of the genre that is beloved by generations of science fiction fans. As with any book adaptation, Ender’s Game brings with it a devout audience that is often cynically expecting Hollywood to defile the source material. And even aside from those heavy expectations, on the face of it Ender’s Game proves difficult material to adapt. Also, director Gavin Hood previously helmed X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Yeah…

The Zero TheoremThe Zero Theorem (December 19th)
Working for mysterious figure known only as “Management,” a reclusive computer genius attempts to discover the meaning of life via a mathematical formula.

Why It Might Be Awesome: Director Terry Gilliam has given us Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Fisher King, and Twelve Monkeys, each amazing films in their own right (the travails of him trying to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote alone are enough to break your heart). Unfortunately, Gilliam’s career has been so plagued with setbacks and bad luck. When he finds the right mixture of cast and concept, he makes movies like nobody else. The Zero Theorem sounds like heady stuff, a rich vein of potential for Gilliam to mine with a stellar cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, and Tilda Swinton.

Why It Might Not: Again, it all comes back to Gilliam’s bad luck, a history of troubled productions that suggests that he almost certainly must have killed an old gypsy woman in a previous life. Honestly, if he can get the movie in the can, I expect greatness. It’s just a matter of getting there without a rogue asteroid hitting the set, Christoph Waltz snapping and going on a cross-country killing spree, or Matt Damon switching to an obscure religion that requires its followers to cut off their own face with a paint scraper. I’m rooting for you, Terry.