With 2013 having slid into the rearview, everyone’s eyes have turned toward the horizon, and to all the interesting science fiction we have to look forward to in 2014. Still, 2013 was a huge year for science fiction at the movies, in quantity if not always in quality. So before we start marking our calendars for what’s to come, we’re going to take one last look back at the year that was…the winners, and the losers.
Warm Bodies (February 1)
$35 million budget; $117 million worldwide box office
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 81%
This first entry will highlight one of the problems inherent in making a list like this. Namely: how do you define success? Purely box office? Critical reaction? General “buzz” surrounding the picture? You could make a strong argument for any or all of those, and the truth is that there isn’t any clear answer. When it comes to Warm Bodies, based on the YA novel by Isaac Marion, I was in the critical minority that didn’t think it was very good. But Rotten Tomatoes has it sitting at 81% Fresh, and its worldwide take of $117 million more than tripled its budget, so regardless of how I feel about it, Warm Bodies has to be considered a win, at least for Summit Entertainment. And they’re welcome to it.
Dark Skies (February 22)
$3.5 million budget; $26 million worldwide box office
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 38%
Dark Skies perfectly demonstrates why Hollywood loves horror movies — or, in this case, horror/sci-fi movies. It was pretty soundly panned by critics (although we thought it was a decent, if forgettable, flick). But it earned back its tiny $3.5 million budget many times over. Even with the occasional bit of creepy effects to realize the movie’s extraterrestrial invaders, they were mostly kept in the shadows, allowing Dark Skies to rely on mood and the actors performances to carry the film and deliver the fear. I’m guessing quite a few of you reached this entry and said, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that movie.” But I guarantee distributor Dimension Films sure as hell didn’t. Don’t surprised if we get a Dark Skies 2 at some point, even if we really, really don’t need one.
Upstream Color (April 5)
Budget rumored to be under $100k; $444,000 USA gross
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 85%
Upstream Color is a mirror opposite of Dark Skies in some ways: a critically acclaimed low-budget outing that was lavished with critical praise (including ours) but which was barely a blip on the box-office radar. But Upstream Color, the first film from writer/director Shane Carruth since 2004’s brilliant Primer, was never going to set the box office ablaze. But it largely proved to be worth the wait, the sort of complex, mind-bending tale that people will still be talking about a decade from now, just as we still are about Primer. Upstream Color succeeds in all the most important ways, and while it’s hard to track down a confirmed budget, rumors have it at less than $100,000, which means its $444,000 box office can handily be considered a success, especially since it’s the sort of flick that will live on through Blu-ray and digital formats for years to come. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take Carruth another 10 years to get around to making his next movie. You can watch Upstream Color on Netflix Instant.