What The Hell Happened to the Mid-Sized Scifi Movie?

This is a weird post. Maybe even a rant. And my ire could be significantly misplaced, but WTF - This is something I've been thinking about all summer: Where is the middle? I'm talking movie budgets here.

You know, the monetary cost of producing a science fiction film for theatrical release. Someone like myself who makes a good living in the entertainment business probably shouldn't be discussing such things in public, but this summer we've had our Terminator 4, Transformers 2, GI Joe, Star Trek and Harry Potter all in the two hundred million dollar budget range, and Moon costing somewhere around five million dollars. So does that mean the only science fiction movies getting a theatrical release are at the opposite ends of the budget spectrum? District 9 is reported to have cost somewhere around thirty million bucks to produce, but I wonder if Weta Digitia; would've billed the same number of hours if Peter Jackson hadn't been the movie's producer. I dunno. Still — let's say that one's in the middle, and I think it's really the best of the lot. Neill Blomkamp is the mega shizz in my opinion.

What The Hell Happened to the Mid-Sized Scifi Movie?

Hmmm... I wonder if those sixteen minutes of Avatar cost the same as District 9. Maybe. They certainly cost more than Moon. Reports have Avatar costing somewhere north of three hundred million bucks, and it looks seriously and completely awesome: I think that blue Legolas guy looks cool! So don't get me wrong, I'm very happy that science fiction has become such a popular form of global entertainment that financial investments of the aforementioned magnitude make sense to somebody. But one thing does kind of suck about it. Most of that money is spent on CGI. Maybe Avatar will be the game changer, but for me — CGI jeopardy isn't usually that compelling. Are you still blown away by green screen vistas and pixel generated monsters? Are you still terrified by tidal waves and explosions that took rocket scientists months to render?

I like that stuff. I like it a lot in fact. I read Cinefex every month. But CGI just doesn't freak me out or put me on the edge of my seat like it once did. I think one of the great things about science fiction movies that don't have a gazillion dollars to spend is that they need to make choices. They need to come up with ways to use filmmaking techniques and practical effects to adjust for the fact that they can't afford 1000+ CGI shots. They've gotta build suspense the old fashioned way: Hide the creature for a while. Shoot on location. Blow stuff up. Crash a car. Pay a stuntman to do a full body burn. That's the stuff I miss. I miss movies like Star Wars, Escape From New York, Alien, Aliens, Outland and Predator. Movies where a big part of my suspension of disbelief came from recognizing a world where physics could be painful and not everything was in focus all the time.

Lost and BSG have been kicking ass with this approach on the small screen. And with Blomkamp's District 9 and his amazing short films, I have hope that we could be on the verge of a new crop of middle budget sci-fi flicks coming to theaters; movies that can transport me to a different reality by taking a world that I recognize and making it extraordinary through traditional movie making techniques and state of the art CGI. Gamer looks like it might do this. Neveldine and Taylor's gonzo Crank flicks give me hope that it's gonna viscerally rock. But I hear it cost around sixty million, so I wonder how much of that they spent on CGI?

Oh well — see you in line for Avatar.

Jesse Alexander is creator and executive producer of NBC's Day One, and has worked on Alias, Lost and Heroes.