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Filmmakers See Future: Science Fiction : Less Expensive Effects, End of Century Have Hollywood Revisiting an Old Genre

November 09, 1994|FRANK LOVECE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They're ba-aaack!

Science-fiction movies, of the big-budget/big-effects variety, are, like Westerns, suddenly back in the saddle. Even before "Stargate's" record-breaking debut weekend in late October and even more stunning second weekend at No. 1, there were three times as many sci-fi movies as Westerns in production.

What "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven" were to Westerns, "Jurassic Park," "Stargate" and the ongoing "Star Trek" franchise may be to science fiction.

" 'Stargate' filled a void for science-fiction effects we hadn't seen in a while," notes movie analyst David Davis of Paul Kagan Associates. "But I think what will really bring back the science-fiction genre is when George Lucas makes the next three 'Star Wars' movies."

Lucas--whose in-development "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" is planned as the first of three "Star Wars" prequels to be filmed back-to-back--is far from the only movie heavyweight with a future in science fiction. The seventh "Star Trek" feature film is due Nov. 18 and represents a passing of the torch from the original TV series cast to that of "The Next Generation"--and presumably future generations of sequels in the popular franchise.

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Kevin Costner is producing and starring in Universal's "Waterworld," a post-apocalyptic underwater "Road Warrior" that, at an estimated $135-million budget or more, may be the most expensive movie ever made.

Keanu Reeves has finished shooting TriStar's "Johnny Mnemonic," with a script written by cyber-punk bestseller William Gibson. James Cameron has produced and co-written the just-wrapped Fox film "Strange Days," starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis and Vincent D'Onofrio. Oliver Stone is working on a "Planet of the Apes" picture, and Stanley Kubrick on a film about artificial intelligence. Tom Hanks is reportedly attached to Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," now in development at Paramount.

Why sci-fi, and why now?

Partly, it's because Hollywood feeds on itself. "Everybody jokes that there are only eight development people in Hollywood," says Paul Colichman, the media-division president of independent studio IRS, which has a half-dozen science-fiction movies in the pipeline. "And everybody knows everybody in Hollywood, and they think along the same lines--that's why there were three 'Robin Hoods' (in production simultaneously four years ago). You'll see these spurts in the Hollywood community."

Science fiction is, indeed, cyclical. In the 1930s, there were Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. In the '40s, there was essentially nothing. The '50s brought a stream of Atomic Age movies, both serious ("The Day the Earth Stood Still") and frivolous ("Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman"). The 1960s were barren, except for the occasional "Fantastic Journey" or "2001: A Space Odyssey." Then the late '70s exploded with "Star Wars" and its countless imitators.

Yet after the early 1980s, science fiction stopped being called that in the theatrical market (although remaining popular in the direct-to-video market). Generally, sci-fi movies like "The Terminator" and "The Road Warrior" are stocked in the action-adventure section of video stores, and "Jurassic Park," with its cloned dinosaurs, is still considered a "family adventure film." Even "Stargate" producer Mario Kassar demurs when it comes to the term. "I know everybody's calling it science fiction," he says of his film, "but I look at it as just a unique drama."

"People are afraid that calling a movie 'science fiction' may limit its audience to a fringe group," observes veteran science-fiction producer Pen Densham, who with John Watson and Richard B. Lewis produced MGM's just-wrapped "Tank Girl," and is launching a new "Outer Limits" series on Showtime.

"It's like politics," he says. "It's putting a spin on the product so that people think of it as a general-audience film. Yet some of our greatest movie experiences have been science fiction. 'E.T.' is absolutely science fiction."

Colichman says major studios have avoided the science-fiction label for fear of attracting only sci-fi fans. The big studios want big audiences, and "the mass audience wants (expensive) state-of-the-art computer and other effects that will blow their minds," he says. Colichman, conversely, can produce low-tech sci-fi movies for a smaller audience, since "the aficionados, who are more into science-fiction philosophy and ideals, don't demand of me those kinds of expensive special effects."

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With the costs of special effects coming down, thanks to new computer animation software and editing systems, the risks of making science-fiction movies will diminish. This helped "Stargate" get made, says its director, Roland Emmerich. "We could do things we couldn't do a couple of years ago," he says, "because computer effects helped us to reduce cost."

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