Fantasy Films and the Modern Audience

Jupiter Ascending had many moments of visual beauty.

   A few weeks ago, I finally watched Jupiter Ascending. I'd heard and read all the terrible reviews, but it was heralded as the first original sci-fi/fantasy film in years, so I was still excited to see it. I sat down with two of my favourite people and a bucketload of Chinese food; the perfect movie-night setting to absorb it in.

   Unfortunately, the reviews were accurate. While the film had a lot of great visual ideas, it moved so fast that we didn't have time to take them all in, or - more importantly - care about the characters.

  After the film finished, my friend made an interesting point, which has been stuck in my head ever since: "It's a shame we didn't watch it in the nineties. It probably would've been awesome." I know what he meant, and I'm inclined to agree with him.

   For those of you who aren't fantasy film fanatics like me, here's a quick bit of history...

   The Lord of the Rings films were, in my opinion, the last great fantasy films (I've already forgotten Avatar, and the Hobbit trilogy were more of a LOTR aftertaste than films which stood on their own merit). They fell at the turn of a new millennium, a clear cut-off point for what had gone before. No similar film has matched them in commercial and critical success since then. But, in retrospective, LOTR was just as much the end of an era of fantasy films as it was the start of a new age: the dawn of adaptations, sequels and franchises.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy - was it the end of the era, or a sign of things to come?

   Between the late 1970s and early 1990s (but particularly throughout the 1980s), there were a string of fantasy films which are all now known as classic examples of the genre; Labyrinth, The Never Ending Story, The Princess Bride, Willow, Dragonslayer, The Last Unicorn and The Dark Crystal, to name just a few. Some of these - such as The Princess Bride and The Dark Crystal - took a while to build in popularity, but all of these films are very important to a lot of people.

   (Going back a little further, you could say that these films came about due to the magical brilliance of Ray Harryhausen and other genre pioneers in the 60s. But that is a story for another day.)

   Looking back, these films had a lot of flaws. Legend (1985), for example, is bizarre and riddled with continuity errors, and the horns on the 'unicorns' wobble when they gallop. But somehow, when looking back on these films through rose-tinted glasses, these flaws add to their charm.

Legend: We loved it, even if the 'unicorns' had wobbly horns!

   A classic example of this is Flash Gordon, a sci-fi fantasy 'space opera' with outrageous set pieces and corny dialogue. This film is now seen as a cult classic, loved because of his flaws. Whereas Jupiter Ascending - in many ways, a similar film - is lauded.

   Were we more willing to see past the cracks in films back then (perhaps because there were no better options)? Or does time add sparkle to the rough edges?

   Or is the problem CGI? Even with fantasy films, audiences are only willing to suspend disbelief to a point, and practical effects can help ground characters in otherworldly settings.

   Take another recent example: Snow White and the Huntsman. Kristen Stewart is a bit of a 'Marmite actor', but I don't mind her, and above all I enjoyed the film's sword battles and fairy-filled woodlands (so reminiscent of Legend and Willow, although both of these used practical effects for the fairies and still hold up fairly well in this area). The film did fairly well at the box office and received some average reviews - the box office equivalent of someone shrugging their shoulders.

Magical forests in 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman
   I don't think Snow White and the Huntsman was worse than many of the fantasy films I cherished as a child (in the case of my beloved Hawk the Slayer *, it's decidedly better), so what went wrong there? Lead actor aside, would it've been received better if it was made with practical effects, or do modern audiences simply not respond to fantasy films like they used to?

   Has the genre had its day - and did that end with the last millennium?

   Perhaps, in years to come, people will look back at Jupiter Ascending with more fondness. Unfortunately, as a film not good enough to be great, and not bad enough to become a cult classic, it's likely that it will just be forgotten. Which is worrying for fantasy fans.

   Jupiter Ascending really needed to be a success; with it's flop status, it's unlikely that studios will be willing to fund any more original fantasy or sci-fi films for a while. And so the stream of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboot and 'reimaginings' will continue.

   I hope that peoples' opinion on the matter will change, and that we'll have another wave of great original fantasy films in cinemas. If not, what am I aiming for in my career?

    For now, there's plenty of classics to re-watch, and at least TV seems to have picked up the ball from where cinema dropped it. There's always Game of Thrones, and fairytale soap-opera Once Upon A Time. And one day soon there'll be Ren.


*for all you Hawk The Slayer fans out there (and I know it's not just me!), there is a sequel trying to get off the ground, entitled Hawk The Hunter. Their Kickstarter campaign was sadly unsuccessful, but you can follow their page for news as it happens.


  1. I have a theory that the reason Snow White and the Huntsman didn't work is because although the story was fine, the desperation to piggy-back off an existing success created the situation where, possibly subconsciously, we all knew the story was fake. Even for a fiction!
    We all know the story of Snow White, we all know the role of the huntsman, the tale in ingrained in our childhood. To re-imagine, modernise, or otherwise tamper with such an established story is like The Doctor trying to change a fixed point in time - it can't be done!

  2. I agree with Steve - the movie industry seems to be increasingly wary of risking new ideas (as Jupiter Ascending was supposed to be) and is falling back on remakes and re-imaginings of previous stories.
    Even Disney, arguably historically the best 'storyteller' studio, is now doing on live-action versions of its cartoon back-catalogue, with varying success for the reasons Steve gives.
    The only studio seemingly creating original fantasy successfully on a regular basis is Pixar, and even then its 'master', Disney, seems to over-exploit the original ideas with sequels and spin-offs which are usually less successful.

  3. I so hoped Jupiter Ascending wasn't as bad as it was said to be, unfortunately, it was. I slogged my way through the whole film, scratching my head at how someone stumped up that amount of cash on what must have been a bad screenplay and turned it into such an odd film.

    If I'd have seen that film back when I was about 15 I would have loved it, perhaps! It would be interesting to see if it appealed to any teenagers out there, or if the quality of comic book movies has made them a little more discerning when it comes to embracing all fantasy movies, like us old folks did!


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