Sense of Wonder: 2009's Biggest Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Blockbusters


The genre delivered big bang at the box office, blowing most of the competition off the screen.

It’s the end of the year. Time to look back and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the last twelve months worth cinefantastique. Before getting into the artistic side of the equation (a thornier problem that requires some actual analysis on my part), let’s look at something more quantifiable: box office results. Judged purely on this basis, 2009 was another banner year for horror, fantasy, and science fiction, with those genres taking not only the win, place and show positions, but also filling eight of the Top Ten slots. Equally impressive, 19 horror, fantasy and science fiction titles surpassed the $100-million blockbuster mark (20 if you include ANGELS & DEMONS, which had a sci-fi MacGuffin fueling its plot).
One could try to dismiss the genre’s performance by noting that box office results were up across the board, topping $10-billion for the first time – apparently in response to the recession (despite rising ticket prices, a trip to the movies is still just about the cheapest night out). However, a close examination of the numbers suggests not that cinefantastique  benefited from a rising tide that lifted all boats; rather, genre films were buoys that raised the box office to new heights.
What conclusions can we draw from this? The most obvious lesson is a familiar one, from past experience: audiences enjoy escapism in times of stress, and what better way to escape than into alien worlds, future times, fantasy lands, or even dark and sinister realms of horror? (In the latter case, the escapism works a little differently; it’s nice to emerge from the theatre thinking real life doesn’t look nearly so bad as what was up on screen.)
Previous explosions of horror, fantasy, and science fiction have often been timed to unfortunate eras of history: the silent horrors of Lon Chaney after World War I; the first wave of sound horror during the Great Depression; the 1950’s science fiction films, filled with alien invaders and mutant monsters, during the Cold War, and on and on.
2009 continues in that tradition, as the world tries to dig itself out of a global recession and deal with the continuing threat of terrorism. The anomaly in this case is that the year saw a new President sworn into the White House, who was elected on a campaign of change, promising optimism for the future. Yet films conceived and created during the previous administration still resonated with audiences, indicating that the national mindset is still troubled and looking for escape from a lingering unpleasant reality. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues in 2010.
Looking closer at the box office results, we can see a few trends, indicating what sort of escapism audiences preferred in 2009. The most obvious lesson – hardly surprising – is that films designed to appeal to a broad audience did well, while those targeted to a specific niche were less successful. You would be hard-pressed to strictly define any of the big winners with such limiting terms as “children’s film” or even, in most cases, “family film.”
Instead, the blockbusters tended to be PG-13 films with something for everyone. Live-action efforts like TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, STAR TREK, and AVATAR were filled with action that would attract teens and young adults, and they also include at least hints of sex appeal; however, they avoided going too far into territory that the majority would deem offensive or risque, and they usually retained a certain good nature that prevented most parents from fearing harmful effects for their children. Meanwhile, the top animated films were conscientiously family-friendly, yet they made sure to include spectacular action visuals (MONSTERS VS. ALIENS), humor (ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS) or deeper emotional resonance (UP) that would appeal to adult viewers, whether or not they were obligated to bring their kids to the movies. Although it did not do quite as well as the others, Henry Selick’s film version of CORALINE showed that even sinister stop-motion efforts could attract an audience, pushing the boundaries of what is considered a “children’s film.”
We also saw, as expected, that pre-sold audiences will patronize their favorite franchise, regardless of the quality of the films. STAR TREK deserved its multi-million dollar ticket sales, but TRANSFORMERS 2, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE,THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE proved that servicing expectations is the surest was to success; actually making a good movie is of secondary importance, if any. 
The good news is that original films can succeed just as well as familiar product. James Cameron’s AVATAR, for all its flaws, is already at #7 for the year, and it will no doubt continue to earn millions well into 2010. Likewise, Pixar’s UP seemed almost deliberately designed to flout commercial conventions (a grumpy old guy flying in house lifted by balloons – who wants to see that?), and yet it became the third biggest hit of the year.
Along these lines, 2009 also saw a pair of cinefantastique sleepers: DISTRICT 9 and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Both of these looked like interesting little movies that would reach at most a specialized audience in theatres before heading off to video and hoping to be discovered by wider audience there. Instead, each became a certified blockbuster, proving that movies without stars of pre-sold storylines can defy the odds, thanks to interesting storylines and clever filmmaking techniques.
The success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY also gave fans of genuine, quality horror – as opposed to mindless torture porn – reason to rejoice. The biggest horror hit of the year, its straight-faced, serious, suggestive approach easily surpassed the cruder shock techniques and campy antics of the year’s other horror films. The next biggest horror film for the year was ZOMBIELAND, which tempered its carnage with humor.
After that, it was several steps down to the likes of THE FINAL DESTINATION, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE UNBORN, and DRAG ME TO HELL – all of which embraced the idea that the “horror movie” tag offered some kind of dispensation, relieving the filmmakers from concerns for credibility and good drama, as long as they supplied the scares. Perhaps the most encouraging news is that Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II topped out at less than $34-million, and the latest SAW sequel (number 6) fell short of $30-million. Though not as big a hit as PARNORMAL ACTIVITY, the spooky HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT easily outdistanced both of these sequels. Hopefully, Hollywood will heed the lesson.
So, then, let’s peruse the best box office results for horror, fantasy, and science fiction films in 2009. But be warned: as Cinefantastique’s late founder Frederick S. Clarke was wont to point out, artistic achievements and box office success seldom go hand-in-hand. The tremendous profits earned by genre titles this year ensure that the genres will continue to be well represented at cinemas for the foreseeable future, but that does not necessarily translate into challenging, ambitious cinefantastique that explores the full potential of what cinema has to offer.
3. UP – $293.0-million
4. THE TWLIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON – $281.9-million
6. STAR TREK – $257.7-million
7. AVATAR (still in release) – $250.4-million
8. MONSTERS VS. ALIENS – $198.4-million
9. ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS – $196.6-million
11. X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE – $179.9-million
14. 2012 – $161.5-million
16. G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA – $150.2-million
19. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (still in release) $136.2-million
20. ANGELS & DEMONS – $133.4-million
21. TERMINATOR SALVATION – $125.3-million
24. G-FORCE – $119.4-million
25. DISTRICT 9 – $115.6-million
27. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY – $107.8-million
28. WATCHMEN – $107.5-million
29. ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL (still in release) $100.2-million
35. SHERLOCK HOLMES (still in release) – $83-million
36. KNOWING – $79.9-million
38. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE – $75.8-million
39. ZOMBIELAND – $75. 6-million
40 CORALINE – $75.2-milion
45. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (still in release) – $70.1-million
47. RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN – $67.2-million
48. THE FINAL DESTINATION – $66.5-million
50. FRIDAY THE 13TH – $65.0-million
51. 17 AGAIN – $ 64.2-million
52. THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE – $63.4-million
56. GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST – $55.3-million
59. MY BLOODY VALENTINE3D – $51.5-million
60. LAND OF THE LOST – $49.4-million
63. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS – $45.8-million
65. YEAR ONE – $43.3-million
66. THE UNBORN – $42.7-million
68. DRAG ME TO HELL -$42.1-million
69. ORPHAN – $41.6-million
71. PLANET 51 – $39.2-million
72. SURROGATES – $38.6-million
78. HALLOWEEN II – $33.4-million
80. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT – $32.8-million
85. 9 – $31.7-million
87. TOY STORY/TOY STORY 3 (3D) – $30.7-million
89. THE STEPFATHER – $29.1-million
92. SAW VI – $27.7-million
96. THE FOURTH KIND – $25.4-million
97. ALIENS IN THE ATTIC – $25.2-million
104. GAMER – $20.9-million
105. ASTRO BOY – $19.3-million
108. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX – $18.5-million
113. JENNIFER’S BODY – $16.2-million
114. IMAGINE THAT – $16.1-million
120. PONYO – $15.1-million
131. SORORITY ROW – $11.9-million
134. PANDORUM – $10.3-million
139. DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION – $9.4-million
150. THE ROAD – $6.1-million

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