Sunday, December 14, 2014

Newsploitation: A Science Fiction Triple Feature for the Ages

One of the fun things about looking at the box office results of old is finding out that some of your own personal favorites went head-to-head.  Nowhere is this better shown than in the cinematic weekend beginning on December 14, 1984.  Of the four major studio releases opening on that day thirty years ago, three of them turned out to be sci-fi films.  Even more amazing, all three grew into sci-fi classics of one way or another and they still see talk and screenings today.  The triple threat was David Lynch’s DUNE, Michael Crichton’s RUNAWAY, and John Carpenter’s STARMAN.  Yeah, ‘twas a good weekend to be a sci-fi geek.

Popular lore has always pegged Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel as a huge box office flop; however that is not the case.  Of the three films that weekend, DUNE opening in the highest position and came in second place with $6,025,091.  A project in development for over a decade (we totally suggest you watch the amazing documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE [2013], which covers director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make the film in the 1970s), DUNE grossed $30,925,690 in the United States so it is probably safe to say it doubled that in foreign markets. That should have covered producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis’ investment of $40 million. Unfortunately, the film ended up being a victim of the dreaded comparison to some other space opera series called STAR WARS.  Fact is if your sci-fi epic wasn’t making the $200+ million that the Lucasfilm trilogy was raking in throughout U.S. theaters, you were considered a bomb.  As it stands, DUNE did alright and, despite its director wanting his name taken off it, its reputation and following has only grown over the last thirty years.

The weakest performer of the three films that weekend was RUNAWAY.  Writer-director Crichton’s fifth theatrical feature, this one featured hot TV star Tom Selleck as a future cop who has to take on the malicious robots of villain Gene Simmons.  TriStar got this one into 720 theaters (half of what the box office champ BEVERLY HILLS COP [1984] was still showing in) and it ended up coming in seventh place with a haul of $1,198,279.  This one stuck around the least at just over four weeks and ended up with a final tally of $6,770,587. It was another stark reminder for Selleck that his transition from the small screen to the big one wasn’t going to go smoothly and it was a far cry from the box office of LASSITER (1984), which had earned $17 million when released in February of the same year. Ultimately, RUNAWAY would find its audience on home video and cable.  It has grown to be a cult favorite and it all holds up extremely well in viewings three decades removed.  Well, except for Gene Simmons’ hair.

The middle child of our triplets ended up being Columbia’s STARMAN, which tells the story of an alien answering NASA’s Voyager invitation and heading to explore Earth (and specifically America) in a few days journey.  With Jeff Bridges as the alien and Nancy Allen as his guide, STARMAN proved to be a departure for director John Carpenter, who was getting pigeonholed as only a horror director. The film opened in sixth place with a total of $2,872,022.  Of the three features, this one had the longest legs and good word of mouth kept it playing until February 1985 where it settled with a domestic gross of $28,744,356.  Surprisingly, this would end up being Carpenter’s highest grossing film of the 1980s.  Even more surprising, Jeff Bridges saw his amazing lead performance nominated for an Academy Award, a true rarity for science fiction film. While he lost to F. Murray Abraham from AMADEUS (1984), it proved to be the first of three nominations for Best Actor (he’d previously been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW [1971] and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT [1974]).  He would eventually win the prize for CRAZY HEART (2009).

It is kind of wild to find out those three films I loved as a kid all came out on the same day. Of the three, I only got to see STARMAN in the theater so it is my favorite.  But it is cool to know that three such distinct voices all got there wildly different sci-fi films into theaters, a feat that surely wouldn’t happened today.  December 14, 1984 – a day that will live in science fiction film infamy.

Moments of Clarity:

3 Reactions:

  1. I watched the hell out of RUNAWAY on VHS back in the 80's. It's defintely on my most wanted blu-ray list. That along with another Gene Simmons classic, WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE.

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  3. I watched both "Starman" and "Runaway" at the time in theatres. Lucky me

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