Can sci-fi save the romantic comedy?
It's not exactly news to say that the rom-com has seen better days. At this point, declaring the death of the genre is a cliché in itself, hashed over in think piece after think piece after think piece.
As with most things on the internet, the truth has been a little exaggerated. There are plenty of quality romantic comedies released every year. Take last week's What If — the most conventional entry the genre has seen in 2014. Twenty-five years after When Harry Met Sally, What If boldly asks whether men and women can really be friends, with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan stepping in for Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.
The key difference: while When Harry Met Sally grossed $92 million, What If, which began in limited release, has grossed $1.1 million to date and has virtually no chance of raking in even a fraction of its big-screen predecessor's haul. Not so long ago, What If would have been primed for a major release; instead, it's been tucked unceremoniously between Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
No, the rom-com isn't dead — but the Hollywood rom-com is on life support. As the major studios collectively move away from midrange romantic comedies in favor of pricier superhero flicks, the big-screen romance has simply migrated to the indie market, where the stakes are lower (and the international gross is less of a factor).
It's hard to blame Hollywood for being gun-shy. Most of the recent, more conventional, and studio-backed romantic comedies — such as What's Your Number?, Playing for Keeps, and The Big Wedding — have flopped. The few big rom-coms that have broken through have been Trojan horses, disguised as sex romps (Friends With Benefits), genre flicks (Warm Bodies), or Oscar bait (Silver Linings Playbook).
But there's a key exception to the general dearth of quality romantic stories at the cineplex: science fiction. The sci-fi romance — whether comedy or drama — has quietly pushed the genre to the cutting edge of thoughtful, emotional cinema.
In some ways, the romantic comedy has skirted the edges of sci-fi since its inception. Anyone who has enjoyed the whip-smart banter of His Girl Friday or swooned over the love story between a hooker and her john in Pretty Woman knows the genre has rarely been grounded in any kind of reality. In a 2011 New Yorker article, noted rom-com aficionado Mindy Kaling wrote that she thinks of rom-coms as "a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world."
"For me," she added, "there is no difference between Ripley from Alien and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible."
But for all the intrinsic strangeness of the genre, the most effective film romances from the past decade have moved beyond the quasi-reality of the conventional rom-com into actual science fiction. In 2010, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World used its elastic premise — in which a young man competes in Nintendo-style battles with his girlfriend's seven evil ex-boyfriends — to tell a clever, cheeky story about the very real baggage that can derail a relationship. In 2011, Woody Allen scored his best reviews in ages (and his third Best Picture nomination) with Midnight in Paris, a charming fable about a man who begins to question his personal life as he travels back in time to the 1920s.
The indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), which follows a man seeking a partner for a time-traveling adventure, offers infinitely more wit and heart than the more conventional rom-coms that came out that year. Last year, Spike Jonze's Best Picture-nominated Her, which chronicled the love affair between a man and a Siri-like operating system, had far more to say about modern relationships than most of the year's human/human romances. Even better? Upstream Color, which grounded its convoluted sci-fi narrative in a deeply moving story about the bond between two fundamentally damaged people.
This Friday, another unconventional romance arrives in theaters: The One I Love, a two-hander starring Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as a couple who attempt to save their struggling marriage by spending a weekend on a private, romantic getaway. I'd be doing The One I Love a disservice if I told you too much about its twisty story line — but it's safe to say the film's pointed nods to both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Twilight Zone are no mere coincidence.
For all their differences in content or tone, each of the above examples works in the same way: by blending the uncanny nature of science fiction and the universality of romance to create something unique and human. Sci-fi movies, at their best, use an out-there concept to make us reflect on ourselves; romantic movies, at their best, offer a thoughtful take on some of the most meaningful relationships of our lives. Whatever the future of the romantic comedy, the film industry would be wise to take both of those approaches to heart.