Science fiction is built on some incredible failures. These days, we take for granted that science fiction's ideas and imagery dominate pop culture and define our collective reality — but many of science fiction's most important works were originally counted as flops. Science fiction wouldn't have most of its coolest riffs without these classics that went under the radar at the time.
Here are 20 awesome science fiction failures, that totally made the universe worth living in.
Update: A few people have asked whether the "they saved us all" thing in the headline is an overstatement. I'm going to stand behind it — the works listed below definitely shaped science fiction, which in turn has come to describe the world we live in. We're all using technology and trading ideas that only make sense in a world that's had Star Trek and Blade Runner. Without the kind of science fiction these works helped to inspire, we'd all be way worse off.
Kind of the most obvious example — Joss Whedon's Space Western show was notoriously mistreated by Fox and wound up being cancelled without airing its entire first season. And now, just look at it — the anniversary panel was the hit of Comic-Con, and we routinely divide space epics into pre-Firefly and post-Firefly. Its influence can't be overstated.
The first season of this show about cyberpunk journalism and snarky floating heads didn't even finish airing before it was yanked. But now, people regularly namecheck Max Headroom as a major touchstone for depicting cyberculture, networked journalism and dystopian weirdness. This show described the world we're living in.
Hoping for a slightly edgier follow-up to the spy adventure Danger Man, ITV instead got this head-shrinking trip down the rabbit hole, which looked like an acid-infused logorrhea nightmare. But soon enough, The Prisoner helped inspire countless "reality is fake" stories, including The Truman Show, and got an uninspired remake plus tons of tributes and print spin-offs.
Not only did this movie about immortal swordsman get lots of bemused reviews, its first theatrical run was also deemed a failure, especially in the United States. But soon enough, there were sequels (even if you wish there weren't), a quite decent TV series, and an upcoming remake. But more than that, Highlander has become part of everyone's shared consciousness, thanks to phrases like "There Can Be Only One."
This is another example of a movie that didn't set the box office on fire but has become a huge, insane cult phenomenon. Phrases like "No matter where you go, there you are" have become common currency. And the cornucopia of weird images and plot devices that this impossible-to-summarize movie offers seem to pop up everywhere, in tons of other movies and TV shows.
One day, Andrew Niccol will direct a film that eats the world as much as Truman Show, which he scripted but did not direct. But meanwhile, the first of his high-concept flops, Gattaca, has had a huge second life as a widely admired classic — and its very name has become synonymous in our conversations with "genetically modified humans."
Yep. Marvel's most lucrative and popular superteam were a horrible failure in their first run, and were summarily cancelled. And then they were brought back in the 1970s and became the angst-fueled, oppressed, sexy, sexy mutants we love today.
Joe Johnston's jetpack-powered superhero film didn't actually soar at the box office, despite some cool art-deco imagery. But it's had a huge influence on the growth of the superhero genre, and Johnston went on to direct Captain America: The First Avenger.
Philip K. Dick
Famously, the prolific and mind-expanding author died just before Blade Runner came out and his domination of the movie industry began. He never achieved financial success in his lifetime, but he's become a huge money-maker since then — and with authors like Jonathan Lethem championing him, his works have become required reading among highbrow audiences. Image via Lines and Colors.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Actually, this show got fantastic ratings for its first few episodes — and then the writer's strike happened, and gravity took hold. By the time its second season began, the show was already "on the bubble." But the show already had a huge cult following, which has only grown since then — and its clever approaches to the themes of time travel and artificial intelligence continue to resonate.
Terry Gilliam's masterpiece was butchered for American audiences, and never even really got a fair chance. For years, Americans had to search for a bootleg copy of the original British cut. But meanwhile, Brazil came to be one of the most important dystopian stories, and its imagery started to permeate everybody's brains. And Gilliam reused a lot of that imagery for his hit movie Twelve Monkeys.
John Carpenter's The Thing
It's hard to remember that this frozen monster movie was a flop, in its original theatrical run. Especially now that we've just seen a valiant attempt at making a slavishly accurate prequel, which also failed. The very existence of that prequel, though, proves that The Thing has become a major classic.
Until pretty recently, we couldn't see Dark City the way it was meant to be seen — the theatrical cut was pretty badly mauled. But even that theatrical cut was full of dreamlike imagery and paranoid weirdness, that influenced everything from The Matrix to a ton of recent "dark" superhero films.
As we mentioned a while back, Tron actually did pretty well at the box office in its first run — but it was widely regarded as a failure, and is frequently mentioned as one of the most unsuccessful movies to become a cult phenomenon later. And now, of course, it's had a huge sequel and a popular TV spin-off, with more to come.