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Amazon Has Been Quietly Building Its TV Brand on Sci-Fi

Is The Tomorrow War the breakthrough project the service has been waiting for?
  • (Photos: Amazon)
    (Photos: Amazon)

    We tend to want to look at streaming platforms the way we look at the major TV networks: as big, broadly-programmed catch-alls for allmost any kind of show you might want to watch. Among the original streamers, Netflix and Hulu have largely borne that out. Netflix especially seems intent on having a finger in every pot, from prestige dramas and teen comedies to reality competitions and true crime. Amazon Prime has been in the streaming game for just about as long, but without nearly the volume of success.

    Yes, it's released some critically acclaimed projects over the years (and continues to — Small Axe and Underground Railroad have garnered some of this year's biggest raves), but with the recent wave of new streamers like Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, and Paramount+, Amazon now finds itself in a vast middle class of streamers. While it's has long been on the hunt for a must-see Game of Thrones-like hit that can the game (and it seems to be banking on its billion dollar investment in The Lord of the Rings to be just that), along the way it seems to have stumbled upon a favorite niche, as Amazon Prime Video has increasingly become the streaming destination for science fiction.

    This wasn't always the case. In fact, Amazon's early programming didn't really touch on science fiction at all. Shows like Mozart in the Jungle, Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel put the service on the map, but they've also dabbled in high-concept stuff like alternate histories; The Man in the High Castle was an early attempt at a breakthrough series, and more recently they had some success with the Al Pacino series Hunters. Superhero series, always popular at the movies, have also been a part of Amazon's more recent strategy, with The Boys and Invincible among the service's more talked-about shows.

    But over the past few years, sci-fi has been the most consistently emergent genre on Amazon, from existing shows that have found new life on Prime, to star-studded existential sci-fi, to sci-fi action. Here's a look at just how much science fiction Amazon's been up to, and why The Tomorrow War, releasing on the service this weekend, is a perfect fit:

    Forever

    While you might not immediately peg it as sci-fi, this 2018 comedy certainly qualifies with its plot about Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen as a married couple who die separately and are eventually reunited in an odd afterlife with its own rules, giving them the opportunity to transcend the monotony of what their lives had been. Forever, which only lasted one season, was far more existential than it was hard sci-fi, but it established Amazon's willingness to get weird and mind-expanding with its programming. Though it was cut short, the series is still remembered fondly by the few who watched.

    The Expanse

    For meat-and-potatoes science fiction, one need look no further than the 2019 continuation of The Expanse. Based on the series of novels by James S. A. Corey, the series ran on Syfy for three seasons before it became an Amazon original. Set in a future where humanity has tarraformed Mars and is expanding ever further into the galaxy, creating warring factions between those on Earth, those on Mars, and the nomadic people raised on the ships traveling the asteroid belt. As a piece of world-building, it's a phenomenal series, intent as it is on pushing farther and farther out into new worlds. It's also the only television series where you'll find Oscar nominee Shoreh Aghdashloo cursing with some of the finest and most elegant delivery there ever was. Amazon has aired the fourth and fifth seasons of the show and has committed to a sixth and final season, filming this year.

    Tales from the Loop

    Released in the spring of 2020, Tales from the Loop was based on the art book of the same name by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. It concerns the interconnected lives of a bunch of small town people — played by the likes of Rebecca Hall and Paul Schneider — whose lives are impacted by a nearby experimental physics facility known as The Loop. With episodes directed by Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go), Andrew Stanton (WALL-E), Ti West (The House of the Devil), and Jodie Foster, the series boasts an incredibly stylish look, which made sense since it was based on drawings moreso than a typical novel. Reviews were good, but the show was decidedly weird, which may have kept it from catching on with the mainstream.

    Upload

    This comedy series from Greg Daniels was yet another Amazon comedy series about the afterlife. This one, unlike Forever, was far more rooted in technology. When Nathan (Robbie Amell) dies, his consciousness is uploaded into a bespoke digital afterlife, where he must adjust to life on the other side while still being subject to intrusions by his rich former fiancee, whose money is bankrolling his luxe afterlife experience. Upload delved into how tech and the promise of extending life after death with function within a corrupt and unequal capitalist structure. It also told a budding love story between Nathan and his handler, Nora. While not a breakthrough success, the show apparently performed well enough to earn a second-season renewal, which it deserves.

    Utopia

    How many times will we get a TV show called Utopia? Amazon tried to answer that question in 2020 with an American remake of the BBC series Utopia (which was different than the Australian TV series Utopia, which was different from the American reality series Utopia). This version starred John Cusack, Dan Byrd, Rainn Wilson, and Sasha Lane and followed a group of kids who come across an underground comic book that makes them a target of shadowy conspiracy types because the comic book foretells future events and a global conspiracy. A lot of the conspiracy plot had to do with a false-flag pandemic and a vaccine that sterilizes the populations, so this remake emerging in 2020 amid a global pandemic was, to put it lightly, bad timing. The series was poorly reviewed and was seen as a disappointing version of the superior British original.

    Bliss

    This Salma Hayek/Owen Wilson sci-fi project is a film, not a TV series, but is aesthetically of a piece with Amazon's other sci-fi offerings from the past couple years. Bliss is about a mentally ill man (Wilson) who suffers a psychotic break and meets a woman (Hayek) who knows more about the man than she should. The series deals with simulated reality and whether Wilson's character — or the audience itself — can trust that what he's seeing is real, and whether Hayek is who she seems.

    Solos

    This star-studded anthology series offers a collection of single-performer vignettes set in various sci-fi settings — an underground bunker; a space pod — dealing with sci-fi concepts like memory harvesting and clones. Episodes starring the likes of Anne Hathaway, Anthony Mackie, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman deal with questions of identity and trauma, augmented by sci-fi concepts and revelations that make it clear that everything is happening in some imagined future where the basic human actions of birth, death, and memory are subject to some kind of technological evolution. The series didn't totally work, but the concept proved once again that Amazon was willing to throw big money and snag big stars for its sci-fi properties.

    The Tomorrow War

    Director Chris McKay's first live-action movie is a sci-fi action blockbuster for Amazon with a cast that includes Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, and Sam Richardson. The Terminator-esque plot involves time travelers from a future ravaged by a war with aliens as they try to recruit citizens from the past to fight in the future. The film was originally meant to be a Christmas Day release from Paramount Pictures — so clearly the expectations were big — but COVID changed those plans and the film was sold to streaming. If there's one thing that mainstream American audiences dig, it's sci-fi action, so after two years of brainy, arty science fiction, maybe it's some big, dumb future-splosions that will finally score Amazon a sci-fi hit.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Amazon Studios, Bliss, The Expanse, Forever, Solos, Tales from the Loop, The Tomorrow War, Upload, Utopia