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Dissecting iTunes’ Top 10 Sales Lists: Sci-Fi & Fantasy

We live in interesting times. Information is so easy to get and long gone are the golden days of hunting down movies in physical media and grabbing certain editions before they went out of print. It wasn’t too long ago when collectors bought new releases on VHS for $79.99 brand new rather than waiting for them to endure the rental cycle and be sold for under $20.00. One of the primary ways audiences digest media now is digital and iTunes ranks very high in that world, especially for those who want to own a copy of the movie and don’t do the awful and job-killing illegal downloading of films. Since buying habits are so intriguing and since the world is so list-driven, I’ve taken it upon myself to look at iTunes all-time bestsellers in five categories and look deeper. And to suggest titles that aren’t listed here that would be better choices in an ideal world.

Today: Sci-Fi & Fantasy

#1 – Star Trek

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JJ Abrams’ first attempt and revitalizing a moribund film franchise is the all-time #1 selling iTunes Sci-Fi & Fantasy title and it’s easy to understand why. Star Trek is safe. It’s a fun movie that truly does bring an “old guys” franchise into the modern world and it does so with respect and an energy that none of the films with the original cast were able to achieve decades earlier. Is it the best Star Trek film? Probably not. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek: First Contact are all excellent movies. But this release accomplishes quite a lot and it did so right at the real birth of the digital film revolution. It’s a safe movie. Even purists have trouble really taking too many exceptions with Star Trek, and the excellent casting (particularly Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty) irons out any rough edges. It’s held up well over the years and still has a swagger and polish to it that endures. It’s not a sexy choice, but it makes sense.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Coccoon, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Robocop

#2 – Star Trek Into Darkness

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The second attempt by JJ Abrams and crew was considerably more polarizing but as far as confidence and approach it surpasses the original. There wasn’t the uncertainty of whether audiences would support the brand. There’s no denying fan favorite Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as a high point, though perhaps he didn’t need to be the seminal villain Khan. He could have been anyone really and it’s his presence in the movie that divides fans so much. It obviously hasn’t hurt sales, as this is the #2 film of all time in the category. A lot of that has to be attributed to completists for the series or ones who bought the bundle package of both films, but Star Trek Into Darkness certainly caused a stir. It’s a bit of a surprise it’s maintained its rank but it goes to show how strong Star Trek’s enduring power has been.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Starship Troopers

#3 – The Martian

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For a film this recent, The Martian is a surprise as the #3 film. Some of that can be explained away by the fact more and more people wait for the home release on major films and iTunes’ very wise early window on major titles. We are a culture of “now” and Apple’s ability to grab titles before they’re available on any other home market is custom made for today’s culture. Plus, The Martian is a great movie that unlike many others in this list appeals to people who don’t care for the genre.

Alternative Deeper Cuts: Moon, Outland, The Right Stuff

#4 – Interstellar

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This movie was one where expectations made it difficult to appreciate on its own merits. It was sold to audiences over a year in advance, was kept as secret as possible until the last second, and one that had the aura of a classic before it was even screened for the public. Christopher Nolan has earned a reputation as a filmmaker whose name alone on a project makes it an event film. Interstellar itself is quite good, though not as airtight as many would have hoped. It’s another science fiction film that has appeal that crosses genre lines, which explains its high rank here though it is a bit of a surprise. After being the most anticipated movie in years it’s kind of become a sidenote.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Primer, Sunshine

#5 – Maleficent

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This is a film that has merit but sticks out like a sore thumb here. Maleficent is beautiful and built upon a framework of ageless Disney storytelling but it feels like a product that ranks so high due to the fact that younger audiences represent a huge portion of the digital media buying populace. It’s a film that gets perennial play on seatbacks in SUV’s as families make long journeys but as a cornerstone of its genre, it’s not in the discussion. It’s a well-crafted movie but one that will most likely have faded from this list by 2017.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Watership Down, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Time Bandits

#6 – Ex Machina

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This is a welcome surprise this high on the lists. A lot of that can be attributed to buzz but also the fact that Ex Machina is a film that didn’t sink in until it reached iTunes. That exclusive window was gold for the film, and though it had a decent theatrical release it’s one of the quintessential sleeper films to come out of this era. It had timing, a cast on the cusp of superstardom, and burgeoning awards interest.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Gattaca, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds

#7 – Prometheus

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This film has had surprising legs considering how it was ravaged by audiences and critics and suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. Was Prometheus an Alien film? Was it not an Alien film? Would it be measured and intellectual or an action-driven spectacle? While it’s a gorgeous film to look at with some charms, it’s a mess. A mess Ridley Scott will undoubtedly make amends for in his next films in the series but this is most likely a case of an audience starved for material than actual supply and demand.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Alien, The Hidden, eXistenz

#8 – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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A lot of people love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and to them I raise a stein of mead. I wish I felt the same. After the rich and deeply rewarding Lord of the Rings series this felt like empty calories. To paraphrase the same series, butter spread over too much bread. That said, it is Peter Jackson doing J.R.R. Tolkien and that is some strong currency. Martin Freeman and Ian McKellan alone make it almost a necessity, but not enough so. It’s surprising that it’s this film and not the better second film in the series that made the top ten. It’s all about the timing.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Dragonslayer, The Fellowship of the Ring, Fire and Ice

#9 – Avengers: Age of Ultron

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As much heat as Avengers: Age of Ultron has taken over the past year for not being perfect, it’s nice to see it maintaining some staying power. Following up the resoundingly terrific first Avengers film is no mean feat and Joss Whedon and gang came up a little short but the results are still outstanding. Audiences are spoiled. There are no limitations to what can be achieved onscreen and as a result appetites become more and more demanding. This was a film that simply could not meet the impossible task set before it. Its just very good, which for some reason created a backlash that had no right existing. At #9 on the list it’s about where it belongs.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Unbreakable, The Abyss, The Specials

#10 – Tron: Legacy

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I’m actually thrilled that this movie is here. It’s a survivor. There are few better films to show off high end equipment and while the film is in many ways dumber than a manhole cover it’s a mesmerizing spectacle and with the marriage of cutting-edge visuals and a perfect soundtrack a good analogy for the state of digital entertainment. We don’t need to be touched deeply or intellectually moved as an audience. We just need something that isn’t stale. Mad Max: Fury Road is the rare exception that touches all the grace notes. Tron: Legacy is an underdog that for a generation much younger than myself represents a gateway film for the genre and you can’t fault it for that.

Alternate Deeper Cuts: Tron, The Last Starfighter, THX-1138

Tomorrow: Horror

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