The Movie Masochist: Remembrance of stinks past

[12 June 2008]

By James Franklin

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

Every summer has its hits, that handful of popcorn movies whose earnings soar into the hundreds of millions. On the flip side, there’s at least one bona fide bomb whose dismal performance spills lots of red ink. These films are usually critical as well as commercial failures, earning them a special degree of scorn.

Here’s a look at summer bombs of the past, some of which are still synonymous with excess and mediocrity. Since some of the films can generate a perverse sense of nostalgia, ratings are provided to remind potential viewers that these movies still have the power to disappoint:

“Battlefield Earth” (2000) 4 stars: traumatic.
Possibly the most unwatchable movie on this list, or the most watchable if you like to sit around and mock crummy movies with your friends. Adapted from the bloated novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the movie cost somewhere around $45 million (despite inflated budget estimates) and grossed less than $30 million worldwide. The story takes place centuries after a bunch of tall aliens with dreadlocks and long, dirty fingernails called Psychlos have invaded Earth. Some surviving humans live in the plant-choked ruins of civilization, while others are used as slaves by the nasty Psychlos. The humans band together and rise up to destroy their oppressors, etc., etc. One of the worst things about the movie - and this is saying a lot - is the Psychlos’ appearance. With their long hair, high foreheads and bad teeth they look like a race of interstellar Ted Nugents, only saner.

“Evan Almighty” (2007) 2 stars: horrible.
The most expensive comedy ever made, “Evan Almighty” proved definitively that big budgets can’t buy laughs. It can buy expensive special effects (see Washington, D.C., get flooded), a solid cast, a memorable ad campaign and probably a really good on-set caterer. At best the movie achieves two funny moments, and since the final budget may be around $200 million, that boils down to $100 million for each laugh. Steve Carrell is a congressman who turns into a modern-day Noah, having been commanded by God (Morgan Freeman) to build an ark and collect animals to fill the hold. Despite God’s warnings, there’s no actual apocalypse except for the one seen on Universal Pictures’ earnings sheet.

“Howard the Duck” (1986) 3 stars: painful.
Still notorious, and for good reason. Howard began life as the grumpy hero of a cult Marvel Comics series that threw him into adventures satirizing politics and life in the morally hazy, post-Watergate 1970s. In the comics he was a cartoon duck vaguely like Disney’s Donald, only with a jacket, tie and cap (but still no pants - at least for a while). The movie’s version of Howard looks like a castoff from the island of Dr. Moreau - he’s a little person with human-looking eyes, legs and hands combined with a coat of feathers, a duck bill and webbed feet. Howard was zapped into this world from another dimension, along with some nasty creatures called Overlords. With the help of a bad rock singer named Beverly (Lea Thompson), Howard vanquishes the main Overlord, which resembles a cross between a scorpion and former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. There’s also an interspecies romance between Howard and Beverly and one of the worst title songs in movie history. This proved that even George Lucas (whose company Lucasfilm co-produced the movie) can’t win all the time, that he’s just a human being, albeit a human being with lots and lots of money.

“Waterworld” (1995) one half-star: half lousy.
Everyone predicted the worst for this over-budgeted, over-long, over-everything science-fiction adventure when it was released in 1995. By the time it arrived in theaters its delays and cost overruns were already notorious, earning it nicknames like “Fishtar” and “Kevin’s Gate” for star Kevin Costner. The surprise was it wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t that good, either. The premise is that at some unspecified time in the far future the rising ocean overtook all Earth’s continents. Costner plays a character known as Mariner, a mutant who can breathe underwater and remain glum and stoical in any situation. A little girl and her adult guardian hold the key to finding a fabled patch of dry land. A bunch of bad guys subtly known as “Smokers” who sail around in a reconditioned Exxon Valdez want dry land also, presumably so they can despoil it. The bad guys die, dry land is found and everyone is happy except Mariner, who returns to the sea so he can resist the urge to smile in complete solitude. While regarded as a financial failure, “Waterworld” did eventually earn back its budget, but not before leaving a sour impression on the summer movie season.

“Wild, Wild West” (1999) 2 stars: horrible.
After Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld scored a hit with “Men in Black,” studio bigwigs be decided they’d be perfect for a movie version of the cult `60s show. So perfect that the screenplay was an afterthought, if it was thought of at all. Smith and Kevin Kline play 19th-century secret agents who foil a plan to kidnap Ulysses S. Grant and stop a madman with a giant mechanical spider from ... something. Perhaps someone taking studious notes could write a synopsis of the story, or even find one. Reportedly costing $175 million, “Wild, Wild West” was saved from complete disaster thanks to box office grosses abroad, although it managed to generate quite a stench at home.

Other notable summer bombs:

“The Avengers” (1998): The big-screen version of the British spy show includes interminable scenes of characters dressed as giant teddy bears, making you question your sobriety while boring you stupid. 3 ½ stars.

“Cutthroat Island” (1995): During the filming of this brain-dead pirate epic, some raw sewage accidentally seeped into one of the studio tanks where the actors had to swim, conveniently providing a metaphor for the whole production. 2 stars.

“Hudson Hawk” (1989): Bruce Willis is a thief who ... never mind. A running gag involves people falling from great heights and somehow landing safely in armchairs. 2 stars.

“The Island” (2005): This Michael Bay movie is set in the future, but you might not know it. That’s because Bay is mostly incapable of keeping his camera more than a few inches from actors’ faces at all times. 1 star.

“Wyatt Earp” (1994): A ponderous, three-hour epic plays that like a conventional Western on phenobarbital. 1 star.

The rating system:
1 star: Lousy
2 stars: Horrible
3 stars: Painful
4 stars: Traumatic

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