Considering all of the various factors that go into a film achieving success, critically and commercially, landing a probe on a comet doesn’t seem all that difficult. Hyperbolic, of course, but movies are tricky to get right. We’d like to assume the quality of a film is self-evident, a Platonic form, something that stands apart from unpredictable forces of chance, fate, and the appetites of the mob. However, the truth is that films are often victims of circumstance, dependent on good fortune, the generosity of critics, and requiring the planning acumen of a midsized military invasion.
Many films deserve the dustbin. Some also deserve the adulation and awards heaped upon them, while others do not. Yet, there are films that slipped through the cracks, not finding their stride upon release. Either these films baffled critics, were ignored by audiences, or became subjected to the whims of a cruel market, too niche, poorly advertised, or featuring a lead in an unfamiliar role. All in all, these eight films didn’t deserve the reception they initially received. Some found their footing later on, others deserve a second look.
The directorial debut of David Fincher, Alien 3 gets a great deal of heat for not being James Cameron’s Aliens redux. A tortuous production, stuck in hell for a number of years, plagued in a too-many-cooks scenario by multiple writers (including sci-fi writer William Gibson) and attached directors and DPs, it’s a miracle that the film ever saw any sort of release. When sets are built and filming begins before a finished script turns up, there’s going to be a problem.
While the production issues and constant studio interference re: Fincher are a large part of this film’s perceived problems, what turned off audiences, likely, was the horribly downbeat opener after the mostly warm and fuzzy ending of the mega successful Aliens. Three major characters were killed, off-screen, setting the tone for the slow-moving, psychological terror on Fiorina 161 with an equally depressing ending. Slow-moving is the key. And after Aliens veered the franchise into action territory, the shift in tone and pacing was too much for fans.
Yet, considering the horror conventions of the first film, Alien 3 is more faithful. It reestablished the alien as the unstoppable monster of H.R. Giger design. Instead of being fodder for colonial marine pulse rifles (“Let’s rock!”), the alien is the ur-predator of your nightmares, the way it should be. Combined with Fincher’s beautiful visuals (watch the 2003 Assembly Cut), excellent performances from Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, and Charles Dance, along with the truly creepy rod puppet alien (aside from the utterly unforgivable compositing effects) and a beautiful animatronic Lance Henriksen, Alien 3 is worth another look.
Observe and Report
A classic example of an actor’s reputation getting the better of them, Observe and Report might have been done in by its marketing. Featuring a mugging, sad sack Seth Rogen, not unlike from the poster for Knocked Up, dressed in mall cop regalia, the film looked like a Paul Blart: Mall Cop competitor. Given Rogen’s reputation as a comedic actor, this wasn’t an implausible assumption. Also, considering that the film was released in 2009, the same year as Paul Blart: Mall Cop it seemed like a repeat of the summer showdowns of Armageddon and Deep Impact, or Dante’s Peak and Volcano. Seth Rogen versus Kevin James, got it, potential audiences must have intuited.
However, the film is a dark comedy, black as they come. While it is ostensibly about a mall cop, Rogen’s character has little in common with Paul Blart. Indeed, the role is radically different from anything Rogen was known for. Perhaps his character on Freaks and Greeks comes close but the gulf is vast. For those hoping to see Rogen do his usual stoner shtick, disappointment awaits. The character is a loner, sad and desperate, slightly unhinged, obsessed with violence, ignorant of social cues, and hell-bent on catching (and horrifically punishing) a flasher at the mall he patrols.
The humor comes from a dark place and that, likely, turned audiences off. But it is a very funny film, perhaps one of his best. The tone and focus is near perfect and captures Rogen’s character’s imbalance exceptionally, providing enough cut-aways to establish how a saner world responds to his actions, the sort of visual punchlines on display in dark comedies, most recently in Kristen Wiig’s Welcome to Me. Ultimately, Observe and Report is a film worth the watch solely for Rogen, demonstrating his comedic chops outside the tired, oft-imitated, but increasingly unsatisfying Apatow improv circle.
Last Action Hero
Pretty much all Arnold Schwarzenegger films are tongue in cheek. He once lived, and still tries today, unsuccessfully, by his one liners. What’s an Arnold film without them? “I’ll be back,” built his career and, to this day, I’ll always laugh at “stick around,” from Predator. We expect these little winks to the camera, a shrug that ‘yeah, I get the joke and I’m laughing with you.’ What critics and audiences weren’t expecting was a full on, hilt deep acknowledgement of the absurdity of action films, less a nudge to the ribs and more a full bodied bear hug from Schwarzenegger himself.
Last Action Hero has, on paper, everything going for it. John McTiernan (of Die Hard and Predator fame) directed, with a screenplay by Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black, and featuring one of the hottest action stars of the time, of all time, in the body of Schwarzenegger. Yet, between a difficult writing process, a bloated budget, and a mandated early release date that shaved the shooting schedule dangerously sheer, the film was a difficult birth. Perhaps it’s easy to blame the oversized influence of Schwarzenegger (or, as he jokes in the film, ‘the famous comedian Arnold Braunschweiger’) or the initial treatment by Zak Penn, but Last Action Hero was burned by a blur of factors.
The most salient is the film punctured the expectations of audiences. You mean, an Arnold film with references to Hamlet AND Ingmar Bergman? Indeed, the producers, along with Columbia Pictures, didn’t know what to make of the film, or how to market it. Was this an all-ages comedy, or a satire, or an adult targeted action romp? The joy of Last Action Hero comes from it riding the line between irony and sincerity, along with its, admittedly, overly superfluous callbacks to Stallone, T2, Basic Instinct, and Twins via Danny DeVito’s cartoon cat detective. Regardless, the messiness makes this movie and is essential for any dedicated action film fan.
Edge of Tomorrow
Another example of an actor’s reputation overtaking the actual film, this 2014 sci-fi/action joint features Tom Cruise as a soldier, fighting alien invaders, stuck in a repetitive, Groundhog Day-esque situation. Though Cruise has a long track record in both action (Mission Impossible, Days of Thunder, Top Gun) and sci-fi (Minority Report, Oblivion, Vanilla Sky) his stock has plummeted in recent years. Partly this comes from his connection to the controversial Church of Scientology, his odd public persona re: the Oprah interview, and the diminishing returns of Cruise’s film presence. Yes, he was hot in Risky Business and Cocktail but the charm wears thin when the actor plays himself in pretty much every role.
However, Edge of Tomorrow breaks from that mold. There is some casting discord between Cruise’s character, a conniving, cowardly press officer, and the actor’s presence, since we’ve seen him play so many straight jawed military men in the past. Still, in the public eye this film suffered, unfairly, from Cruise’s presence and badly targeted marketing, never quite sure what the movie’s angle was supposed to be. Is this an action film? Comedy? Is the power armor too close to the exoskeletons in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, perhaps conflating the two in the audiences’ mind’s eye?
That one-two punch turned audiences away, which is a shame considering the intriguing original premise, the well-executed action set pieces, and the film’s humor. It’s surprising that such a piece of work was handed in by Doug Limon, the director of 1996’s Swingers. What isn’t a shock is the film’s lackluster debut, a film unanchored by a pre-existing franchise or intellectual property. If anything, it says more about the appetites of audiences, than it does the shortcomings of the film.
Wet Hot American Summer
Parody films, to be kind, have an uneven track record. For every Airplane! or Spaceballs there are ten others, like Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, and A Haunted House The danger in making a parody is that the jokes need to operate on two levels, tickling those familiar with the tropes mocked and references invoked, and also operating as jokes on their own. Jokes are both reference and referent. This is why so many parodies, and even pop-culture heavy humor, become dated so quickly. The fun relies too heavily on what’s timely. Watch some of the older episodes of Family Guy or, even, the occasional Seinfeld entry, and you’ll see what I mean.
2001’s Wet Hot American Summer is both a parody and not. It pokes fun at late ’70s/early ’80s screwball comedies, Animal House and Porky’s, in particular. Filled with bad haircuts, dated (or is it?) clothing, and coming-of-age clichés, the film prods these aspects while genuinely being funny. A huge part of this comes from the outstanding, famous-before-they-were-famous cast of Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Joe Lo Truglio, Elizabeth Banks, Christopher Meloni, H. Jon Benjamin, Judah Friedlander, along with Molly Shannon, David Hyde Pierce, and Janeane Garofalo. What likely turned audiences off was the lack of gravitas these stars possessed at the time.
Not to engage in any sort of historicism, looking back from the present on those poor, deluded past folk and tsk-tsking, but these stars weren’t the household names they are today. And, looking back, one can see the comedic germs each actor and actress would eventually capitalize on tentatively emerging.
Compounding this was the utter absurdity of the comedy. Though we’ve become somewhat accustomed to over-the-top absurdism, pioneered in shows like Kids In The Hall, Strangers With Candy, Upright Citizens’ Brigade, and distilled on network TV in the form of 30 Rock, this film was too sharp and too nuts for 2001. Audiences didn’t get the joke. Lured in by the promise of parody, moviegoers (the few who saw this before the film was rescued by DVD) got a talking can of vegetables, bricolage editing, and a narrative that runs off the rails before the film even starts. Though rooted in parody, this film hardly feels dated.
“I am the law,” became a punchline for years following the train wreck of 1995’s Judge Dredd, featuring Sylvester Stallone. For fans of the long-running comic series, rich in satire and edge, the film justified itself for the first fifteen minutes before taking a swift nose dive into mediocrity. It looked right, sort of, but felt all wrong. General audiences were simply bored or confused. Was this supposed to be funny, or another action vehicle, akin to Cliffhanger or Demolition Man?
Come 2012, Judge Dredd received a remake, this time featuring Karl Urban under the iconic helmet, sufficiently growly and frown festooned. Small and focused, Dredd is a well-paced, riveting action flick that feels imported from a different era, almost like a long-lost John Carpenter film. Though blood squibs are in short supply, replaced by generic digital plug-ins, most of the action is practical and the violence feels grizzly and real, unlike so many other action films that border on the cartoonish. Combined with a light veneer of humor and satire, Dredd has pretty much everything an action fan could want.
Yet, Dredd didn’t make the impact it should have. Part of this stems from the sad story of mid budget films. Mid-range films, where outsider directors can bring edgy concepts to screen, are increasingly being supplanted by bloated, bland blockbusters with budgets in the nine figures, or undercut by the smaller budget Oscar bait released every fall. The center cannot hold. Furthermore, Dredd’s marketing was slathered in tacked on 3-D promotions, right at the time fatigue for the theater gimmick was cresting. These larger market forces, sadly, put the kibosh on Dredd’s success, rendering future journeys to Mega City One doubtful.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Few actors are as hot today as Robert Downey Jr. His rise, phoenix-like, swathed in shimmering red and gold armor, from the depths of addiction and career uncertainty, is almost tailor made for the movies. Yet, his return, though swift, wasn’t always guaranteed. Consider 2005’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. If made today, with Downey’s name attached, the film would be immensely visible, marketed to the ends of the earth. But, this was 2005. Downey still had the stain of his history hanging around him. The drugs, the erratic behavior, all of it made Downey one of the hardest stars to cast, insure, and promote.
And it’s a shame this film wasn’t more widespread upon release, barely making an impact (outside of enthusiastic critics) or recouping its budget. Directed by Shane Black, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a quick-witted, exceptionally executed detective spoof with a healthy dose of self-awareness thrown into the mix. The chemistry between Downey and co-star Val Kilmer is solid, another actor who has had mixed fortunes. Although it isn’t clear where the lack of broad interest originates, it’s likely a combination of Downey’s shadow (although he was well on the path to recovery) and the off-beat, hard to place humor that turned off the masses.
Batman & Robin
Maligned, despised, spat upon, these are apt descriptions of the reactions generated by Batman & Robin. Few films have become bigger punchlines as Joel Schumacher’s perceived dud. The Bat-nipples, the Bat-credit card, the neon, and, of course, the puns (oh, those puns!), have been bandied about, picked apart, and laughed off stage to make way for interpretations that tack towards a more grounded, realistic, and, of course, darker sensibility. While general audiences were largely turned off by the film’s garishness, Batman fans keep alive a special collective hate that keeps an aura of stink wafting over every discussion.
As a fan of comic books all my life, I can be sympatico to this view. There’s a certain defensiveness surrounding the books and characters, especially as comics transformed from the mass market products of the ’60s and ’70s, into the more specialized, rarified culture of the ’80s and ’90s. Superheroes were believed to be for kids because, largely, they were marketed to kids. When those kids grew up, the ones still attached, umbilical-like, to the objects of their devotion, became protective, adamant that these were mature stories for mature people. This isn’t kids’ stuff. Believe me, I’ve been there.
But grit and darkness are only one approach to translating a superhero to screen. Though it’s far away the most popular, it tends to flatten the diversity of superhero comics, leading to a dull sameness, both thematically and visually. It can even be inappropriate or flat-out wrong to attempt this approach, exhibited by the numbing Man of Steel or the needlessly dour Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2. The argument goes that Batman is supposed to be dark and serious based off his history, but there’s just as much counter-history (comics from the ’40s to the ’60s, Adam West, Super Friends, Batman: Brave and the Bold) to refute that. A character as rich and diverse as Batman can be anything. And, to be honest, there’s nothing realistic about any superhero.
There’s also nothing realistic about Batman & Robin. That’s okay. It has a unique charm and sensibility all of its own. The title characters just happen to have ice skates for their costumes when they face off against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze. Batman attends charity functions in full costume and has his own specially designed credit card. Robin happens to have his own special dental dam. Characters have a unique way with words (“what killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!”). And though the performances are cranked beyond eleven, and the costuming and sets are from a different dimension, and very little makes sense beyond the merchandizing, at least the film is consistent throughout. Tonally, this movie knows what it is, unlike most superhero films that waver because they were conceived by seventeen different writers, resulting in a flat, forgettable end result.
You cannot forget a film like Batman & Robin. Labeling it as “for kids” misses the whole point of superheroes: that they are for kids, and it’s quite alright to still be a kid, even at heart. Grant Morrison, an excellent Batman writer in his own right, drops an excellent line into his seminal run of Animal Man, a series that rejected the increasingly gloom and doom of superhero comics. Appearing as himself, in the final issue, Morrison says, “We thought that by making your world more violent, we would make it more ‘realistic’, more ‘adult’. God help us if that’s what it means. Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind.”
All of these films more than deserve your kindness.