Who Told You That Movie Sucked?

1 Mar

Taste is subjective, and the Flickchart community is reminded of this every time we’re confronted by our choices. There are, however, some films almost universally damned and have been since they were released. In fact, some of them have been unpopular since before they were released. We’ve known for ages that a trusted critic’s star-rating or blurb review in the local paper can sway moviegoers, but what about the films who were condemned before anyone ever saw them?

I first encountered this phenomenon in 1995, when one of the most discussed films of the year was Waterworld. No one talked about the story much. Some talk was about how Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds had a turbulent working relationship, but primarily all anyone had to say was that the production and its budget had reached Cleopatra proportions. The special effects were way behind schedule. I recall vividly an interview with Costner where he complained bitterly that the CGI gills looked like vaginas and that the work would have to be re-done. Was there time to redo the effects? Was there money to pay for it?

Despite all the attention paid to Waterworld’s production woes, audiences did turn out to see it. It was the #1 film its first weekend (source: Box Office Mojo), but there were only two other new films that week: The Net and Operation: Dumbo Drop. Its second weekend take ($13 million) was quite a decline, but it again took #1 at the box office by besting Something to Talk About by $2.3 million. (Does anyone even remember that?) This might sound encouraging, but the film’s $88 million domestic earnings were little more than half of its $175 million production budget. It fared better in international markets, but in the minds of American moviegoers, Waterworld remained exactly what all the chatter said it was: a flop.

Three years later, Harrison Ford and Anne Heche starred in Six Days, Seven Nights, a romantic adventure helmed by Ivan Reitman. Ford’s star power had been reaffirmed the previous year with the successful Air Force One, and Six Days seemed certain to be a breezy summer romp… except that the media fixated on Heche’s romantic relationship with Ellen DeGeneres. The two had to affirm that they would not stage a wedding ceremony in Hawaii during production, and questions persisted about how “believable” Heche would be in love scenes with Ford. Paul Clinton opened his review for CNN by acknowledging that “The big, burning, and by now, boring question about Six Days, Seven Nights is, ‘Can Anne Heche pull off a romantic role opposite Harrison Ford since she’s in a very public intimate relationship with Ellen Degeneres?’”

Clinton answered in the affirmative, noting “that’s why they call it acting,” but the novelty of a prolific celebrity lesbian relationship overshadowed anything else about the film. Clinton’s review notes that the film had a $71 million budget; Box Office Mojo doesn’t show a budget figure, but they do report the film’s total domestic earnings just cleared that at $74 million (with another $90 million in international sales).

Tom Cruise has been one of the most important actors and producers of his generation, but beginning in 2005 it seemed he waged a yearlong campaign to raise as many eyebrows as he could. To dispel accusations that his whirlwind romance with Katie Holmes was not a hoax, he jumped up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch extolling the virtues of being in love. He picked a fight with actress Brooke Shields over her use of medication to treat postpartum depression, incurring the wrath of pretty much anyone who doesn’t think a Scientologist actor is qualified to dispense psychiatric advice. He doubled down on his position in an uncomfortable interview with Matt Lauer in which Cruise called Lauer “glib” more than once.

Cruise’s first film to hit screens amid all these and other controversies was Steven Spielberg’s  War of the Worlds, which took in $112.8 million in its first six days. It was the best opening to date for a film starring Cruise or produced by Cruise/Wagner Productions and the second best opening for a film directed by Spielberg, as well as the second best Fourth of July weekend opening. War of the Worlds was hailed as evidence of a turnaround from 2005’s disappointing year for the industry but even praise for the film was qualified. The Hollywood Reporter’s coverage of its opening weekend began, “Not even Tom Cruise’s offscreen antics could keep the Spielberg-Cruise machine from running at full throttle over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.”

By year’s end, however, it became apparent that either War of the Worlds succeeded in spite of Cruise or the film was just lucky enough to be released before the public completely soured on Cruise. He was named Most Irritating in an Empire Magazine list of movie stars. Two months before Mission: Impossible III opened in 2006, Cruise and Holmes “won” a Razzie for Most Tiresome Tabloid Target. Two weeks later, he resurrected his war on psychiatric medication in a cover story interview with GQ, inciting another wave of backlash. An interview with Diane Sawyer failed to deliver ratings for ABC; viewers didn’t even care to see what inflammatory or bizarre thing he might say. A Colorado state legislator introduced new regulations covering the sale of ultrasound machines after it became public that Cruise had bought one to monitor his and Holmes’s baby’s progress at home.

When M:i:III finally opened in May, 2006, it took in $47.7 million in its opening weekend. A success by most standards, but with a production budget reportedly near $200 million it was clearly a disappointment for Cruise, the Mission: Impossible series, Cruise/Wagner Productions and Paramount. A USA Today poll showed 51% of moviegoers abstained from going to see the film in direct response to Cruise’s off-set behavior. Dave Karger put it succinctly: “A lot of people came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to support this movie’s first weekend.’ They made a conscious choice to avoid it.”

Though M:i:III earned money, Cruise’s production deal kept Paramount from doing much better than breaking even on it. Just three months after the film opened, Paramount opted not to renew their business deal with Cruise/Wagner. Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone told The Wall Street Journal, “It’s nothing to do with his acting ability, he’s a terrific actor… but we don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.”

Laying low(er) allowed the public to warm back up to Cruise enough that Paramount did ultimately go forward with the production of the fourth Mission: Impossible film in 2011, Ghost Protocol, which was an unqualified box office hit with positive word of mouth. Lost amid the controversy, though, was M:i:III, another victim of distracting, unrelated negativity.

Last year’s John Carter is the most recent victim of audience prejudices. Its release was such a mess that Michael D. Sellers has recently written an entire book, John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood to answer the question, “What went wrong?” A simple microcosm can be found simply by looking at IMP Awards’s 2012 awards.

John Carter’s teaser poster was nominated as one of IMP Awards’s Worst Posters.

Said IMP Awards:

The main crime of this poster is simply that it does not sell the movie at all. Yes, it is a teaser but what exactly is it teasing? All we get is a face and a logo. The title doesn’t even tell us a thing about the film. The logo might have worked if it was familiar artwork from some recent novel that was all the rage with teenagers but the movie is based on a novel from nearly a century ago. When you are trying to promote a $250 million dollar film a teaser needs to create more of a response then “Huh?”

However… a John Carter also won an IMP Award in another category: Best Special Edition Poster for the limited edition poster offered to audiences who attended the midnight IMAX premiere of the film.

 IMP Awards praised that poster:

Given away only at special midnight IMAX screenings for the film, this is the kind of imagery that should’ve been used for the main campaign. J. C. Richard’s wonderful artwork shows us the beauty and excitement of a new world, something that was missing from so many of the designs for this film. The focus should’ve been more on Mars and less on the title character. Here, we only get a glimpse of our hero, dwarfed by the great landscape before him.

John Carter was quickly perceived by mainstream audiences as a generic-looking Star Wars rip-off, unaware that the film’s literary roots ran a century deep. Fans of the Barsoom series tried to rally enthusiasm for the film, hopeful that it might spawn a franchise, only to be dismissed with a shrug. John Carter was older than Star Wars, but so what? Being a March release didn’t inspire much confidence, either.

Waterworld, Six Days, Seven Nights, Mission: Impossible III and John Carter are not the only films to be tainted by pre-release distractions. Of the four, only Mission: Impossible III has been rediscovered by audiences. Some of that can be attributed to a general acceptance of Tom Cruise’s antics; some of it to the popularity of director J.J. Abrams. When asked about the other three films, the most common reaction still is disapproval. Press the naysayers, though, and rarely can they even recall what they disliked about the film. They can only remember not liking it when it came out, and one has to wonder whether they ever really disliked the movies in the first place… or if they were merely influenced by the voices telling them that these were cinematic disasters and disappointments.

This post is part of our User Showcase series. You can find Travis as TravisSMcClain on Flickchart. If you’re interested to submit your own story or article describing your thoughts about movies and Flickchart, read our original post for how to become a guest writer here on the Flickchart Blog.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Derek-Armstrong/810542963 Derek Armstrong

    Great points, Travis. You’ve chosen a good four movies for this, as I would give them all at least a marginal thumbs up. (Waterworld is the closest to thumbs down territory.) Six Days is pretty damn charming.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks, Derek. As you know, this is an issue that’s been on my mind for quite some time. There were other examples I could have chosen but I think this foursome hits the chief categories:

      *Fixation on budget/production issues
      *Fixation on an actor’s personal life
      *An actor’s off-set antics
      *Studio marketing dropping the ball

      There were other examples I could have chosen for each of these but I wanted to also pick movies that I could personally stand behind (even though I was unimpressed by M:i:III) as being better than the public consensus.

      I also wanted to highlight recent examples in hopes that readers might begin to reflect on how *they* felt about these movies…and why.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nigel-Druitt/656817720 Nigel Druitt

    M:i:III is my favorite of that franchise. John Carter was great fun.

    I remember being entertained by 6 Days, 7 Nights, but it hasn’t stuck in my memory. I would watch it again, but am in no hurry to.

    Waterworld is definitely the worst movie on this list…but does not totally suck, either. This is definitely an interesting phenomenon.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      I didn’t really even want to include anything from a franchise, because those kinds of movies tend to dominate these kinds of discussions. M:i:III was unavoidable, though, because it was really the movie slain at the altar by/for Tom Cruise’s personal life antics.

      It’s also worth noting that my argument here isn’t even that these four movies are good at all. I personally think they’re better than the consensus against them, but that’s ultimately not even important. The issue at hand is whether audiences were unfairly prejudiced against them by distracting issues and I believe they each were.

  • http://twitter.com/CrazyMclazy Stephen Carpenter

    Great article. This happens a lot and it works both ways. It is the reason you see movies getting bad ratings or good ratings on IMDB even before they are released. I notice another reason people often hate a movie beforehand is if it is a remake of a beloved movie. People will often down a film without giving it a chance. I am particularly thinking of Let Me In and Fright Night, which both got savaged by many people online and bombed at the box office. Both films were good, if not quite as good as the originals. In the case of the Karate Kid remake I felt it was, dare I say, better than the original. Even as a child of the 80s I never felt Karate Kid was that amazing. It was fun, but quite cheesy as well.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks for reading, Stephen! I discussed elsewhere the idea of films benefiting from hype but it strikes me as a less compelling subject. After all, each movie made is produced with the intent of finding an audience, and marketing departments work to see that they’re found. How does one go about proving that any given movie was “over-enjoyed”? At most, you could probably point to rabid fans driving up IMDb ratings and Internet chatter on forums and social media but that’s the desired behavior.

      Remakes definitely invite disapproval but I omitted them here because that’s such a universal issue. That is, there really haven’t been any specific remakes that were singled out by the public as particularly egregious than any others. The four films I highlighted here each paid the price for something specific to its cast/crew/production unrelated to the story itself.

  • B.J. Hardage

    Excellent article. I would agree with all your points with the exception of M.i.III. It was that movie’s generic plot and mystery item, the “rabbit’s foot”, that turned me off there, not the critics’ reviews.

    I will say, though, that I’ve never actually seen Waterworld because of the horrible reviews it got, and if it weren’t for Red Box and Friday night boredom I never would have seen John Carter for the same reason. I did end up liking that movie, though, except for the ending.

    I suppose with the large quantity of new releases and the cost of ticket prices, I often look for an excuse not to “waste my time”, critics’ reviews being usually a pretty good indicator.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks for reading, B.J.! Not that it matters, but I personally agree with your sentiment about M:i:III being generic. Ultimately, though, that’s outside the scope of my piece here because you actually saw it, whereas the general public avoided it outright because of the negative connotations with Tom Cruise.

      One of the most recurring things I hear about film criticism is what you’ve stated here, that people look to critics more for a product review (“should I waste my time/money?”) than they go seeking actual insights or discourse.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erik.runnels Erik Runnels

    A friend of mine was the screenwriter for 6 Days and 7 Nights. His original screenplay had been hailed as a work of genius — a comedic masterpiece. He was paid handsomely for it and was expected to go on to big things. This was not to be. A little while ago, unable to overcome the scathing reviews that dogged him thereafter, and paralzyed by crippling depression that sprung therefrom … he ended his life. He was an amazing, funny, intelligent, and creative man.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      I’m terribly saddened to learn of this. I’ve fought depression myself since my adolescence, and I know how overwhelming it can be. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.

      The official credit for the writing is attributed to Michael Browning, but I can find nothing online about his passing. Was your friend’s screenplay rewritten, or has his passing been so recent that it hasn’t been reported?

  • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.quirinomartelle Barbara Quirino Martelle

    Not only do I agree with your point but I have found that my own personal taste is so far from center that I shy away from anything hailed by the media as a must see. For example, it took me years to finally break down and watch Titanic and can’t imagine when I will bother with Avatar. I know my own taste in film pretty well, and I have to admit that many of my favorites make “worst” lists all the time. On a rare occasion however, I am lucky enough to have a popular media darling of a picture be something I am interested in and will see. I fight this fight all the time with people I know, trying to convince them to give a movie a chance even though it is supposed to be aweful according to the press. No one listens, but I keep trying. So, I guess I am the flip side of your articles coin…ready to hate anything popular because of all the great movies killed by bad press!

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Barbara!

      Take heart; I know a lot of movie viewers like you who are mistrustful of critical or popular consensus. If you ever doubt how large an audience you are, just think of how many movies keep getting made that clearly didn’t expect to be critical darlings or popular favorites! They know you’re out there and that you’ll continue to support the movies that you enjoy.

      That said, I would be remiss not to note that the specific scope of this piece is about movies that were poisoned by discussion that wasn’t actually about the quality of the films themselves. That’s a bit different from movies that received overwhelmingly bad reviews, because at least those reviews were about the actual movies. Waterworld, Six Days, Seven Nights, M:i:III and John Carter weren’t even discussed as movies nearly as much as they were the victims of media fixations on external issues that don’t appear on screen at all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BishopX7 Marcus Alvarado

    I gotta say, I greatly appreciate this piece. It very strongly stands to reason and it’s the very basis for my approach to critics reviews of anything. I simply don’t care what these people think about a movie. It deeply saddens me that so many people are swayed from watching movies I have found quite enjoyable because someone else, who you don’t even know, says it’s terrible.

    Furthermore, I find it highly annoying when people refuse to watch movies based on the off-screen character of an actor/actress in the film. These people are actors. They are entertainers. They are not supposed to be role models or spiritual leaders. Why would you care what this person believes in their personal life? Is he/she a good actor? Is the story of the trailer/online synopsis something you are interested in seeing portrayed onscreen? Is the director known for making good movies? These are the questions that you should be asking yourself when you are decided whether or not to see a film.

    On one last note, I am really bothered that people have generally panned Waterworld. I watched it for the first time years ago and enjoyed it greatly. I watched it again a few days ago and still found it to be an entertaining movie. There is a great cast, an interesting story, and very well envisioned dystopian world set incredibly well. I simply do not understand why so many people will still use this, and many other of Costner’s films, as a “go-to” example of a bad movie.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks for reading, Marcus. One point I want to reiterate that I’ve made to a few other commenters is that my point here was not to argue that we should dismiss the work of film critics, but that we should make an effort to distinguish between off-screen distractions and criticism of the film itself.

      That is, none of the films I cited here were given a fair chance by audiences – not necessarily critics. In fact, the one instance where I quoted a critic at all was in the section on Six Days, Seven Nights, where I felt Paul Clinton actually did try to review the film for what it was while still having to acknowledge that all anyone wanted to talk about was Anne Heche’s sexual orientation. It’s a tricky thing to try to ignore the elephant in the room.

  • Cervantes

    Interesting. But did you know that than and then don’t mean the same? Too much linguistical clueless people…

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Your remarks have no context, so I have no idea how to respond other than to say that yes, I do know the difference between “than” and “then”. Was there an instance of word usage in my post that confused you?

  • http://metal-philosopher.blogspot.com David Greenwood

    My pet film in this category is Michael Cimino’s 1980 epic “Heaven’s Gate”. While it’s got problems, it’s one hell of an impressive epic. Sadly, it’s been condemned as one of the worst films of all time. Yet when you read the reviews, very few of them make valid criticisms of the film. Most of them discuss the craziness of the director, or the troubled production of the film (wildly over time and over budget). The film was immediately doomed from the day of it’s premiere.

    Even worse, after the initial wave of critical hatred, the studio desperately hacked the film down from 4 hours to 2 for wide release, rendering it incomprehensible. Thankfully the full version is now widely available (on Netflix, no less!), giving this flawed masterpiece wider exposure.

  • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

    David – Heaven’s Gate is definitely another terrific example of pre-release fixation on extraneous elements. You must be thrilled that The Criterion Collection finally gave it its due recently!

  • roycat

    John Carter was great! So was Waterworld.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks for reading, roycat! I’m not quite sure I would go so far as to say either is “great”, but I definitely agree that they’re at least solid. I personally enjoyed John Carter more than Waterworld, but that’s just me!

  • John Taylor

    Amazing. Three photographs and all three were from movies I liked. As for M.I., I refuse to even watch on free TV. No way Jim Phelps goes bad. Had they said Dan Briggs, I could have accepted that. Anyone else remember him as the team leader from the first season?

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks for reading, John! I would point out that the specific film cited is M:i:III, not the first film in the series. I confess, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes from the show but I remember when I told my mom that Phelps was the culprit that she was pretty irked that they would do that.

      I didn’t truly understand how she felt until I saw the live-action Scooby-Doo and Scrappy turned out to be the villain there.

    • John Taylor

      I have deliberately avoided any Cruise movie after that first I.M. film. Will make an exception for night and day. I figure if the can screw up Phelps, what else can they screw up in his other films? Number of movies that have screwed with the original TV show or book. Man of Steel for one. Did you know that a lot of the dialog was taken from the animated series pilot? Starship Troopers. Turned one of Heinlein’s best works into an anti=military propaganda piece. And on and on.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      To be fair, your examples of Man of Steel and Starship Troopers, and my citation of Scooby-Doo illustrate that the phenomenon goes well beyond Tom Cruise.

      You might check out some of the posts in our “From Book to Screen” series, where we discuss specific adaptations.

  • David

    I really enjoyed this article. I’m even glad I’m a few months late to the party, because I just saw “Lone Ranger” a movie that I think is falling prey to much of the same circumstances as movies on this list especially “Waterworld” So much talk about the huge budget and how the film was cancelled then brought back. People criticizing Johnny Depp playing another weird role in make-up. I feel like the public decided this was a gonna be a bomb before anyone even saw it. Not saying it is a great film by any means, but I found it far more enjoyable than the flop it was supposed to be.

    • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

      Thanks for reading, David! You know, I think Lone Ranger might actually be a good example of this phenomenon. If I ever do a sequel piece, I might include it.