Hollywood's most interesting blockbuster failures of the past 25 years

News Simon Brew 22 May 2011 - 10:40

Not every movie can be a hit, and some blockbusters offer far more than their big budget and failure to dominate the box office might suggest. Here's our look at ten fascinating failures...

There are blockbuster movies that fail for good reason. Jonah Hex, Town & Country, Catwoman - they deserved their fate, really. In fact, there are films that made bucketloads of cash that didn't deserve their success, too. You can probably name a few of them quite easily.

But what we're interested in here are the blockbuster movies that struggled to make an impact, yet have something about them that makes them worthy of discussion many, many years later. Some of the films we're about to discuss are outright box office flops. Some simply didn't meet commercial expectations. All of them, to some degree, disappointed the studios that backed them.

Some of these aren't, all in honesty, particularly good. But each has something worth talking about. And that's what we're about to do...

Osmosis Jones

There was a case to put Henry Selick's Monkeybone here, but Osmosis Jones gets the nod from me. You might think that Osmosis Jones is a film you've not heard of, or a movie that's not a blockbuster. But it was certainly supposed to be. It cost $75 million to make, at a time when that was lots and lots of money, but it scraped together $14 million in worldwide box office. It deserved more than that.

The film, which came out in 2001, is a mix of live action and animation. The Farrelly Brothers did the former and Tom Sito and Piet Kroon put together the latter. And basically, a good chunk of the film takes place in the human body.

Before you shout about rancid Eddie Murphy vehicle Meet Dave covering similar ground, there's a distinction: Osmosis Jones was good. It benefited immensely from a strong script, and a real sense of fun and urgency to the animated moments. It helps that Bill Murray is on board, too, joined by Laurence Fishburne and Chris Rock, who take on voiceover duties.

I agree with the overriding criticism regarding Osmosis Jones that it's the live action elements that actually let the side down here. When it switches to animation, though, it gels together very well. It's funny, lively and interesting, and fortunately, it's had a slightly better time of it on DVD.

Monkeybone, incidentally, which came out the same year, also mixes live action and animation, but sadly, met a similar fate at the box office.

Speed Racer

The very worst indulgences of the Wachowski Brothers are peppered right throughout Speed Racer. It's a movie that's horribly long, and unnecessarily so, and one that gets bogged down in overwrought story, too. You wouldn't believe it's a film that's from the people who brought us the razor-tight Bound once upon a time.

Yet, Speed Racer, while a box office disaster, is still not without merit. It grossed $93 million at the worldwide box office against a negative cost of $120 million. Add on marketing and distribution, and Warner Bros is still likely to be looking at red ink for a while yet.

But who can doubt that the money was put on the screen? I could happily excise my favourite hour from Speed Racer and watch it on loop. Because this is the level of engaging spectacle I never really got from something like Tron: Legacy or the Transformers films. There's the same reliance on CG for the headline sequences, but the Wachowskis cut their film together in a way that I can see what's going on. It's something simple like that which just happens to matter a lot.

And at its best, Speed Racer is exhilarating. It's certainly got one too many races in it, and the most superfluous monkey in the history of modern cinema. But when it remembers what we've turned up to watch, and leaves the empty plot on the side, it's impressive blockbuster filmmaking. It just happens to be 135 minutes long, and half of those minutes I never want to watch again.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

I love the fact that Joe Dante pretty much set out to end any chance of there being a Gremlins 3 with his superb Gremlins 2. After resisting the project for years, the director was given sufficient control to liberally send up Hollywood, his own movie, and the machinery surrounding modern day film. And Gremlins 2: The New Batch remains a fabulously entertaining piece of cinema.

What's not to enjoy? Cinema's finest rendition of 'New York, New York'? The brain gremlin talking about his desire for civilisation? Or Daniel Clamp, a superb parody of Ted Turner who likes to turn Casablanca colour on his TV network (with a happier ending, natch). Heck, a standalone Daniel Clamp movie would be priceless, especially if he became tinged with Donald Trump, too.

Audiences, however, didn't turn up in droves for the second Gremlins movie, with the film picking up a disappointing $41 million on its US cinematic run. That's a third of what the original managed.

That said, the original Gremlins wasn't scheduled against Dick Tracy, Disney's blockbuster of the moment, which itself was surrounded by stories of its two stars, Warren Beatty and Madonna. And it was that scheduling that dealt Gremlins 2 a box office killer blow.

Fortunately, it didn't matter. Gremlins 2 has lived on, and continues to be nattered about in a way that Dick Tracy isn't. And Dante, to date, has achieved his aim. Twenty-one years after its release, in spite of no shortage of rumours, there's still no sign of Gremlins 3.

Howard The Duck

"Fascinating" is a word that barely describes Howard: A New Breed Of Hero, quite possibly the most bizarre blockbuster movie ever made. Even rewatching it on DVD recently, I could find no further clues to answer the pivotal question surrounding the movie: why?

I saw it twice at the cinema in my youth, and even in my formative years, I was a bit puzzled by it. Why is that lady in her underwear, in bed, with a big duck (it made it to this site's look at movie sex and bedroom scenes to put you off sex and bedrooms, here)? What is Playduck? Actually, what the hell is going on?

There's a temptation over time to look at films such as this with kinder eyes, but there's no getting away from the fact that Howard is not a good film. But there's good reason why it's still talked about twenty-five years later, and it's amazing that it got made at all. The reason it did was Star Wars, which gave George Lucas the power to do pretty much anything he wanted. Turns out, that's exactly what he did.

Howard, then. A sardonic quacker, who ends up on Earth, smokes, and becomes friends with Back To The Future's Lea Thompson. More nasty things arrive on Earth. Tim Robbins turns up somewhere. There's some music. There are dark overlords. There are ropey special effects. And there are an abundance of questions for parents to field from their children at the end of it all.

It's hard to see who the film is aimed at. It does no favours for family audiences, staggers many fans of the comics, and for those looking for a good night out, it's a flat-out puzzle. But it's a combination of everything that went wrong, and quite how spectacularly it all seemed to be mashed together, that means it'll, for the duration of cinema, be celebrated as one of cinema's finest ever oddities. It's just a film that's, ultimately, more fun to talk about than watch.

Hulk

The last time I counted, there were approximately one hundred and forty-six people in total in the world who feel that Ang Lee's take on Hulk is pretty much a masterpiece of comic book cinema. And, even taking into account just how silly it gets at the end, I am one of those people.

The choice of Lee to direct such a project was a little ahead of its time. He was picked long before the trend for choosing the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Nolan and Shane Black for comic book movies kicked in. And he nearly derailed the trend, too, by giving Universal an expensive, four-way family drama that just happened to be wrapped up in blockbuster clothes.

There were very distinct nods to the comics, not least some of the stylistic edits. But Lee is, as anyone who has seen his films can testify, interested in characters, and he gets firmly under the skin of Bruce Banner and Betty, along with their respective fathers. It's a fabulous character study at best.

The film got slammed in the first instance for its special effects, with CG Hulk jumping enormous heights. This was something Universal figured it should put in the trailer, and it paid a price for doing so. And it then got slammed for not being closer to the tone that Marvel would subsequently explore in The Incredible Hulk, under the guidance of director Louis Leterrier.

But Hulk is something to be treasured. It's an intelligent blockbuster that only occasionally remembers to be a blockbuster. And while it was no flop, its $245 million worldwide gross was far below expectations. The tepid, but not disastrous, reboot followed five years later, but it's Ang Lee's Hulk that's something rather special. Well, according to me and one hundred and forty-five other people on the planet.

Hudson Hawk

Richard E Grant's terrific book, With Nails, gives a better description of the behind-the-scenes madness of Hudson Hawk than we could ever muster. And that's, unsurprisingly, because it's the kind of project that wouldn't get anywhere near to fruition had it not got a massive movie star behind it.

But this one had Bruce Willis, and more importantly, a post-Die Hard 2 Bruce Willis. It was filming before The Bonfire Of The Vanities crashed and burned spectacularly at the box office, and the release of Hudson Hawk just months afterwards gave Willis two of the biggest bombs of the time.

Yet, Hudson Hawk is no disaster. It suffers immensely from a third act that's not very good, but I remember seeing it at the time it came out and wondering just what was supposed to be so terrible about it. Sure, it had problems. Masses of problems, as it happened. But it was also ludicrously different, and the scenes of Willis' Hawk, singing side by side with Danny Aiello as they conducted their robberies, are as much fun now as they were then.

Furthermore, Grant and Sandra Bernhard make a gloriously over the top pair of antagonists, and there's an inherent daftness and sense of fun I found hard to resist. And I still feel the same.

There are, without doubt, some terrible moments here, and it's got vanity project stamped throughout it (although Heathers director Michael Lehmann does his damnedest with the material). But Hudson Hawk, while a box office disaster (and one that Willis wouldn't fully recover from until Quentin Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction) is an entertaining piece of oddness that just happened, once upon a time, to be one of the biggest budget films of the year.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Even today, $135 million is a considerable amount of cash to blow on a blockbuster film. But in 2001, director Hironobu Sakaguchi headed up the ambitious Japanese/American co-production, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which attempted to render a quite mature epic sci-fi movie entirely with computer animation. Given that Toy Story cost Pixar $30 million to make, and the more ambitious follow-up, A Bug's Life, cost $60 million, the extraordinary budget of Spirits Within becomes particularly apparent.

Spirits Within's plot involved the ghosts of aliens, a female scientist, a doctor with the voice of Donald Sutherland, and a group of space marines with the voices of Ving Rhames and Steve Buscemi. The humans have to work together to rid Earth of the murderous alien ghosts, which are capable of possessing human bodies like the parasitic invaders of Robert Heinlein's novel, The Puppet Masters.

The film's plot was secondary to the film's grandiose CG visuals which were, for the time, quite spectacular, albeit in a rather cold, unengaging way. When it arrived in cinemas in the summer of 2001, reviews were tepid, but some championed the film for its technical achievements, most notably Roger Ebert, who gave the film a glowing three-and-a-half out of four stars.

Sadly, the world wasn't ready for a CG movie that wasn't full of sentient toys or talking animals. While the film's plot wasn't exactly dramatic dynamite, the film is genuinely beautiful to look at in places, and it's a pity that it didn't get more attention than it did. Making just $85 million on its $125 million investment, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within served as a salutary warning to any filmmakers and investors thinking of sinking huge sums of cash into computer-generated sci-fi.

Treasure Planet

I've talked about Treasure Planet on this site before, when I looked at the top ten underappreciated kids movies of the last twenty years, which you can find by clicking the link. And I still feel it got a rough ride.

It was, not for the first time in recent memory, a bold movie for Disney to tackle, and one that perhaps arrived ten years too early. It married up digital animation techniques to a telling of the Treasure Island story in space. And it had two of Disney's best-ever directors, John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules) at the helm.

They did a startling job, too. This is a visually stunning piece of work, with giant ships floating across the skies and Jim Hawkins navigating space in search of treasure. I remember watching this and being in awe of the ambition of the animation, and the fact that Disney had taken a very different turn. (It followed Atlantis: The Lost Empire by a year, and the pair make an intriguing double bill.)

It bombed heavily, though. The film reportedly cost $140 million to make, and when it brought in just $38 million at US cinemas, it marked a very definite turning point in the history of modern day Disney. It wobbled, lost its confidence, and wouldn't really re-establish an identity until its merger with Pixar a few years later.

Chatting to producer Roy Conli last year, he argued that, had the film been made now and in 3D, it would have had a far greater chance of success. "Unfortunately," he said, "it got caught in some weird marketing issues ... it ran up against Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter". You can read his interview here.

He does argue, and he's right to do so, that he's "amazingly proud of that film".

Maybe one day it'll be rediscovered. It deserves it. And I'll happily hear an argument for Titan AE getting a fresh lease of life, too.

Willow

George Lucas' attempt at sprawling, Tolkienesque fantasy, the concept of Willow had been languishing in a drawer somewhere since 1972.

Originally called Munchkins, the film that ultimately became Willow shares much of Star Wars' DNA. In place of the Empire, there's an evil black sorceress queen called Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) who rules the land of Nockmaar. Anxious to avert an ancient prophesy that predicts her fall from power, Bavmorda's after a baby called Elora Danan that possesses a telltale birthmark that suggests she's the very child who will ultimately end the evil queen's reign.

Fortunately, the diminutive Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis, last seen romping around the forest moon of Endor as Wicket the Ewok) and warrior Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) are on hand to protect the infant, and together aim to put a stop to Bavmorda's witchy mayhem.

Like some of the other films on this list, it could be argued that Willow was released at the wrong time. Lucas himself reportedly expected the movie to make the kind of money enjoyed by E.T., but in reality, Willow only made around $57 million on its $35 million investment. Not a flop, then, but hardly the kind of success you could reliably build a franchise on.

Critics at the time were divided over Willow's family-friendly fantasy and often dark overtones, and unusually, the film earned both Academy Award as well as Razzie nominations. It was given an Oscar nod for visual effects and sound ending (but didn't win either). George Lucas and Bob Dolman were nominated for Golden Raspberries for their script and Billy Barty was nominated for Worst Supporting Actor.

While not perfect, Willow is, nevertheless, a fun, entertaining film. Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer are engaging leads, ably supported by Patricia Hayes as an ageing sorceress and Joanne Whalley as Bavmorda's warrior daughter, and there are some great, imaginative fantasy spectacles to enjoy, even if the special effects (which include an unconvincing two-headed dragon) no longer sparkle as they once did.

Last Action Hero

I remember the teaser trailer well. Playing the Christmas before Last Action Hero was released, all sorts of mayhem was going on as Arnie strolled across the screen. Then he saw us watching him. "Not now," he said. "Come back later." Because Last Action Hero was supposedly 'the big ticket' for summer 1993.

Only nobody told Steven Spielberg and his marauding collection of CG dinosaurs. And when Last Action Hero finally opened, a week or two after Jurassic Park, it was decimated at the box office. Schwarzenegger had his first full-on box office flop

And it shouldn't have been like this. Last Action Hero was Schwarzenegger's first entry in the action genre after Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Yet, it felt like it had had the action elements shaved off.

Kim Masters and Nancy Griffin wrote a terrific book, Hit And Run, where they describe just went wrong here as part of it. But throw in the muddled marketing (they left guns off at one point, to try and put across a softer, more family-friendly Arnold. Yikes), the abundance of screenwriters trying to fit it all together and a bloated running time, and you're in the right ballpark.

It's a bold and interesting film, though, taking the idea behind Woody Allen's terrific The Purple Rose Of Cairo, and effectively lampooning much of what had made Schwarzenegger a star in the first place. It's a movie geek's film, too, right down to the phone number list where everything starts with 555. It just happens that all of this is in the middle of a big budget Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. One that is comfortably one of his most interesting.

Post Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger would only have a handful of films that clambered over the $100 million mark at the US box office. Last Action Hero didn't do that, although True Lies, Batman & Robin, Eraser and Terminator 3 would. And in many ways, it was the start of the end, a time when self deprication and - yes! - a dose of post-modernism began to tinge cinema.

You could argue that the building blocks for the Scream movies and Wes Craven's New Nightmare were in Last Action Hero.

With a total US gross of $50 million, it remains, however, the film that's regarded as Arnie's biggest bomb (even though it isn't).

Honourable mention: The Iron Giant

It's not a blockbuster, really, but it's been three months since we've pimped The Iron Giant on this site. It bombed at the box office. It remains the single film that, if you take nothing else from us ever, you need to see. Read why here.

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