Every year sees its fair share of good and bad sci-fi movies. But every so often, a movie comes along that, either because of its premise, its cast, its filmmaking pedigree or a mixture of all three, sounds so promising that we eagerly anticipate its arrival. Inevitably, there’s also a small percentage of such films which fail to live up to their early promise.
This list is devoted to this peculiar category of sci-fi movie: the ones that could have been so much better than they turned out. And to prevent the list from getting too long and rambling, we’ve restricted our selection to 20, and restricted the time frame to the last two decades. Your opinions will almost certainly vary, so feel free to add your own sci-fi disappointments in the comments section…
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Father of cyberpunk and respected sci-fi author William Gibson deserved better than this adaptation of his short story, which veered significantly from the source material and merely provided a misfiring vehicle for Keanu Reeves. The result isn’t the worst sci-fi film ever made, and Johnny Mnemonic does have its admirers, but anyone hoping for a movie worthy of Gibson’s fiction was sorely disappointed by its leaden script and sub-par action sequences.
Reeves, of course, eventually made a decent sci-fi thriller with The Matrix, but we’re still waiting for a truly great movie based on Gibson’s work – Katheryn Bigelow, Peter Weir and Michael Mann are all directors who’ve been attached to a Gibson adaptation at some point, but thus far, none has ever made it to the screen.
Judge Dredd (1995)
On paper, the elements were all in place for a great adaptation of 2000AD’s most famous anti-hero: young, hungry British director Danny Cannon was already a self-confessed fan of Dredd, Terminator 2 writer William Wisher had co-penned the script with TV and action writer Steven E de Souza, and Sylvester Stallone was on board to play Judge Dredd himself. While not an obvious choice to play the decidedly British future law enforcer, Sly’s presence enticed producers to stump up a $90 million budget, and if there’s one archetype he’s good at playing, it’s the stern, stoic man of action.
The movie, however, fell far below expectations, and aside from a solid opening sequence, appeared to miss the point of the comics entirely. Reviews were negative, and Judge Dredd was a flop with 2000AD fans, too, who objected to Dredd’s repeated appearances without his trademark helmet – something never seen in the comics. Years later, Stallone himself would admit that Judge Dredd was “A missed opportunity” – let’s hope that this year’s Dredd, starring Karl Urban, will provide the adaptation readers have been waiting for.Species (1995)
The inclusion of Species on this list doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film; but viewed in the light of artist and designer HR Giger’s other film collaborations, it definitely classes as a disappointing one. A remarkably distinguished cast, including Michael Madsen and Sir Ben Kingsley, counted among the ranks of scientists and neurotic mercenaries whose job is to hunt down a randy female alien/human hybrid (Natasha Henstridge) that’s cheerfully fornicating its way around Los Angeles.
Giger’s svelte, sexy alien designs are clumsily rendered with iffy CG, and the film’s an hilariously trashy, salacious action potboiler that did remarkably well at the box office. Its witless sense of fun and frequently disrobed female monster probably helped.
Escape From LA (1996)
Escape From New York hailed from director John Carpenter’s 70s and 80s halcyon period of genre movies, introducing a great, surly action hero (Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken), a compelling premise (future Manhattan island is a gigantic prison) and beautifully designed poster.
When news broke that Carpenter and Russell were re-teaming for the belated Escape From LA, it sounded almost too good to be true; the same director, the same actor, and a bigger budget? Surely, the results would be marvelous, wouldn’t they? Sadly, the results were anything but.
In Escape From LA’s defence, there’s the germ of a decent idea in its story – Los Angeles has become cut off from the rest of the US following a massive earthquake, and is now a hive of scum and villainy. Plissken’s sent in to retrieve a flight recorder and the president’s daughter (a mission that rhymes, if nothing else), and thereafter engages in a series of effects-heavy action scenes that aren’t necessarily memorable for the right reasons, including an ill-advised sequence where Plissken surfs after a car.
Although there are some moments to enjoy here and there, including some scattershot satire and Steve Buscemi’s entertaining presence, Escape From LA is no match for its 80s predecessor.
The Island Of Dr Moreau (1996)
One of the finest sci-fi novels ever written, HG Wells’ 19th century masterpiece deserves an adaptation that faithfully captures its horrifying tone. At the very least, it deserves a better adaptation than this star-laden misfire, which history has noted as one of the most disaster-laden film productions on record.
British director Richard Stanley started with good intentions, but was quickly fired when Val Kilmer began to ask for script revisions (for reasons best known to himself, he wanted to reduce the time his protagonist spent on screen by 40 per cent) and the first few days’ rushes failed to satisfy the studio. Seasoned director John Frankenheimer was brought in as a replacement, but the resulting film was an utter mess: horrifying, but not for the same reasons as the book.
Sadly, the film’s famously messy shoot will probably put off any other studio or filmmaker who might otherwise have made their own adaptation of Wells’ haunting fiction.
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Some might argue that David Fincher’s Alien 3 was a bigger disappointment than Alien Resurrection (and further, that is should have kicked off this list), but for this writer, it was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s franchise entry that truly failed to satisfy. Although, somewhat mystifyingly, Alien 3 is described in far harsher tones than Resurrection, at least the former truly feels like an Alien movie. Alien 3 was and is flawed, muddled, and seldom as tense as it should be, but in terms of tone and acting (particularly from Sigourney Weaver and Charles Dance), it’s sometimes brilliant.
Alien Resurrection, meanwhile, doesn’t look or feel much like an Alien movie at all – it’s more of a quirky sci-fi ensemble piece with Gigeresque creatures in it. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s playfully macabre style of filmmaking was ill-suited to the franchise, and Joss Whedon’s script placed the frankly horrific line, “Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?” in the mouth of Ripley, a character now so far removed from the version we knew in Alien and Aliens, she may as well have been played by someone else.
In heading down a campily humorous route, Alien Resurrection took the franchise to a dead end; with the movie concluding with a pink, sad-eyed alien with a twitchy little Sigourney Weaver nose, the creatures designed by HR Giger almost 30 years before finally lost their last shred of menace.Lost In Space (1998)
It’s safe to say that no one was expecting anything more than a camp sci-fi romp from Stephen Hopkins’ adaptation of Irwin Allen’s loveably kitsch 60s TV series, so it was somewhat surprising just how rote and joyless the movie turned out to be. A great cast, including Gary Oldman as the conniving Doctor Zachary Smith and William Hurt as John Robinson as the head of a family of space travellers, all tried their best, but a combination of flat writing and middling special effects (including a terrible-looking CG space monkey) were the production’s lead boots.
In striving for modernity, with a cooler looking Robot, a dysfunctional rather than ‘gee-whiz’ all-American family, and a convoluted plot involving space travel, Lost In Space the movie mislaid the simple charm that made the television show so much fun.
Another film that exchanged charm for swanky special effects, Roland Emmerich’s appropriation of Toho’s kaiju classic felt more like a collision of disparate scripts rather than a cohesive story. Starting in the conventional giant monster vein, with a nuclear-embiggenned giant lizard cromulently wrecking boats at sea before turning its attention to Manhattan, Godzilla then changes gear into a Jurassic Park-style battle against smaller lizards hatching from eggs.
Fans of the Japanese Godzilla movies railed against the decision to make the monster a female, as well as the filmmakers’ repeated uses of night shoots and heavy rain to hide the beast from view, but these are the least of the movie’s problems – it’s its lack of characters or human spark that makes it such forgettable summer fodder. The story goes that Monsters director Gareth Edwards will be directing a new Godzilla movie for Legendary Pictures. If it can capture the spirit of the Japanese movies, we’ll be very happy people.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)
The 90s concluded with a particularly bitter pill for sci-fi movie geeks – the arrival of George Lucas’ feverishly anticipated Star Wars: Episode I. With the benefit of hindsight, it was probably a little naive to get quite so excited about what was always going to be a tough franchise to return to.
Even so, The Phantom Menace’s mixture of puerile humour, political waffle and over-use of computer effects made for depressing viewing, and even its staunchest apologists would have to admit that it lacks the sense of wonder that lit up the original trilogy’s better moments. In the film’s defence, The Phantom Menace had some positive aspects; its underwater sequences were fantastic, and Darth Maul was as charismatic and iconic a character as any of Lucas’ confections. If only Lucas hadn’t decided to kill Maul off so quickly…
Battlefield Earth (2000)
For most readers, I suspect Battlefield Earth needs little introduction. Adapted from a book by L Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth was a longtime passion project of John Travolta’s, and he fought hard for many years to bring the film to the screen. Travolta even invested $5 million of his own money into the sci-fi epic’s not insignificant budget of $44 million (which was less than the $75 million originally declared). Director Roger Christian eventually took the helm, and the film was a critically derided catastrophe.
A sprawling story about earthlings fighting against an alien occupation in the year 3000, Battlefield Earth looks like the stuff of madness. Travolta and Forest Whitaker stagger about in cumbersome alien outfits, codpieces and dreadlocks, every single scene is either shot on a distracting Dutch tilt, heavily filtered, or both – oh, and the dialogue has to be heard to be believed.
If Battlefield Earth was an infamous box office flop (although that in itself is a matter of debate: the film is reportedly in clear profit), Travolta and his filmmakers can take comfort in one fact: by making the movie, they inadvertently triggered a wave of extremely funny reviews. As critics took it in turns to describe the film in the most creative terms possible, the descriptions became ever more colourful and outlandish. The Washington Post wrote, “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth”, while The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart described Battlefield Earth as “a cross between Star Wars and the smell of ass” – not exactly poetic, but an accurate enough summary.
An example of a production that began promisingly enough, before spiralling into more mediocre and bizarre territory, Supernova began as a script by William Mallone called Dead Star. Its premise was initially closer to the kind of spaced-based horror that would later feature in Hellraiser: Bloodline and Event Horizon.
As the rewrites piled up, and the film was cut and recut to satisfy test audiences, the movie gradually deteriorated into the sorry mess it eventually became, which is more of a sci-fi thriller with vaguely raunchy undertones. Even the sleepy-eyed charisma of James Spader, or Robert Forster’s stern presence (he was killed within the first 15 minutes, sadly), couldn’t save it, and Supernova sank without trace at the box office.
Hollow Man (2000)
In terms of sci-fi and action, Paul Verhoeven barely put a foot wrong in his 80s and 90s Hollywood period. The new millennium’s Hollow Man, however, represented something of a low-point. Its violent, faintly sleazy take on HG Wells’ The Invisible Man is recognisably Verhoeven’s, Kevin Bacon clearly relishes the task of playing a scientist apparently intoxicated by his newfound power of invisibility, and the special effects were, for the time, rather good.
Hollow Man lacks the satirical bite and obvious intelligence of the director’s earlier work, including RoboCop and Total Recall, and the film as a whole feels like the product of a director-for-hire rather than a filmmaker enjoying the process of satirising Hollywood and American media from within, as those earlier classics did. This isn’t entirely Verhoeven’s fault, though – Andrew W Marlowe’s script lacks the incisiveness and quotable lines you might expect, and Hollow Man’s intriguing first half quickly dissolves into a stalk-and-slash thriller with lots of special effects.
Mission To Mars (2000)
Before the year 2000, the notion of Brian De Palma directing a sci-fi movie sounded like an exciting one. Unfortunately, the director’s famously flashy visual stylings couldn’t lift a space exploration movie that veered from cheesy to pompous from scene to scene. Seasoned actors such as Don Cheadle, Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins were similarly wasted, and saddled with characters who spoke in cliches.
Although Mission To Mars wasn’t a box-office failure (unlike Red Planet, a rival Martian sci-fi flick released the same year, it more than made its money back), the movie wasn’t quite what we were expecting from De Palma (although his late attachment to the project probably didn’t help), even if his trademark swooping camerawork is still occasionally in evidence.
Ghosts Of Mars (2001)
If Escape From LA was disappointing, Ghosts Of Mars was downright calamitous. And like Escape From LA, everything seemed so right with this genre thriller, which sounded like a distillation of just about everything John Carpenter had made up to that point. It was a siege movie (like the classic Assault On Precinct 13), albeit set on Mars, and its antagonists were weird alien ghosts which turned their victims into vampire-zombie type things.
Ghosts Of Mars’ execution, it has to be said, was borderline inept. The performances were all over the place, the music was distracting, the effects were less than special, and its narrative plodded when it should have swept along at an entertaining clip. Carpenter, it seemed, was aiming for a kind of B-movie pastiche, a bit like Planet Terror did years later, but the results were more tiresome than entertaining. For a director who’d illuminated the screen with Halloween, The Thing and numerous other great films, it was a sad nadir. Thankfully, Carpenter returned to feature films with 2010’s The Ward.
Planet Of The Apes (2001)
A film that improved on the antiquated simian make-up effects of the Charlton Heston Planet Of The Apes, but botched just about everything else, 2001’s Apes remains one of the more disappointing films in Tim Burton’s lengthy career. What’s so frustrating is that so many of the correct elements are in place, but nothing ever quite coalesces into a satisfying whole.
Tim Roth’s angry General Thade was a decent, scenery-chewing villain, and the movie had a great visual sweep to it, but the narrative seriously let the rest of the production down, and the ending fizzled where the 60s version left such a memorable chill. It may have taken a decade, but at least Rupert Wyatt’s surprisingly excellent Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes put the franchise back on course.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The conclusion of The Matrix, for all its merits, had the Wachowskis painted into a narrative corner. With your lead character all-but superhuman, where can you take him next? The two movies which followed in quick succession, Reloaded and Revolutions, meandered where the original soared, and while their special effects were great (Reloaded’s highway chase was a stand-out), they were simply too long and too muddled. The Matrix may have been a mix of mythological and quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo, but its story was at least simple to grasp – it was about the awakening of a hero and his fight against forces he was only just beginning to comprehend.
Like the Star Wars prequels, the second and third Matrix movies have their defenders, but for this writer, the series could never match the first entry in terms of storytelling or spectacle.
Alien Vs Predator (2004)
The collision of the Alien and Predator franchise had led to some successful comics and videogames, but its journey to the big screen was depressingly flat. Alien Vs Predator‘s premise, to be fair, wasn’t too bad, and its idea of an ancient alien pyramid discovered deep in the wastes of the Antarctic worked well in the context of the Alien universe (a similar structure appeared in an early version of Alien’s script).
Unfortunately, the decision to make Alien Vs Predator a PG-13 seriously diluted its action sequences, and it has to be said that, even if the film had been gorier and more intense, its direction lacked the requisite pace that James Cameron brought to his sci-fi war movie, Aliens. Mind you, Alien Vs Predator was still far superior to the sequel that followed…
Alien Vs Predator: Requiem (2007)
Some of you may be wondering how, with the previous AVP movie proving to be so forgettable, a sequel could be regarded as a disappointment. But before its release, the Strause Brothers made all the right noises about Requiem’s new direction; rather than chase the PG-13 action figure crowd, Requiem would be harder edged and R-rated, the directors said. And Requiem was harder edged, with a quite gruesome opening which involved a spacehugger and a small boy.
Unfortunately, the film was also full of tedious teen drama scenes straight out of Hollyoaks, some murky cinematography and a ridiculous new cross-breed: the Predalien. This new lifeform represents everything that was wrong with the Alien Vs Predator movies; it mated two very different franchises and produced a new entity which made a mockery of its forebears.
I Am Legend (2007)
Before you leave an angry comment at the foot of the page, bear this in mind: I Am Legend is probably one of the better, if not the best, film on this list. But Francis Lawrence’s expensive adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel still counts as a disappointing film because it was so close to being great – its opening, set in a post-plague New York gradually being reclaimed by nature, is wonderful to behold, in spite of its CG animals.
It’s when the nocturnal Darkseekers came crawling out of their homes that I Am Legend began to falter. The novel’s creepily intelligent, virally spawned vampires were replaced by an army of bald, screeching wall-crawlers with distracting lower jaws; having carefully built up an aura of tension in its opening hour, I Am Legend quickly retreated into more familiar Hollywood territory. The movie would have been improved somewhat had the originally intended ending been left in – one that invested the Darkseekers with a greater amount of humanity – but the film’s over-reliance on CG robbed it of the vitality it initially possessed.
The Invasion (2007)
Don Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is undoubtedly one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. Remarkably, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the same name was almost its equal, and there was also much to admire about Abel Ferrara’s 1993 version, simply entitled Body Snatchers. Unfortunately, 2007’s The Invasion proved to be one remake too many.
Entirely lacking the air of paranoia that permeated the three previous movies, The Invasion replaced pod people with a virus which controls humans from within. And like an alien imposter, The Invasion was but a soulless facsimile of those earlier, better films, with character names and entire scenes replicated to severely diminished effect.
Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s initial cut of The Invasion failed to pass muster with studio executives, and so the Wachowskis and James McTiegue were ushered in to respectively rewrite and reshoot certain chunks – to the reported tune of $10 million.
It’s difficult to say just how much of an improvement these reshoots made to the film, but The Invasion’s box office receipts told their own story. Grossing just $15 million domestically against an investment of $80 million, The Invasion’s financial performance was almost as disappointing as the film itself.