25 underrated blockbusters of the 2000s
From 2000 to 2009, lots of blockbusters seem to have a harsher reputation than they seem to deserve. These, in fact...
The 00s saw it’s fair share of huge blockbuster franchises either beginning or ending. The Prequel trilogy drew to a close, as did the Matrix films. Batman rose again, and The Lord Of The Rings defined trilogies for a new generation. Bond got an update, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. Everything we see now in major blockbuster filmmaking came from this decade. But what about the films which didn’t resonate with audiences or critics at the time? Does a bit of distance make a difference? Here’s 25 blockbusters which deserve another shot.
(d. Ron Clements & John Musker, 2002)
It’s often said that Walt Disney Animation Studios was in a rut, before the merger of Disney and Pixar brought John Lasseter to the studio and turned things around. Yet that overlooks a bunch of interesting films that landed between the mid-90s and mid-2000s, that deserve more credit. Certainly box office disappointment Treasure Planet has a lot more going for it than its reputation may suggest. A visually ambitious transplating of the Treasure Island story into space, the film suffers because – unusually for Disney – it’s a little weak when it comes to character. But its storytelling is still strong, and there’s a very cinematic adventure at the heart of the film.
Maybe it lacks a memorable song, or fluffy merchandise, but Treasure Planet nonetheless felt notably ahead of its time. We suspect it would have earned a better response had it arrived a decade later…
War Of The Worlds
(d. Steven Spielberg, 2005)
Perhaps Spielberg ’s most underrated movie, this sci-fi post 9/11 analogy has some truly thumping visuals and set-pieces, while maintaining the horror and paranoia of the original book. With the action updated to the 21st century, the martian tripods once again invade Earth, this time targeting the USA rather than the UK. It’s a film with a list of startling moments, equal to anything else Spielberg has put on film. The opening tripod attack is an all-time classic. The train rushing past on fire. The tripod searching the house. If only Spielberg had given us a more realistic ending, rather than playing happy families, this would be a five star film for me.
(d. Paul Verhoeven, 2000)
Fitting that the dawn of the new century also brought us our first look at just how much CG would dominate blockbusters, a trend that had increasingly gained momentum over the 90s. Here Paul Verhoeven updated The Invisible Man, and had Kevin Bacon discover how to make himself disappear, but become increasingly unhinged as a side-effect. While Verhoeven became disillusioned with Hollywood filmmaking and went into self-exile after this, it’s worth remembering that an okay Verhoeven film is equal to many directors’ best efforts.
Kingdom Of Heaven
(d. Ridley Scott, 2005)
Okay, so technically this is a bit of a cheat as I’m about to heap praise on the director’s cut of this film, rather than the theatrical one. Which although visually magnificent, is somewhat muddled narratively. The extended cut adds in 45 minutes off vital plot and character development and enriches the film, as well as fully realising the full epic scope of the Crusades. with all the horror, politics, and kingdom building that entailed. Plus with Edward Norton putting in a magisterial performance in an uncredited role as the leper king Baldwin IV, you can almost ignore Orlando Bloom.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
(d. Simon West, 2001)
One of the best video game adaptations yet, Angelina Jolie turned out to be spot-on casting for Lara Croft, equally capable of action and exploring, while breathing actual humanity into a bunch of pixels. It’s far superior to the similar Dan Brown adaptions, with a mix of illuminati shenanigans posing puzzles which ultimately get solved by a fight. Oh, and between this film and Layer Cake, the idea of Daniel Craig as a viable James Bond must have been cemented.
Reign Of Fire
(d. Rob Bowman, 2002)
Matthew McConaughey riding a tank with its cannon placed phallically between his legs. Need I say more? Well then how about superb B-movie style action actually realised on a fairly grand scale? Dragons vs apaches my friend. Notable for allowing method actor Christian Bale the chance to use his actual accent (which sounds a bit silly) it pairs him up with beefcake McConaughey to destroy the reawakened dragons once and for all. Oh, and if you need anymore convincing the two lead characters are called Quinn Abercromby and Denton Van Zan.
(d. The Wachowskis, 2008)
While acknowledged by a growing number of film fans as the cinematic visual masterpiece it truly is, sadly Speed Racer is regarded by far too many as a cartoony waste of time, and another failed effort from the Wachowskis. Kaleidoscopic and mesmerising, the visuals, editing, and pace of the film are perfectly in line with 21st century aesthetics and the way a new generation of film fans see the world. An adaptation of the 1960s anime, Speed Racer is pure and simple at its heart – Speed Racer loves to race, and must keep winning in order to race.
(d. Ang Lee, 2003)
If only more comic book movies ended with our hero fighting a giant bubble representing their inner turmoil and father issues. Actually, scratch that. Misguided in parts, Ang Lee’s Hulk is the smartest superhero film made yet. When dealing with a green age monster who externalises all his anger, Lee chose to internalise the drama, making it about Banner’s inner struggle and demons. But Lee didn’t forget to make a film that’s a comic book come to life, with edits and angles worthy of the best of Marvel. If it’s biggest flaw is that it tried too hard, then I think Hulk deserves another watch.
The Last Samurai
(d. Edward Zwick, 2003)
Arguments about its potentially dubious cultural appropriation aside, The Last Samurai is a very old-school type of epic directed by Edward Zwick, who definitely has form in that genre. Tom Cruise is an American former cavalry officer sent to help Japan modernise its army. Finding himself captured by samurai, he learns their ways and gradually becomes one of them. It’s not a new story by any means, but it’s sumptuously told and beautifully shot, with a score worthy of the great epics of old.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
(d Guillermo del Toro, 2008)
My all-time favourite Guillermo del Toro film, and also the film that showcases every side of the multi-faceted Mexican genius. There’s the spellbinding fairy-tale visuals with emotional subtext reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth. There’s the blockbuster thrill of Pacific Rim. There’s Luke Goss inexplicably being the bad-guy. A step-up on every level from the first Hellboy, I honestly can’t think of a single thing wrong with this absolute gem of a comic book film.
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow
(d. Kerry Conran, 2004)
Set in an alternate 1930s full of giant robots and flying aircraft carriers, Sky Captain is a fantasy adventure in the vein of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Jude Law is the titular Sky Captain, Gwyneth Paltrow is journalist Polly Perkins, and a digitally animated Laurence Olivier is super villain Dr Totenkopf. Oh, and Angelina wears an eye-patch and is a badass flying ace. Directed with aplomb by first-time director Kerry Conran, and shot completely on a ‘digital back-lot’, Sky Captain is a breathtaking visual feast, and a hugely enjoyable watch to boot. Let’s hope that Conran is one day allowed back out of director jail to make another movie.
The Matrix: Reloaded
(d. The Wachowshis, 2003)
The Matrix was a genre redefining classic that still stands up as one of the finest sci-fi films of the last 30 years. So kudos to the Wachowskis for making a sequel that was not just more of the same, but a film which went as deep into rabbit-hole as they could and expanded the first movie’s philosophical concepts to extraordinary levels. The simple distinction between real and not-real presented in the first film is revealed to have been an illusion, as the Wachowskis get down to exploring ideas about freedom of choice, as well as the power of belief, and enabling us to define the difference (if any) between fate and causality.
On top of all that, Reloaded is also full of incredible action sequences and effects which set the tone for the whole decade – with the freeway chase and the burly brawl being stand-out efforts. Perhaps crushed by the weight of expectation and audience disappointment that it wasn’t a clone of the first film, The Matrix Reloaded is an immensely rewarding return to and expansion of The Matrix.
(d. Bryan Singer, 2006)
Come back Brandon Routh and Bryan Singer, all is forgiven. After Zack Snyder’s demonstration that he actively hates Superman and wants everyone else to as well, Superman Returns showcases that the man of steel can be a figure worthy of pouring all our hopes and dreams into. The Superman on display here is one who does good not out of ambivalence, but because it’s the right thing to do. You can imagine that this Clark Kent would want to help even without his godlike powers. The film may be a bit too sedate at times, but there’s no doubting the thrilling power of the opening titles scored to the Superman march, and the incredible plane rescue.
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
(d. Gore Verbinksi, 2006)
I wasn’t particularly a fan of the first Pirates sequel when it came out, but on a recent re-watch something clicked. This is a not too bad follow-up to the first film. I think perhaps it’s the only sequel that marries the fun of the original with the bombastic spectacle of the later films. But what it does brilliantly is introduce Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, a legitimately scary and compelling baddie with the perfect mix of pathos and villainy. Between Jones and the Kraken, this is a film which explored the wider world of the pirates well, without getting bogged down in silly pirates council shenanigans.
(d. Guy Ritchie, 2009)
Is this Guy Ritchie’s best film? It’s easily his most accomplished, marrying his British mockney sensibilities with a Hollywood cast and budget. While the BBC’s own Sherlock basically blew this out the water, there’s a huge amount of modernising in this version which works incredibly well, and while Holmes may be more of a fighter than a sleuth at times, there’s no denying Robert Downey Jr is worthy of the mantle. Jude Law is excellent back-up as Dr Watson, while Ritchie garnishes the story with enough visual flourishes that you’ll always be entertained.
Land Of The Lost
(d. Brad Silberling, 2009)
A big-budget epic comedy reworking of the 70s TV series, the Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride, and Jorma Taccone starring film was a huge box-office flop. A parody in the style of The Brady Bunch Movie, both audiences and critics found little to love in it. Nor did I, on first watch. But give it another chance, and you’ll see there’s method in the madness. It’s so obviously designed to be bad, but succeeds so well in its aim that I think the joke may have gone over most people’s heads. Plus there’s just such a joy in some of the dumb humour in the film, that it feels a little mean to trash it. Call it an interesting failure worthy of rediscovery.
I Am Legend
(d. Francis Lawrence, 2007)
A post-apocalyptic spectacular based on Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name (itself the basis of 1971’s The Omega Man), I Am Legend finds Will Smith alone in Manhattan, an immune survivor to a plague which has killed 90% of humanity and turned the rest into killer mutants. He spends the days roaming the empty city, and the nights trying to create a cure. Up until the final act, this film is one of the most thoughtful and well-paced blockbusters ever created. Even when dodgy effects and a rushed by the numbers finale come about, it still can hold its head up high. The eerie scenes of Will Smith alone, as well as his actions make the audience question what they themselves would do in the event of such a global catastrophe, and our species will to survive.
(d. M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)
So was this either the last good film made by M Night Shyamalan or where the rot set in? Probably a bit of both, but I still vividly remember this as a fantastic cinema going experience, and a true rollercoaster of a movie. Yes there are plot holes galore. Yes, there’s not much resolution to any sort of narrative. But really, it’s all about the experience here. Shyamalan at his best is a master of creating tension from the most innocuous beginnings, and here he plays out an alien invasion for the full on frightfest it surely would be.
The Day After Tomorrow
(d. Roland Emmerich, 2004)
Why pick this over 2012? Better characters and performances, a more realistic story and consequences (yes, I realise I’m talking about a Roland Emmerich disaster film) and ultimately more heart. It doesn’t have the epic scale and range of planetary disasters that its spiritual sequel contains, but it delivers the goods in a far more effective way. For me, The Day After Tomorrow is the CG laden disaster film of the modern era to beat, and I include asteroid and volcano films in that list too.
The Perfect Storm
(d. Wolfgang Petersen, 2000)
An adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name, telling the story of the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that was lost at sea during the 1991 perfect storm. The Perfect Storm has a pretty much perfect cast too, with George Clooney as Captain Billy Tyne and Mark Wahlberg as fisherman Bobby Shatford, who of course is on his final voyage. While some of the film has been derided by family members of those lost as being inaccurate, there’s no doubting the power of the movie. The stomach-churning visuals constantly amp up the tension, and although you know the ending, the cast make you believe the tension, and still feel wiped out when it all finally goes wrong.
Quantum Of Solace
(d. Marc Forster, 2008)
Or alternatively, what James Bond did on his holiday. I’ve always had a softer spot than most for Quantum Of Solace. Best viewed as an addendum to Casino Royale, it’s basically Bond going on a rampage for 90 minutes, and showcasing his progression from rookie agent to cold-blooded super spy. Craig sells it perfectly. Unlike Spectre, it’s Bond as serialised storytelling done right. Nothing feels in service to the myth, rather its all in service to the story and character. But for many it doesn’t really work too well, instead becoming an unfocused mess with none of what makes Bond, well Bond.
(d. Raja Gosnell, 2002)
Written by one James Gunn, this live-action version of Scooby-Doo is actually very funny, very knowing, and full of surprises. Freddie Prinze, Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini and Matthew Lillard make an excellent Mystery Inc. gang, portraying Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy respectively. After an acrimonious split, the gang have been dissolved for two years. Reluctantly reuniting to solve a mystery at the tourist resort Spooky Island, the gang find a very old friend is behind the plot. Despite the fact that you sit down wanting to hate it, the film is charming, fun, if ultimately disposable. But fun fact, it was filmed in Queensland, Australia, and afterwards they made a ride at the Warner Bros. Movie World on the Gold Coast based on the film. Hands down the Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster is one of the best rollercoaster experiences in the world.
(d. Timur Bekmambetov, 2008)
I didn’t buy James McAvoy as an action star either, so skipped this one on initial release. Then when I caught up with it a few years later, I was very pleasantly surprised. Wanted is an absolute blast. Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov’s Hollywood debut, Wanted is an adaptation of the Mark Millar comic book series, and follows the story of Wesley Gibson (McAvoy) a bank manager who discovers he is the son of a famous assassin and is inducted into a secret assassins society. It’s fast, funny, and full of charm, especially from McAvoy and fellow lead Angelina Jolie, once again proving her action chops. There’s so many inventive action sequences, and ways of killing people on display here that the film rockets to its finale, being a huge amount of fun at all times.
(d. Wolfgang Petersen, 2004)
For a brief period after Gladiator, it seemed historical epics were back. But lukewarm audience response to them signalled the end of the resurgence. Which is a shame, as Troy is a beautiful, fascinating version of The Illiad with some truly great performances. Chief amongst them is Eric Bana as Hector, noble hero of the Trojans. He invests the character with the perfect mixture of badass fighter and devoted family man, making Brad Pitt’s Achilles look like an empty vainglorious jerk. Which is exactly as it should be. Peter O’Toole as King Priam is a look at one of the true cinematic greats doing what he does best, while Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Rose Byrne, Brendan Gleeson, Diane Kruger and Orlando Bloom round out the rest of the supporting cast. If you need anymore convincing that Troy was an overlooked delight, then take note of the writer – a certain David Benioff, who would go on to find global fame as creator of HBO’s Game Of Thrones.
(d. Zack Snyder, 2009)
Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman wasn’t the first time Zack Snyder courted controversy with a comic book adaption. Except with this previous effort at least the film is watchable and makes sense. But then again, it is an incredibly faithful adaption of Alan Moore’s masterpiece, long considered unfilmable by many. Full credit to Snyder for proving that wrong, and committing some of the most gorgeous comic book imagery to screen. From the beginning sequence scored to Unforgettable, to the highlight of the film for me, Dr Manhattan creating his Martian palace to the sounds of Philip Glass. Perfectly cast, Watchmen remains Snyder’s best work to date, and if his recent offerings are ay clue, it will remain that way too.
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