Before I go any further, I know that you’re not going to agree with me, but that’s okay. I mean, one person’s lame, idiotic story and ghastly acting is another person’s favorite film, even if sometimes it’s after imbibing an illegal substance or two. Still, I suspect we can agree that amazing special effects do not an amazing film make, however optimistic you want to be. I’ll also admit that, as a professional film critic, movies like ‘Transformers’ underwhelm me, but not to the point of being ‘worst film ever’ status. Expectations set?
Hold on, before we proceed, I have to say that I am fond of the cheesy monster sci-fi films from the 60s, so I’m going to skip the low-hanging fruit of films like ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ or ‘Monsters A Go-Go’. Yeah, they’re bad, but I feel like they were made with tongue firmly planted in cheek, so they don’t really count. Then there are films like ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ and, again, it’s ridiculously easy to say that it’s a terrible film — and it is — but because it’s well known as a bad film, it sort of redeems itself.
What I want to identify are those films that are serious sci-fi, are made with big budgets and major stars, and still somehow end up being painfully stupid to endure. You know what I’m talking about. Films like…
BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000)
Like just about everything L. Ron Hubbard wrote, the book ‘Battlefield Earth’ was terrific until about halfway through, then it just got long. And really long. And too long for any normal person to read. And it kept going after that point. Still, the book was readable if you just stopped halfway.
The film doesn’t offer that mercy and from the first scenes of Teri (John Travolta) wearing a rebreather that looked like snot dripping out of his nose, it was obvious you were in for a bad, bad cinematic experience. The budget was there, the actors were — arguably — present, but it sure didn’t gel into a good sci-fi epic. The box office numbers reflect that.
STAR WARS I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)
This might be blasphemy here on ScienceFiction.com, but I so loathe the extraordinarily racist and offensive Jar-Jar Binks that even seeing him on screen makes my skin crawl and produces spontaneous urges to hurt someone. What the $#@$#@ was Lucas thinking when his team added one of the most offensive characters to appear in any modern film? Then to have ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ have similarly racist step-and-fetchit characters? Yikes. Serious poison in a film series that otherwise broke so much new ground and was so pivotal in my childhood love of sci-fi. Then again, there was also the whiny teens episode of Star Wars yet to come at that point (aka ‘Attack of the Clones’). Can someone just smack Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padmé (Natalie Portman) already?
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (2008)
The original 1971 film, based on the tautly plotted Michael Crichton book of the same name, is a terrific movie and a great introduction to the pandemic genre, most recently reprised in the cool and frightening ‘Contagion’. In the original film (spoiler ahead!) the most interesting aspect is that the research to identify a cure to the spaceborn plague is stymied when Dr. Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid) has an epileptic seizure while analyzing lab results and misses the positive result. Human failing prolonging a crisis is a fascinating topic, but in the remake, they seem to have completely lost that part and everyone is handsome and capable. Too capable. The entire “human failing” part is skipped and the film ends up being stupid and uninteresting. It’s so disappointing because the original is splendid and on my top ten list. See that instead. Just skip the idiotic remake. You’ll thank me.
HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)
I’ve tried to watch this multiple times. Really. Even if I was completely ripped or stoned out of my mind, though, I couldn’t handle it. There’s no other way to say it, ‘Howard the Duck’ is one of the most stupid films ever made, and the fact that it’s got George Lucas as executive producer, well, he’s the same guy who thought Jar-Jar was a good character, isn’t he? There’s some attempt at a storyline with alternative realities, different timelines and a plot that’s summarized on IMDb as “A sarcastic humanoid duck is pulled from his homeworld to Earth where he must stop an alien invader.” But the reality is I just can’t stand it so have no idea if it ends with a burst of brilliance or is as lame as the rest of the film. Some people put this in the ‘so cheesy it’s fun’ category, but I personally reserve that for those great 60s B movies. Howard? Keep him outta my duckpond and we’ll all be good.
PLANET OF THE APES (any of the sequels)
In a lasting testament to how greedy Hollywood is, the first ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie from 1968 is great science fiction with some unquestionably iconic images, most notably Col. Taylor (Charlton Heston) coming across a half-buried Statue of Liberty on the beach. Great cinema! But then the sequels (‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’, ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’) are all just ghastly and to say that they’re made-for-TV quality is an insult to television. The makeup prosthetics get worse and worse too and, by the ‘Battle’ film, they’re not much more than rigid Halloween masks. Then there’s the boring Tim Burton remake from 2001, but that’s forgettable so let’s forget it. Fortunately the recent ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ brings a spark of hope to a series that’s been monkeyed almost to death (yeah, I had to go there), but really, does anyone like any of the sequels?
THE BLACK HOLE (1979)
With typical Disney hubris, the production team assumed that having a really weak story and one signature special effect would be enough to create an interesting sci-fi epic. The cast’s not bad, but even back in 1979, I’m pretty sure that the anomalous behavior of black holes was sufficiently understood enough that the idea of a spaceship “stuck” at the event horizon where no one inside ages was considered a bit daft. If you can even find this to watch again, you’ll see, it feels like something that was produced for television — including pacing that lends itself to commercial interruptions — and has some of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid. Then again, with five authors listed on writing credits, it’s a red flag that this is not a well-plotted film.
THE MATRIX (either sequel)
I loved the original film, even with Neo (Keanu Reeves) being perhaps one of the most wooden characters ever in cinema. Even when he realizes something extraordinarily cool, that he can bend reality to his will, he’s so dispassionate that I thought he’d fallen asleep on his feet. It started well, had a great story arc, and ended in a good spot. Then the sequels (‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’) came out and ruined the whole thing. Why do filmmakers think that they can top the original with such dreck? Then, of course, the Wachowski’s released ‘Speed Racer’, suggesting that ‘The Matrix’ was a fluke and that they weren’t such genius filmmakers after all. Actually, maybe the film ‘Speed Racer’ should be on this list too, now that I think about it…
A lot of our readers are both sci-fi and comic book geeks. That’s cool. I certainly read my share of comic books as a kid and still consume the occasional graphic novel. I’d never heard of Daredevil, though, and when I saw the movie, I realized why. I mean, here’s IMDb’s synopsis: “A man blinded by toxic waste which also enhanced his remaining senses fights crime as an acrobatic martial arts superhero.” What is this? Helen Keller meets Bruce Lee in ‘Enter the Blind Girl’? Worse, Ben Affleck just couldn’t pull off the role and while I’ll admit Jennifer Garner looked good as Elektra, the two of them just couldn’t act their ways out of the proverbial paper bag and had so extraordinarily little chemistry that it was impossible to figure out why she didn’t just whack him and get it over with. I hear that there might be a remake in the wings with a different cast. Well, maybe. We’ll see.
I’m a big fan of Adrien Brody and was all set to like this sci-fi medical thriller about genetic manipulation, until one scene just ruined the film for me, ruined it so badly that I was yelling at the screen “What the &$#*(@&$ are you doing?!” even as other people gave me odd looks. If you’ve seen the film and have even the slightest clue about lab work and research, you’ll know the scene. I’ll just say [Spoiler ahead!] real scientists don’t put scalpels in their mouths, whether they’re covered with weird alien goo or otherwise. ‘Splice’ is a good example of a film that suffers from a lack of advisors, a film that punctures the bubble of verisimilitude — that key “suspension of disbelief” element — so badly that, well, it’s ended up on this list. Seen it and liked it? You’re more forgiving than I am.
THE HAPPENING (2008)
I’m pretty sure if you look up the definition of “overhyped” you’ll find M. Night Shyamalan listed. He’s done one decent film (‘The Sixth Sense’) followed by a series of increasingly insipid, self-important, indulgent drivel, with its zenith being either the boring and laughable ‘The Happening’ or the confusing flop ‘The Last Airbender’. I’ll say this: when I was in the theater and a preview came up for his latest, ‘Devil’, people were interested until his name flashed on screen, then they all laughed and said “not likely!”. The tragedy is that Shyamalan has a great eye for set pieces and scenes, and there are some visually arresting sequences throughout ‘The Happening’. The overall story, though, is the world’s stupidest eco-disaster movie. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been the addition of Nicholas Cage to the cast. But that’s another story entirely, one we’re blessed not to have seen on the silver screen.
DEATH RACE (2008)
The original film (ironically named ‘Death Race 2000’ when it was released in 1975) was a dry, witty commentary on the rise of the corporate state and the decreasing value of human life, particularly when compared to the economic value of entertaining the masses. Think “opiate of the masses”.
It’s a theme that a lot of films back in the mid-70’s were wrestling with, the value of an individual life. Think ‘Logan’s Run’ or the epic ‘Soylent Green’ as two more examples. Just as the remake of ‘The Andromeda Strain’ completely missed out on the most interesting facet of the original, though, so does the remake of ‘Death Race’ fail. In the remake, it’s inmates at a maximum security prison who take part in a no-holds-barred race to win a pardon (who thinks of these competitions? Do we really want the most dangerous driver from a group of ruthless prisoners free and driving on our streets in the future??). They can trick out their cars with weapons, both offensive and defensive, but even the presence of action star Jason Statham doesn’t redeem this stupid exploitation film. Of course, I could mention the horrible, ghastly ‘Crank: High Voltage’ here too, but… um… I just did. Nevermind.
There are lots of bad films. It’s the nature of art, that the process of creation will inevitably lead to failures mixed in with the relatively rare success. Further, like art itself, films are an acquired taste and the films I like are doubtless different to those that you like. Heck, when I looked at the IMDb ratings for the films I’ve listed above, I realize that for many of these, I’m completely out of step. That’s fine. Everyone else is wrong. :-)
Oh, and I’ll wrap up with a few films that you probably think should be on the list but that, damn it, I really like: ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, ‘Alien vs. Predator’, ‘The Sixth Day’, ‘Waterworld’, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, and ‘Artificial Intelligence: AI’.
Now, what about you? What do you think of this list, what have I included that you think is actually good, and what should I have added to the list that I either forgot about or don’t actually think is quite that bad?