Ten Ill-Conceived Science Fiction Movies
John Carter makes its long-awaited trip to theaters this weekend. By some accounts, it isn’t tracking in a very positive direction, meaning the chances it will recoup its bloated $250 million budget are fading. Should the movie end up face-planting, it should come as little surprise. Hollywood has been attempting to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famed “Barsoom” series since the 1930s. Are modern audiences familiar with the source material? Is Taylor Kitsch capable of carrying a franchise? Disney is banking on the answer being yes to both questions.
The science fiction genre is tricky. For every Alien and Avatar, there are scores of flicks that failed to find an audience. The reasons for their demise can be attributed to lots of different reasons (shoddy writing, cheap special effects), but more often than not, poor planning at the pre=production stage was the deciding factor that prevented them from meeting or exceeding expectations.
Not every novel, comic book, short story or script with sci-fi themes should be translated to the big screen, but the powers that be in Hollywood are gluttons for punishment. Learning from past mistakes is not a common practice, which is why we continue to see rotten films stinking up multiplexes every year.
Excluding B-movies and sequels (easy targets), here are ten ill-conceived science fiction films that probably shouldn’t have been made, or at least were in dire need of a makeover before shooting began.
- Dune – 1984
Adapting a beloved novel set in an alternate universe 10,000 years in the future sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong? Try everything. Putting an eccentric art house director known for two low-budget black and white indie films in charge was the first mistake.
After years of stalled attempts, which included a French version starring Salvador Dali and one helmed by Ridley Scott, producer Dino de Laurentiis tapped up and coming director David Lynch, who wowed critics with 1980's The Elephant Man. Despite having never read or known about author Frank Hebert's book before being hired, Lynch crafted a script later derided for being confusing and nonsensical to anyone not familiar with the novel.
A hefty (for the time) $40 million budget yielded some impressive set pieces, but the special effects were amateurish. While the overall look of the film adequately captured Herbert's world, the serpentine plot and inexcusable lack of exposition left audiences befuddled as to what the hell was going on.
Rather than a cohesive story that advanced in a smooth progression, the end result was a beautiful disaster complete with clumsy inner monologue, cryptic dream sequences, scores of religious mumbo jumbo and a bizarre soundtrack by Toto. After being refused creative control and stripped of final editing privileges, Lynch wanted nothing to do with the finished product. Ironically, Herbert himself praised Lynch for the film's visual opulence and staying faithful to his style of prose.
Dune fell victim to eyes being bigger than stomachs. De Laurentiis and Lynch had good intentions, but the canvas needed to be much larger and the painting more nuanced. A longer film, or series of films would've expanded on the novel's complexities - as in the 2000 and 2003 TV miniseries - but at a cost de Laurentiis clearly wasn't prepared to spend, and one Lynch definitely wasn't suited to shepherd.
To be fair, Dune was imagined 25 years too soon. With today's advanced CGI, a skilled director like Christopher Nolan or Darren Aronofsky could do Herbert's masterpiece justice.
- D.A.R.Y.L. – 1985
In an effort to piggyback off the success of E.T. and WarGames, Paramount rolled out D.A.R.Y.L. in the summer of 1985. Data Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform, aka DARYL, a shoehorned acronym for a shoehorned concept.
The robot wasn't even a robot per se, but rather a military commissioned microcomputer stored in the body of a elven-year-old boy, who is released into the wild by his government minder after adopting human feelings and emotions.
The movie was packaged as a sci-fi action flick. One small problem - nothing overly exciting happens. Daryl plays Pole Position (nice plug for Atari). Daryl hits home runs. Daryl commits bank fraud. Daryl plays piano.
And when there is a pulse, the concocted scenarios are so ridiculous, they're laughable, e.g. the implausible car chase (no helicopter?), and Daryl distracting an entire Air Force base by pulling a fire alarm in order to infiltrate an unsecured hangar to steal a Blackbird jet.
Why the "robot" was modeled after a child is never really explained, but it's obvious the filmmakers' sole purpose in developing this borefest was so another precocious young protagonist could make adults look like bumbling assholes. The barebones script leaves an overabundance of unanswered questions, like why didn't the older sister swim to rescue Daryl, and why wouldn't the government pay one last visit to the foster parents to be certain Daryl was terminated? Oh right, the military is comprised of war mongering morons. Never mind. Ugh.
- Howard the Duck – 1986
Long before Georgie boy Lucas sullied the Star Wars franchise, he was busy at work producing small screen swill like Droids and Ewoks, and big screen slop like Howard the Duck, a live action special effects quagmire based on a cult comic book about an alien duck trapped on Earth.
Lucas liked the idea of a little person in a duck suit running around with other actors, so he vetoed writer/director Will Huyck and co-writer Gloria Katz's animated adaptation in favor of an effects heavy production courtesy of his own company, Industrial Light & Magic. It would prove to be a bad call.
A combination of animatronics, puppets and feathery costumes were constructed to bring Howard to life. Despite the best efforts of the effects team and actors involved, the finished duck ended up looking just plain silly, and not in a good way. The face was stiff and the mouth suffered due to terrible functionality.
The decision to hire Chip Zien to voice Howard after shooting was completed was also a careless misstep. Synching dialogue to the actors' movements was an arduous process and yielded several awkward moments easily noticeable in the completed film.
The marketing of the film was equally problematic. Dark, crude sexual subject matter was peppered throughout the script to echo the adult oriented comic. But the PG rating, summer release date and advertising campaign sold it as a kid's movie, surmising that a "funny duck" was enough to lure children to theaters. Test screenings spelled box office poison, but it was too late to fix the myriad of problems. Of course, it bombed horribly and is regarded as one of the worst movies of all-time.
Had it been a PG-13 animated feature geared toward teenagers and twenty-somethings, it might've worked. It still wouldn't have been a hit, but would have come at a cost considerably less than $37 million. Blame George Lucas for this blight on cinema.
- Universal Soldier – 1992
Melding together elements of Apocalypse Now, RoboCop and Terminator 2 sounds great on paper. Unless those elements help form a plot about reanimating dead Vietnam War soldiers into cybernetic counter terrorists. The fact that Universal Soldier cleaned up at the box office doesn't excuse its outlandish premise and hackneyed execution.
Roland Emmerich, the world's leading authority on directing movies about the extinction of the human race (Godzilla, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), was tasked to assemble what amounts to a series of clichéd fight scenes interspersed with atrocious acting from Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.
The whole Vietnam angle serves no real purpose other than to reinforce the demeaning Hollywood notion that war always transforms soldiers into insane wackjobs who enjoy mutilating dead bodies and turning on their own men. Combat is a life-changing event, but it doesn't mean an automatic trip to the looney bin.
Why not set the movie in modern-day and make the protagonists Special Forces operatives killed in action? The 20-year gap makes zero sense and no amount of goofy scientific theorems or jargon sufficiently explains why Jean-Claude and Dolph didn't age a day.
Sure, it's fiction, but when the central conceit can be dismissed as pure nonsense, the rest of the movie will languish. At least RoboCop was plausible, in that the reanimation occurred immediately after death and the story progressed from that point.
Obviously Universal Soldier wasn't designed to win awards or challenge the Star Wars Trilogy in earnings. That said, there was a glimmer of a kick-ass action flick waiting to burst out if not for the ludicrous plot, wooden performances and A-Teamish action sequences. Call it an opportunity wasted.
- Judge Dredd – 1995
Here's an excellent example of what can go wrong when an iconic comic book hero is placed in the hands of an A-list movie star who can't really act. Sylvester Stallone's Dredd makes Michael Keaton's Batman look like Marlon Brando in his prime.
Where to begin with this calamity? Well, the overall tone of the film was botched early in the developmental stages. It should've been a serious, edgy exploration of how law and justice are administered in a police state beset by violent crime. Instead, the filmmakers chose to go with a parody of sorts and cast Rob Schneider (WTF) to play the Fergee character, thus turning him into an annoying court jester. Not good.
Armed with a $90 million budget, the special effects still managed to miss the mark and Mega-City One ended up resembling a glorified Lego set. Rico's combat robot was pretty badass, but it alone couldn't make up for the glut of cookie-cutter villains populating the film.
Dredd also runs around for most of the duration without his signature helmet, which went against the comic's golden rule that justice be presented without an identifiable face. But Stallone wasn't about to sign on for a project that concealed his million-dollar mug, so the script concocted a plot to frame him for murder and sentence him to life in prison, sans helmet.
Following the source material line and verse isn't practical or sensible, but removing one of Dredd's most important characteristics was bound to piss off the loyal fanbase and in turn cause them to sour on the movie long before it was released to theaters. Comic book nerds don't respond well to drastic changes; producers probably should've taken that into consideration if they were hoping for a blockbuster.
Hopefully the upcoming remake starring Karl Urban in the titular role will succeed where Stallone's version failed. Persistent rumors of post-production feuds between the director, writer and studio execs don't bode well for the new Dredd, but improving on the original shouldn't be difficult.
- The Postman – 1997
Kevin Costner must have a defective memory. It's the only logical way to explain why two short years after filming Waterworld he chose to make a big budget post-apocalyptic epic. Perhaps he took in too much salt water, or maybe he gets his jollies directing interminable bombs.
At least Waterworld was ambitious in both scale and execution. For all its faults, it's hard not to admire the effort put forth to produce an action movie on the ocean, complete with massive set pieces and intricate stunt sequences. At its worst, it never takes the pedal off the gas.
The Postman, on the other hand, is 180 minutes of pointless drivel devoid of relatable characters and even more damning, next to nothing in the excitement department. Why, why, why, why was this movie made? One reason: to feed Costner's insatiable movie star ego.
When mail delivery is the driving force within the plot, something is amiss. When Cliff Clavin and Newman are heroic figures, something is amiss. When bronze statues are erected to honor postal workers, something is amiss.
Basically, Costner repackaged Dances With Wolves with mail carriers substituting for Sioux Indians, and the Holnists filling in for the U.S. Army. Luckily, Costner's Shakespeare quoting, scarf wearing nomad is there to impregnate horny women and lead civilization out of the muck and mire.
The Postman cost $80 million and grossed $17 million. The proud winner of four Razzie awards, it for all intents and purposes ended Costner's career as a bankable action star. To be fair, he did redeem himself in 2003 with the underrated Open Range.
- Sphere – 1998
Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson. Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman. Oscar-nominated actors Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone. Best-selling author Michael Crichton. All the pieces were in place for Sphere to be a runaway success. Ahh, the best laid plans.
From a purely technical standpoint, Sphere was a competent sci-fi thriller. The direction, pacing and performances all rise above the source material. Levinson effectively framed a claustrophobic environment consumed by fear and paranoia. That said, the film never reached its potential due to a simplified paradoxical event and a contrived ending that felt way too neat.
The notion of an alien structure influencing human thought is nothing new to the genre (see 2001: A Space Odyssey). So, if you're going to build a story around an enigmatic orb from another galaxy, making it an omniscient being capable of toying with man's underdeveloped pea brains seems trite.
We get it. Aliens are all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, while lowly Homo sapiens, including the supremely intelligent ones, are emotional train wrecks and therefore putty in the hands of abstract cosmic forces. Been there, done that... and done better.
Bottom line: there just wasn't enough plot to sustain the film. Harry (Jackson) enters the sphere and all hell breaks loose. How did he enter? Did it let him in or lure him in? Why are only the worst thoughts manifested into reality? Does the sphere have evil intent or is it merely defending itself? Too many questions, too few answers.
Sphere wasn't as bad as some labeled it. The level of plot sophistication was just too low to classify it as anything more than an average psychological thriller. The talent involved gave it the old college try, but this is one adaptation that should've been reworked or scrapped altogether at inception.
- Mission to Mars – 2000
Here we go again. Respected director, award-winning cast, hefty budget... uh oh. Maybe a movie partially based on a defunct Disney attraction wasn't such a grand idea after all. Especially one with stunted dialogue, sappy sentiments and hokey special effects.
Director Brian De Palma, who is at his best working with adult themes in films like Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Up and The Untouchables, struggled transitioning to a story aimed at families, due in large to a script that felt like it was written by 12-year-old boys for 12-year-old boys.
It seems unfathomable to believe Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle read the script and said, "This is amazing writing. I must be involved." Hopefully they received a decent paycheck for their trouble, because spewing hackneyed lines stolen from low-brow astronaut comics had to be insulting.
It's never a good sign when quality actors are going through the motions. Sinise looked comatose throughout much of the movie. Cheadle showed a degree of passion, but was clearly trying too hard. Robbins was downright giddy in his death scene, presumably because he didn't have to hang around until the end.
Speaking of the end... whoa, it's far from good. An encounter with a rust-colored martian that appeared to have been drawn by preschoolers ended up being a junior high biology lesson about the formation of life on Earth. Wait, what? Then Sinise pulled a Richard Dreyfuss from Close Encounters.
Having zero grasp of the genre, De Palma was clearly the wrong hire. Scenes dragged on too long or went nowhere. And for a screenplay that listed Graham Yost (Band of Brothers, Boomtown, Justified) as one of its authors, the lack of sharp dialogue, character development and heightened drama was stunning. Mission to Mars, more like Mission to Monotony.
- Aeon Flux – 2005
Let's make a live action film based on an avant-garde animated series that ran for 21 episodes on MTV during the early '90s. We've got Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron and the director of Girlfight. Throw in cameos from Frances McDormand and Pete Postlethwaite. It's a can't-miss.
Who's our target audience? Teenage girls wanting to feel empowered. Okay, but most teenage girls were barely out of diapers when Aeon Flux aired, not to mention teenage girls don't go to sci-fi action movies. Well, shucks... what about teenage boys? Charlize in spandex equals lots of raging boners. True, but teenage boys prefer watching dudes beat up other dudes, not chicks beating up other chicks and dudes. Alright, fu*k it, we'll just release it and see what happens.
Leaving aside the fact that it was impossible to recreate the superhuman acrobatics from Peter Chung's original animations, the title alone was a nightmarish catch-22. You couldn't change it because what little built-in audience there was would stay away. But by keeping it as is, you confused millions of potential ticket buyers who had no idea what it meant or even how to properly pronounce it.
Backed into an inescapable corner, you threw $60-plus million into flashy set pieces, freaky S&M costumes and marginally impressive acid trip effects and released it the same weekend as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Bravisimo! Take a bow. You officially suck at business.
It wasn't Theron's fault this stinker stunk. She actually pulled her own weight and looked drop dead sexy doing so. Paramount distributed an unmarketable movie aimed at a limited demographic and dumped it opposite one of the highest-grossing franchises of all time. "Destined to fail" doesn't adequately describe that kind of miscalculation.
It never ceases to amaze how many times Hollywood ignores the writing on the wall. Aeon Flux was a kick-ass series, but it isn't The Transformers. Expecting mass appeal from a niche property isn't wishful thinking, it's an exercise in futility.
- The Happening – 2008
Lobbing grenades at M. Night Shyamalan's evaporating career is akin to picking on the kid with big ears. But until the guy who brought us The Sixth Sense stops making garbage like The Happening and miraculously regains his footing as a director and storyteller, he's going to remain an easy, and viable, target.
Of all Night's big screen blunders, the biggest and most egregious was 2008's The Happening. This pseudo sci-fi/horror abomination tackled environmentalism in such a simplistic and ludicrous manner, it's no wonder one of the diabolical trees portrayed in the film didn't pull up its roots, walk over to Shyamalan in his director's chair and bitch slap him across the face.
The "reveal" was so incredibly asinine, it made the one in The Village seem Hitchcockian. After a long night of poker and boozing, the planet's flora woke up the next morning and decided to release a poison toxin that turned humans into suicidal zombies. But only in the northeast and only for a day. Ya know, as a warning. Uh, okay...
Sitting through 90-plus minutes of cringe-inducing dialogue, cardboard characters, inept acting and Zooey Deschanel's vacant stare will make you wish a clump of nearby weeds would suffocate you where you sit. There were vexing tangents about hot dogs, cough syrup, mood rings, and Mark Wahlberg's out of nowhere squealing rendition of the Doobie Brothers' classic song "Black Water."
Shyamalan even had the balls to promote this dreck as a B-movie prior to its release, knowing full well that nobody with functioning brain cells would take it seriously. Nice try, but B-movies don't cost $60 million. Shockingly, this festering wart grossed over $160 million, but the 29% audience rating tells the whole truth.
Any discussion about The Happening prophetically calling attention to global warming or climate change gets lost inside a tangled web of forgettable characters and laughable scare tactics. You won't be enlightened once the end credits roll, but you will be relieved it's finally over.