On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (which is, by all accounts the third best thing ever produced in 400 billion years of biological evolution), William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I reviewed Cloud Atlas, the newest release from Tom Tykwer and Wachowski Starship. Both Bibbs and I were very positive on the film, citing its sheer ambition as the most impressive thing about it. Cloud Atlas is a film that spans six different time frames, features famous actors in multiple roles that cross race and gender lines, and ultimately tells an optimistic tale about how humans’ presence in the universe is ultimately a positive thing. Or something. The film is vast and heady and open to various interpretations.
Not all critics fell in love with Cloud Atlas. It enjoys a respectable, but comparatively meager score of 62% on the Rotten Tomatoes critic aggregate. And even though it was ambitious, and it was directed by a trio of visionary directors, known for their sense of action, and high-minded need to push boundaries, it wasn’t accepted wholesale by the general public. Indeed, Cloud Atlas, in its first weekend, made a mere $9.4 million. Which was on a $100 million budget. Yipes. Perhaps it was the sheer ambition that caused people to stay away. A three-hour film (the longer the film, the fewer screenings that can fit in a day) about vaguely connected timelines, all pointing to a vast philosophy of compassion and interconnectedness… well, it hardly seems like the rock-‘em-sock-‘em kind of action blockbuster that studios try out so often.
Is Hollywood averse to ambition? Not necessarily. When it comes to well-known geek properties, Hollywood has climbed on board with unabashed temerity. The Lord of the Rings was essentially a single 12-hour film with loads of special effects, that not only pleased the elf-loving fanbase, but also caught the eye of The Academy. Those films were pretty okay. The most financially successful film of 2012 was The Avengers, which was, like Lord of the Rings, a multi-film set-up, this time to a single giganto event that audiences – and indeed many critics – wet their pants over. That film was pretty okay too. Some like to cite Christopher Nolan’s film Inception as a particularly ambitious action film, as it was so wonderfully unconventional, although I don’t get the level of gradeur from Inception as I do from some other more aspiring fare. But when it comes to headier, more cerebral fare, Hollywood has seen a slew of ambitious films that, for one reason or another, tanked miserably. Cloud Atlas may eventually be considered one of the more embarrassing flops of the year, right alongside John Carter and The Ooglieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure.
How often has this happened? Oh the list of examples is endless. Here are some other hugely ambitious films, all of prodigious length, all of enormous budgets, that audiences rejected.
Heaven’s Gate (dir. Michael Cimino, 1980)
One of the most famous flops in Hollywood history, Heaven’s Gate is a long, long neo-western that follows a love triangle set amongst an immigration conflict in late 19th century Wyoming. The film is rife with melodrama, political notions and immigration, war, and anything else seen in a Margaret Mitchell novel, writ equally large. The film starred Christopher Walken and Kris Kristofferson. Upon its release, Heaven’s Gate was recut by the studio down to a mere 149 minutes, although the original cut was about three hours. Despite the cut, some critics cited the film as a masterpiece, and I have read a few (but only a few) lists that claim it to be one of the best films of the 1980s. For whatever reason, though, this historical epic went largely unseen by audiences, making only $12,000 its opening weekend on a budget of about $44 million. It was meant to be the next Gone with the Wind. These days, it’s more often mentioned alongside Howard the Duck. Too bad.
Playtime (dir. Jacques Tati, 1967)
Jacques Tati is, for those who haven’t yet been introduced to the French comic genius, the director of such art house hits as M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle. He is a twee and quiet director whose eye for comedy is relegated to calm observations of sweet everyday moments. Like finding that a bird will sing when you open your window to reflect light on it. His films are like quiet, subtle comedic dances of human foible that strike me right in the heart. His 1967 film Playtime was hugely ambitious, and hugely disappointing for the director. The plan was to stage an elaborately choreographed, 155-minute comedy which, without dialogue or story, observe hundreds of people going about their business in an ultra-modern city. Tati infamously built the entire city from the ground up, angling buildings in such a way that his camera could look in every which way. Playtime is rather brilliant, and astonishing to behold, not to mention pretty dang funny. Sadly, the sheer scope of the production drove Tati into debt. When the filmed tanked at the box office, Tati fled from filmmaking, and stayed in debt for a decade. At least it’s considered a classic these days. Criterion put out the DVD and Blu-Ray.
Showgirls (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1995)
It’s so often used as a punchline, that people forget how hugely ambitious Showgirls was intended to be; a $45 million dollar MGM musical that was intended to explode the seamy underbelly of Las Vegas strip shows, and, in so doing, give pop cultural credence to the oft-maligned NC-17 rating. The film was 131 minutes. Paul Verhoeven released a coffee table book in conjunction with the film, explaining that he was trying to make a serious exposé on the nature of human sexuality, and to make a glitzy and wondrous entertainment for grown-ups. However much fans of camp enjoy this film’s over-the-top melodrama, Martian dialogue, and oddball views of human sex (poor Nomi’s sex scene in the pool looks like she’s having a seizure), it was actually to be the hit of the Fall. It made a mere $8 million its opening weekend, and was openly and vitriolically derided by critics. Mere mention of the film elicits ironic snickers. The “serious sexuality” that Verhoeven talked about looked more like regular old soft core smut, and the NC-17 rating was largely seen as non-viable as a direct result of this film. I’m trying to imagine a world wherein my beloved Showgirls was a mainstream hit. It’s hard to picture.
Megaforce (dir. Hal Needham, 1982)
Few have even heard of this obscure little bomb from 1982, and its only fans these days (myself amongst them) consider the film more entertaining for its dated styles and campy, cartoonish war gadgets than its action, drama, or characters. The film is about an elite G.I. Joe-like fighting force of well-equipped super soldiers, all led by the blustering Barry Bostwick (outfitted in a headband and flesh-colored body suit), who take on equally elite teams of super criminals. Megaforce was intended to be paired with a marketing blitz the world had never yet seen, tying in toys, t-shorts, video games, and anything else you can imagine. Indeed, to this day, you can find Hot Wheels cars that were designed after the souped-up dunebuggies from Megaforce. A rock band – also intended to be the Next Big Thing – was signed to record a soundtrack record. Although, these days, few have heard of 707. The film is cheesy and pretty dumb, and it did nothing at the box office. This commercial enterprise crumbled before it started, and is now a footnote to film history. It was recently released on DVD. I have my copy.
Super Mario Bros. (dir. Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, 1993)
Yes, as it turns out, I’ll take any opportunity to write about this damned film. Loved by a small group of cultists (another cult I find myself amongst), Super Mario Bros. was the first feature film to be adapted from a known video game property, and it’s often considered one of the worse films of the 1990s. While I do have an inexplicable affection for it, I do admit that the film is pretty bonkers and undeniably dumb. What I learned recently, however, is that it was intended to be a defining hit for Disney, the studio that made it. Not only were they counting on the name recognition attached to the game (still one of the most popular games in video game history), they also had plans to open up a Super Mario Bros. wing of Disneyland, modeled after the film. This was intended to redefine pop culture, and supplant the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the minds of 10-year-old boys the world over. The film cost about $42 million. To date, it has made about $21 million. The theme park will have to wait.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
“You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”
~ Homer Simpson
I’m not entirely ready to write the impressive, exciting and deeply earnest Cloud Atlas off as a failure just yet. Its per screen average was the highest of any film this weekend, so maybe it could do the Titanic or My Big Fat Greek Wedding thing and stay consistent for a few weeks, eventually earning a tidy profit. But that’s probably a long shot, so let’s not be naïve. No matter how you slice it, $9.6 million is a disappointing opening for any movie with a budget this size, a cast this impressive, and ray guns.
It’s been a few days now and my feet are still planted in the same stance I made on this week’s podcast. I’m not going to know if Cloud Atlas is a “great” film until I’ve seen it at least two or three more times. It has way too many moving, interconnected parts to properly process them all in a single viewing, so only multiple viewings will demonstrate if they all function perfectly. But I enjoyed watching it immensely and I sure as hell wasn’t bored. That movie’s almost three hours long and I never once checked my watch. Compare that to, say, Rock of Ages, where I literally, in the literal sense of the word, checked my watch every two minutes or so. But films with this much ambition are often simply difficult to gauge on a single viewing, and thus often find their audience (if they are fortunate enough to eventually do so) over time.
Time, as I have said, over and over again, is the only critic that matters. But time is notoriously bad with deadlines so publications usually hire us “people” instead. As a person, I excel at hindsight, so let’s look at some of my picks for ambitious films that failed in their time but were, with the exception of one (as far as my picks are concerned, anyway), eventually appreciated for their attempts to expand our minds, open our hearts, and propel the medium forward.
Intolerance (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1916)
Also known as Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, this film was D.W. Griffith’s attempt to atone for the flamboyant racism observed in his previous groundbreaking epic, The Birth of a Nation, a film to which every feature length motion picture owes a tangible debt and a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. So Griffith made Intolerance, which examined the concept of intolerance using historical examples from throughout the ages, like the crucifixion of Christ, the fall of the Babylonian Empire, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and a more intimate contemporary story about a lower class working family oppressed by capitalist businesses and their puritanical community. The film is an impressive (and wildly expensive) experiment that, like Cloud Atlas, cuts between timelines throughout the film but, unlike Cloud Atlas, doesn’t always do so in a way that drives the story forward. It’s a fascinating experiment that bombed on its initial release, but is now considered one of the most impressive early silent films.
Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
Yes, I am going to write about Citizen Kane again. Because the “Greatest Movie of All Time” (no matter what the new Sight & Sound poll says) was a bomb when it came out. It’s easy to blame William Randolph Hearst, of whom it is an unofficial and fictionalized biography, for railroading Citizen Kane in his newspapers and preventing the film from reaching most audiences, so let’s do that, but also let’s focus on how vibrantly daring it is. It’s story of one man from everyone’s perspective but his own. The so-called “protagonist” never shows his face on camera. The story attempts, and basically succeeds at encapsulating the triumph and inherent tragedy of what we still consider “The American Dream.” It’s told entirely in Deep Focus photography, and is pumped from one end to the other with then-state of the art visual effects. It’s loaded with details that only become apparent on your second, third, fifth, and twentieth viewings. And it’s fun as all hell.
Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, 1999)
Although now almost universally recognized as one of the best and certainly most ambitious films of the 1990s, David Fincher’s adaptation of the riotous, rebellious and extremely subversive Chuck Palahniuk novel was a pretty big flop in its theatrical run, despite the presence of rising stars Brad Pitt and Ed Norton and the director of the MTV Generation centerpiece Se7en. The film is sprawling but never a mess, using expensive but state of the art storytelling techniques and visual effects to tell a story about the individual and cultural malaise stemming from the commoditization of daily existence, and a culture that encourages you to consume more than you actually produce. Many of its angry rants still apply thirteen years later, although after 9/11 some of its more violent messages about revolting against a society too steeped in peace for its own good seem antiquated or naïve. It found an audience on home video, and is now, in retrospect, rarely considered anything but a success.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (dirs. Hironobu Sakaguchi & Motonori Sakakibara, 2001)
Unlike the other films I’ve mentioned thus far, nobody seems to think that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is an underappreciated classic, and I’m not about to claim otherwise. It’s kind of a crap film, but oh, the ambition. Discouraged by the inherent crappiness of Hollywood video game movies (ahem), Square, the company behind the enormously successful Final Fantasy games (now called Square Enix), founded Square Pictures, and spent four years developing and rendering their film based on the franchise with photorealistic CG-animation. They even had plans to make the film’s “star,” Aki Ross, an animated superstar by casting the rendered model in different roles in future films.
The film bombed. Fans of the game franchise were frustrated that it had almost nothing to do with the source material, casual moviegoers were not impressed by its cookie-cutter storyline, and while the animation was occasionally impressive, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within dwelled almost entirely within the uncanny valley: too human to feel like a cartoon, too fake to be anything but creepy. Square Pictures completed one more project, the short film Final Flight of the Osiris for Wachowski Starship’s Animatrix anthology, and then called it quits.