Tag Archives: flop

Waterworld

Waterworld

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Today, I’m going to take a look at one of the most notoriously expensive films of all time: 1995’s Waterworld.

The plot of Waterworld is summarized on IMDb as follows:

In a future where the polar ice-caps have melted and Earth is almost entirely submerged, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw “smokers,” and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land.

Waterworld was directed by Kevin Reynolds, who also helmed Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Tristan + Isolde, and 2002’s incarnation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The film’s screenplay was ultimately credited to two individuals: David Twohy, who provided screenplays for Critters 2, Pitch Black, and Riddick, and Peter Rader, who went on to direct a handful of episodes of Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan. However, apparently, the screenplay for Waterworld went through 36 different drafts and 6 different writers, including Joss Whedon, who spent much of the 1990s as a script doctor.

The cast for Waterworld included Kevin Costner (Mr. Brooks, Dances With Wolves), Dennis Hopper (Super Mario Bros, Space Truckers, Speed, True Romance), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct, The Firm), and Sean Whalen (Twister, The People Behind The Stairs).

waterworld3The cinematographer for the film was Dean Semler, who also shot 2012, The Alamo, Stealth, Last Action Hero, Super Mario Bros, The Road Warrior, and Razorback

The credited editor for Waterworld was Peter Boyle, who has shot such movies as 1408, The Hours, The Postman, and the 2011 remake of The Thing.

The music for the film was provided by acclaimed film composer James Newton Howard, whose extensive list of credits includes Green Lantern, Nightcrawler, The Last Airbender, The Happening, The Dark Knight, Michael Clayton, and The Sixth Sense.

Kevin Costner apparently insisted on having Reynolds direct in order to be involved with the production. In contrast, the studio reportedly wanted Robert Zemekis for the director’s chair.

Interestingly, Reynolds ultimately walked off late into the production, specifically due to issues with Costner. He was quoted as saying that:

“Kevin {Costner} should only star in movies he directs. That way he can work with his favorite actor and favorite director.”

At the time of the movie’s filming, Waterworld was the most expensive movie ever produced. Though the record was broken only a few years later by Titanic, the cost of the film created a bit of a media frenzy. The ever-inflating production budget earned the film the nicknames of “Kevin’s Gate” and “Fishtar” by journalists and speculators, references the immense flops Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar.

One of the most costly aspects of the film was its primary set:  a massive floating rig constructed for the shooting in Hawaii, which apparently took up all the available steel on the islands, and then some. Despite its meticulous and expensive design, there were no bathrooms on the massive set, which meant that cast and crew had to be constantly ferried to the mainland.

Prior to Waterworld becoming a massively-budgeted monster of a production, Roger Corman was initially interested in making a low budget version for less than $3 million, which might have been a more natural fit for the material. However, once he heard more about the vision, he correctly predicted that the budget would massively inflate.

waterworld2Ultimately, the production budget for Waterworld landed at $175 million, on which it took in a worldwide lifetime theatrical gross of $264 million, though most of that came in from international markets. Ultimately, it made a profit over time after video sales and rentals clocked in, despite its high budget and less-than-expected revenue.

Waterworld has received mixed-to-negative reviews over the years. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.1/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 42% from critics and 43% from audiences.

When it comes to Waterworld, I think it has always been a bit hard to look at in an objective vacuum. The mass publicity around its budget and problematic production is impossible to look beyond for many, and it colors almost every aspect of the film. Basically, the well was poisoned by rumors and negative anticipation before the movie was even cut together.

One of the aspects of the movie that got the most flak from tabloids and critics was the elaborate, floating Hawaii set. For what it is worth, I actually think it looks pretty damn cool: despite the high price tag, I think they got what they paid for. Honestly, it is kind of hard to imagine what the movie would have looked like without it. The production probably shouldn’t have gotten the greenlight to start with because of the potential costs, but it is kind of fascinating that this set got built, and the movie got made.

Another thing that is often the butt of jokes about Waterworld is Kevin Costner’s “Mariner” character design: notably, the presence of gills. Personally, I don’t think they look bad, and the concept makes plenty of sense for the setting, so I’ve never understood the issue people take with it. Admittedly, the racial correlations with Costner being shunned by other humans is a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary, but it wasn’t ultimately terribly distracting.

The most infamous sequence of Waterworld is by far the opening, in which Costner is shown going through the process of reclaiming water from his urine. While the sequence is a bit odd, it does establish a few important things that are important later in the movie. First, fresh water is immensely scarce, to the point that urine reclamation is commonplace. Secondly, it establishes that Costner is a bit of an inventive tinkerer: the reclamation unit is clearly hand crafted and cobbled together, and foreshadows some more crucial inventions and innovations that pop up later in the flick. Last but not least, this sequence eases the audience into what “business as usual” looks like in this outlandish setting. Xenophobia and mistrust is high, resources are scare, and boats are sort of personal bubbles, where the minutiae of life still carry on.

Dennis Hopper, as you would expect, is absolutely wonderful as a scenery-chewing villain. This was always one of his more natural strong suits in movies, particularly later in his career, and I feel like it saved more than a few movies with his crazed performances. Costner, on the other hand, is just awful in this movie. He straight-up flubs the deliveries on a number of lines, and just seem off-balance and totally a-charismatic throughout the film. His stoic manner and often dickish behavior to his friends makes it even harder to get behind him as the lead, which is probably more of a writing issue than a performance problem.

Speaking of which, there is some really bad dialogue in Waterworld, and the writing is almost certainly the weakest link in a production with its fair share of weak links. The frequent references to the title of the movie (“Nothing’s free in Waterworld”) stick out like dramatically inflamed thumbs, and a number of the actors seem to struggle with their lines as they are written. For as much time and money went in to the sets, effects, and actors, you would think that the producers would have made damn sure that the screenplay was strong, regardless of how much work it took. My guess is that they eventually suffered from fatigue from the numerous rewrites, and settled for a version of the screenplay that wasn’t quite fit to shoot, and put the pressure on the director to figure things out on set.

Nowadays, I think that people for the most part look back on Waterworld positively, or least not as negatively as it was initially received. Kevin Costner made far worse movies during the 1990s that lack the charming aspects or ambitious vision of Waterworld, but this flick was definitely the big, easy target at the time.

Overall, I think that Waterworld is a real mixed bag of a movie. It is poorly paced, laden with bad dialogue, and has some unnecessary and uneven comic relief sprinkled throughout. However, it also has a cool vision behind it, some fun set piece moments, a delightfully hammy Dennis Hopper, and a nifty post-apocalyptic production design. I’d recommend giving it a shot if you either haven’t seen it, or don’t recall the last time you saw it. It might just be worth your while.

John Carter

John Carter

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Today, I’m going to cover what could have been the start of a massive science fiction franchise: 2012’s John Carter.

The plot of John Carter is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Transported to Barsoom, a Civil War vet discovers a barren planet seemingly inhabited by 12-foot tall barbarians. Finding himself prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter Woola and a princess in desperate need of a savior.

John Carter was directed by Andrew Stanton, who has also helmed the hit Pixar films Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and Finding Dory, and directed two upcoming episodes of the hit television show Stranger Things. Stanton also had a significant hand in the film’s screenplay. His previous writing credits date back to the early days of Pixar: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc, most notably. Interestingly, prior to John Carter, Stanton had never directed a live action feature.

The other writers for John Carter were Mark Andrews, the writer/director responsible for Brave, and Michael Chabon, who contributed to the story for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

John Carter is based on the first book in the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs: “A Princess of Mars,” which had been a target for a major film adaptation dating back to 1931.

johncarter2The cast of John Carter includes Willem Dafoe (Platoon, Speed 2: Cruise Control, Spider-Man), Thomas Haden Church (Spider-Man 3, Sideways), Taylor Kitsch (Lone Survivor, Battleship, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Dominic West (The Wire, 300), Mark Strong (Green Lantern, Revolver, Sherlock Holmes), James Purefoy (Hap & Leonard, High-Rise, The Following), and Bryan Cranston (Argo, Drive, Breaking Bad).

The cinematographer for the film was Dan Mindel, who has shot movies like Star Trek, Enemy of the State, Domino, Mission: Impossible III, Spy Game, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among others.

The editor for John Carter was Eric Zumbrunnen, whose other notable works include Her, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, and Being John Malkovich.

The John Carter musical score was composed by Michael Giacchino, who has provided music for such notable films as Rogue One, Doctor Strange, Zootopia, Jurassic World, Jupiter Ascending, Up, Speed Racer, and The Incredibles.

Apparently, at one point in the film’s lengthy pre-production, Robert Zemeckis turned down an offer to direct, specifically citing that George Lucas already mined too much material out of the series for the Star Wars franchise.

Jon Favreau, the actor, writer, and director known for movies like Iron Man, Elf, The Jungle Book, Swingers, and Chef, was attached to direct John Carter in 2005, but left after a number of delays to take on Iron Man. When Andrew Stanton ultimately took the director’s role, Favreau requested to be included in the film as a voice extra, and is credited as one of the Tharks.

John Carter was made on a production budget of $250 million dollars, on which it took in a lifetime theatrical gross of $284 million. However, nearly 75% of that take came from overseas markets: in the United States, John Carter was a huge failure. When costs beyond the production are taken into account, John Carter was a huge financial loss that came up far short of financial expectations.

Critically, the reception for the film was mixed. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 6.6/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 51% from critics and 60% from audiences.

In The Atlantic, Christopher Orr wrote a review of John Carter in which he praised the film’s “likable whimsy” and “hokey charm”:

…there is a hokey charm to John Carter, a clear understanding that, at the end of the day, we are there to have fun. Stanton has scattered throughout the script a surprising number of genuinely witty moments. (I laughed more during the film than I did during Adam Sandler’s last three comedies combined—which is a long way of saying, I laughed.)

As Orr mentions, I was surprised to find how much fun and genuinely clever humor made it into the final screenplay. Two of my favorite sequences in the film were made by comedic dialogue: the monologue interruptions at the beginning of the film, and the prisoner escape towards the climax. While these were undoubtedly two of the best bits in the film, they were just as much made by their performers, Bryan Cranston and James Purefoy, respectively, as by their writing.

This brings me to one of my biggest problems with the movie: there are just too many characters. Or, rather, too many underused characters. Both Bryan Cranston and James Purefoy, who are huge highlights in the movie, are either entirely dropped or relegated to minimal background roles following their aforementioned sequences. I can’t recall either characters’ names, what they stood for, or what defined them, which is a bit of a problem. There are already a lot of complicated ideas and plots spinning around in the film, so I kind of understand why the characters aren’t given much attention, but that is a bit of a problem to itself. There are more than a few moments of science-fiction jargon-babble that weigh down the screenplay, which could have benefited from some tweaking. Mostly, this just felt like some unfortunate wasted potential.

Something that surprisingly stood out to me about John Carter were the visual effects: overall, they still look pretty good, which is really saying something for a movie that is a number of years old. Typically, technological progresses make movies look outdated quickly, but John Carter still looks pretty ok by today’s standards. It still probably won’t age well, but holding up for this long is still impressive.

Aside from the effects, John Carter is still a very visually pleasing movie. The production and costume designs are all top-flight: the world looks and feels unique and tangible, and each of the civilizations look distinct from each other. The color palette may feel a bit overused now, but the combination of sandy oranges and bright blues does give John Carter a striking appearance, without any doubt.

In his aforementioned review for The Atlantic, Orr also hit on one of my favorite aspects of John Carter: the bizarre animal companion, Woola.

the most indelible performance in the film…would be Woola, a six-legged, razor-toothed Martian hound who…rather resembles a cross between a bulldog and a fetal gila monster…he’s not much in the looks department, but it’s been some time since cinema has seen a more adorable sidekick.

To say that Woola (who I call the DogFrog) is god damn adorable is a massive understatement. The Pixar influence on the film is most evident through him: his charm, appearance, and physical performance all seem like they were lifted straight out of a Pixar short of feature. Interesting, unlike Jar-Jar Binks in the ill-fated Star Wars prequels, he never feels out of place, even when at his peak of comic relief. This could easily have gone awry, but if there is anything the Pixar lot can do well, it is blend the heavy spices of drama and comedy successfully.

johncarter3While John Carter may not be a masterpiece, I think it is quite a bit better than its reputation indicates. It is uneven for sure, but there are enough fun moments and highlights to make it worth checking out if you ask me. It clearly suffered from some really lackluster marketing: I always assumed it would be a big, dumb action movie. While it is, at least on some level, exactly that, there is more substance to this film that you could glean from its trailers.

Jane Got A Gun

Jane Got A Gun

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Today, I want to dig into an early 2016 flop that I think is worth a second look: Jane Got A Gun.

Jane Got A Gun has three credited screenplay writers: the duo of Joel Edgerton (The GiftThe Rover) and Anthony Tambakis (Warrior), and initial screenplay writer Brian Duffield (Insurgent).

The director for the film was Gavin O’Connor, whose other credits include Warrior, Pride & Glory, and Miracle. He also directed the movie The Accountant, which released just a few months after Jane Got A Gun in 2016.

The cast of Jane Got A Gun includes Natalie Portman (Black Swan, The Professional, Jackie, Thor, Heat, Mars Attacks!), Joel Edgerton (The Thing, The Gift, Loving, Midnight Special, Black Mass), Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, The Island, I Love You, Phillip Morris, Nightwatch), Noah Emmerich (The Truman Show, Frequency), Boyd Holbrook (Narcos, Milk), and Rodrigo Santoro (300, WestWorld).

Mandy Walker provided the cinematography work for Jane Got A Gun, following up previous credits on films like Shattered Glass, Australia, Truth, and Tracks. The current critical success Hidden Figures is her latest shooting credit.

The editor for the film was Alan Cody, who cut the films Speed 2: Cruise Control, Inspector Gadget, and Corky Romano, as well as a number of episodes of shows like Black Sails and The Pacific.

The music for Jane Got A Gun was provided by the duo of Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci, who have worked on films like Samsara, Gladiator, Layer Cake, Tears of the Sun, and Ali.

The original script by Brian Duffield was named to the 2011 Black List, which is a survey of the most-liked unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. Other screenplays that made the 2011 list and have since seen a screen treatment include The Imitation Game, The Accountant, Dirty Grandpa, Bad Words, and Maggie.

Initially, Jane Got A Gun was planned to be a very different-looking movie than what ultimately hit the screen. Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, and Jude Law were all at one point or another attached as main players in the movie during its tumultuous pre-production. Fassbender reportedly departed due to scheduling conflicts, though rumours also indicate a clash with the originally attached director, Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin). Ramsay herself left the production shortly before filming over a conflict with one of the producers, which led to a lawsuit for breach of contract. Her departure saw both Jude Law and the cinematographer Darius Khondji leave as well, throwing the movie into last-minute disarray. This prompted a screenplay re-write, the arrival (and subsequent departure) of Bradley Cooper, and the last minute casting of McGregor to replace him.

The initial release date announced for Jane Got A Gun was August 29, 2014. After a number of delays, and the production company Relativity Media ultimately filing for bankruptcy, the Weinstein Company acquired the film’s distribution rights, and quietly released it on January 29, 2016.

On top of not being promoted much by the Weinstein Company (a Variety critic said it opened “with only slightly more advance notice than a traffic accident”), Jane Got A Gun ultimately wasn’t screened for the press ahead of its release, which is typically a sign of either a poor quality film, or an indication that the studio doesn’t care about the project.

While it did get a wide theatrical release, Jane Got A Gun wound up being an early flop for 2016, raking in a paltry $3 million in its lifetime theatrical gross on a production budget estimated at $25 million.

Critically, the movie didn’t fare any better. As of now, Jane Got A Gun holds a Metacritic score of 49, a 5.8/10 user rating on IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 38% from audiences and 40% from critics.

In his review for Variety, Joe Leydon specifically pointed out something that I think had a significant impact on the perception of Jane Got A Gun for critics:

For those who have perused the countless accounts of last-minute cast changes, musical directors’ chairs and repeatedly delayed release dates, it may be difficult to objectively judge what actually appears on screen here without being distracted by thoughts of what could have been, or should have been.

First off, I want to point out that I watched this movie a good while after its initial theatrical run, and didn’t do any reading into its background going into it. I only vaguely remember its brief theatrical release, and didn’t recall all of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that plagued its production. I had the luxury of watching it with my girlfriend after coming across it on Netflix, in a relative vacuum of public opinion, industry gossip, an critical chatter.

Personally, I think that the film is populated by good performances from the entire primary cast. I fully agree with Leydon, who specifically cites Portman as “persuasive and compelling”, Edgerton as hitting “the right balance of sullen gruffness and soulful sincerity,” and lauds how McGregor “artfully entwines amusement and menace as he serves generous slices of ham.” I particularly concur with his assessment of McGregor, who embraces his role of a western villain with a particularly emphatic mustache twirl. Likewise, I think Edgerton is probably one of the most underappreciated talents in the business: not only in regards to his performances, but with his writing and directing as well. If you haven’t seen them already, both The Gift and The Rover have been masterpieces of imaginative tension in the last few years, and both have his fingerprints all over them.

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The screenplay for the film provides a good siege setup, and allows the tension for the final conflict to build throughout the meat of the film. I particularly appreciate how it bounces between revealing flashbacks and siege preparations in the present day, which slowly reveal histories and relationships between the various players. I will say that I thought that the ultimate payoff was a bit lacking, and that the conclusion was pretty weak, but if you value the journey over the destination, there is quite a lot to enjoy here.

As with the negative buzz and reporting that haunted Jane Got a Gun before its release, the production was also hexed with a handful of bad trailers, and a lackluster marketing campaign. Despite the way the movie was pitched to audiences, it isn’t really a story about Natalie Portman being a badass gunslinger. The tale is significantly more grounded than that, and far less showboat-y. Portman’s Jane is human and relatable above all else. The story begins as she is unexpectedly backed into a corner, and she then spends most of the film fighting with everything she has in order to hold her ground. At no point is she more than what she started as: she is always very human, even in the midst of combat. She never turns into a spontaneous superhero in a firefight, like Jamie Foxx’s Django. Because of this, Jane Got A Gun is more of a spotlight on an average person pushed to the edge than the story of a stereotypical badass. In a market dominated by cookie-cutter superheroes and badasses, it is actually kind of refreshing to see if you ask me.

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On top of that, Jane Got A Gun is a story that is imbued with a lot of emotions: grief, desperation, heartbreak, and fear most prominently among them. If an audience was expecting a relentless series of firefights to snack on popcorn to, getting hit with this heavy, darkly atmospheric movie probably wouldn’t be a welcome experience. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with the result if I had seen the trailers for the movie ahead of time.

On top of providing inaccurate representations of the movie, the international trailers were particularly bad about revealing too much information. Information control is kind of essential to this film: the reveals of past relationships, character traits, and outcomes of past events over the course of the film are key to maintaining the audience’s intrigue. The trailers, however, give far more information than is needed, spoiling a number of reveals that are far better when done organically in the film itself.

I mentioned previously that I was disappointed with the film’s ending. Personally, I felt like it was far too tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie: it is just too Hollywood, which feels out of left field for such a bleak movie. Not only does the optimistic ride into the sunset not work for the style or the tone of the screenplay, but it doesn’t logically work very well, either. For the sake of not spoiling anything, I won’t go too far into it, but last 10 minutes of the movie made me seriously wonder if there was going to be a Brazil twist.

Overall, I think that Jane Got A Gun is a worthwhile neo-western, if not anything revolutionary. I think it certainly deserves some props, especially given the problems with production. I’m still surprised at how harshly it was received by critics: I definitely get why audiences had trouble digging it, given its marketing, but critics are usually a different story. I suspect the initial hype and coverage over its long production poisoned the well a bit for them, and started a lot of people off on the wrong foot. The Weinstein Company not screening it for critics almost certainly exacerbated things as well. All in all, I think this film was a victim of semi-paranoid prognosticating on the part of the industry media and the online buzz-machine, and is worth another look. If you like Edgerton’s or O’Connor’s other works, or just have a fondness for neo-westerns as a genre, give this one a go. That said, know what you are in for: a slow-burning, emotionally-driven, grounded siege movie.