Tag Archives: flop

Speed Racer

Speed Racer

Today, I’m going to take a look at 2008’s divisive, live action film adaptation of Speed Racer.

The plot of Speed Racer is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A young driver, Speed Racer, aspires to be champion of the racing world with the help of his family and his high-tech Mach 5 automobile.

Speed Racer was written and directed by the duo of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, who are best known for The Matrix trilogy, Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, and the television series Sense8.

The central cast of Speed Racer includes Emile Hirsch (Into The Wild, Milk, Killer Joe), Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise, Igby Goes Down, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bull Durham), John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane, The Big Lebowski, Blues Brothers 2000, Barton Fink, Matinee, King Ralph, The Flintstones), Christina Ricci (Monster, Black Snake Moan, Casper, The Addams Family), Matthew Fox (Bone Tomahawk, Lost, Alex Cross), and Rain (I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK).

The cinematographer for the film was David Tattersall, whose other credits include Tooth Fairy, Next, The Green Mile, Soldier, Con Air, The Matador, Die Another Day, and Theodore Rex, among others.

Speed Racer employed the work of two primary editors: Zach Staenberg (Bunraku, Ender’s Game, Lord of War, Police Academy, The Matrix) and Roger Barton (The Grey, The A-Team, Bad Boys II, Ghost Ship, Pearl Harbor).

The musical score for Speed Racer was composed by Michael Giacchino, who also provided music for Doctor Strange, Rogue One, Jurassic World, Super 8, Ratatouille, Up, and John Carter.

The designer for the production was Owen Paterson, who has done work on such visually distinct films as The Matrix, Gods of Egypt, The Green Hornet, Red Planet, and V For Vendetta.

Keanu Reeves, whose career was resurrected by the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, turned down the role of Racer X in Speed Racer. Other alternative casting rumors about the production include that Kate Mara was at one point considered for Trixie, and the lead role of Speed could well have gone to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zac Efron, or Shia LaBeouf.

There were multiple attempts to make a film adaptation of Speed Racer over the years prior to the Wachowskis’, dating back to the early 1990s. Various planned incarnations were set to feature Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, and Vince Vaughn over that time period, with Alfonso Cuaron, Hype Williams, and Julien Temple all being attached to direct the film at one point or another.

PETA, the contentious animal rights organization, claimed that the production of Speed Racer engaged in animal cruelty. This was confirmed by the American Humane Association Animal Safety Representative who worked on the set: specifically, there was an incident where the animal trainer hit a chimpanzee in retaliation for biting an actor.

Speed Racer has the unenviable claim of receiving a Golden Raspberry nomination, which are given out to the worst films and performances of a given year. In this case, it was nominated in the category of Worst Prequel, Remake, Ripoff, or Sequel, but lost out to Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

The reception to Speed Racer was fairly mixed: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 39% from critics and 60% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 6.0/10. Financially, however, it did not far well at all: on a production budget of $120 million, it took in an international lifetime box office gross of just $93.9 million.

On April 1, 2017, Jon Humbert of The Hollywood Reporter published a defense of Speed Racer, which included the following:

An editing and compositing master class, each shot of Speed Racer lingers for mere flashes, with overlaid background and foreground action. It’s clear the directors are playing up the manga and animated style — and translating that to film as best as possible…Admittedly, outlandish costumes and absurd colors clash with “so expensive it’s bad CGI” — creating a visual mess at times…which isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s just its own thing.

In general, I agree with Humbert’s assessment of Speed Racer. I think that the Wachowskis did one of the better jobs of translating the style of manga and anime to the screen in a live action format. While the CGI isn’t perfect by any means, and some sequences suffer from visual overload, the movie is all uniform enough that even the rougher sequences hold together adequately. Also, when compared to something like Transformers, the visuals actually compare pretty well: in general, it is clear to the audience what is happening at any given moment, unlike in the other franchise.

The reason that I decided to take a look back at Speed Racer to begin with was because of a video essay by Patrick H. Willems, a YouTuber who generally makes some insightful and interesting stuff. In his essay, he compares and contrasts the styles and color palettes of Speed Racer with traditional superhero movies like Civil War and The Dark Knight, and talks at length about the modern trend of realism in non-realistic movies. He makes a number of good points: namely, that Speed Racer‘s colors and vibrancy don’t detract from its emotional core. Basically, it doesn’t have to be realistic to be identifiable. Speed Racer is unique and interesting as a result of shirking the accepted norms of realism, which is why it still stands out from the pack of blockbusters visually and stylistically nearly a decade later.

Something that definitely stood out more on a re-watch were the smooth and creative transitions that are used throughout the film. A lot of the techniques that are used in Speed Racer are lauded when employed by someone like Edgar Wright. In fact, I think a direct line can be traced between Speed Racer and Scott Pilgrim vs The World. While that doesn’t make up for some of Speed Racer‘s drawbacks, such as its terrible comic relief, shallow characterizations, and less-than-thrilling story, I think the visual craft of the film makes it worth a second look and reassessment on its own.

In regards to those stated drawbacks, they are a bit tricky in their own right. It can be argued that the comic relief is accurate to the source material: the same goes for the weak characters and plot. I suppose it is a matter of perspective: if something is bad in the source material, should it be changed for an adaptation, or kept in tact for the sake of accuracy? Personally, I could have done with a whole lot less of the kid and monkey shenanigans, but the plot and characters make sense to me to keep as they are.

When it comes down to it, Speed Racer is (and should be) all about the races: to the movie’s credit, that is exactly what the Wachowskis executed. The track set pieces are absolutely electric, and the races are gripping, which is what the movie should have always been about. All of the issues that I hear pointed out about it, outside of the complaints about the occasional moments of visual clutter, are about the fringes of the film. As annoying as the kid and monkey are, they are never front and center. Likewise, the plot is far secondary to the spectacle.

Speed Racer is not a great movie. It may not even be a good movie. However, it is a creative and interesting movie, that may be the best example we have of what the Wachowskis’ innovative concepts in high gear look like when things generally go right. At the very least, I think it is worth another look, particularly in our current era of drab blockbusters. I think that, similar to Batman & Robin, Speed Racer probably came along at the wrong time: it may have been a successfully executed vision, but it isn’t a vision that people wanted.

Advertisements

Sphere

Sphere

Today, I’m going to cover the 1998 Michael Crichton adaptation, Sphere.

The setup for Sphere is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A spaceship is discovered under three hundred years’ worth of coral growth at the bottom of the ocean.

The director for Sphere was Barry Levinson, who is known for movies like Wag the Dog, Sleepers, Toys, Rain Man, The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Bugsy.

Sphere is based on a novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, who was a well-known producer and director on top of being a best-selling author. Westworld, Jurassic Park, E.R., Congo, Twister, The 13th Warrior, Timeline, The Andromeda Strain, and many other prominent television shows and movies were either adaptations of his works, or were directly created for the screen by him.

While Crichton did occasionally provide screen treatments for his own novels, in the case of Sphere the adaptation work was done by Kurt Wimmer, who is best known for writing and directing the movies Equilibrium and Ultraviolet.

Additional screenplay credits were also given to Paul Attanasio, who has also written for films like The Good German, Donnie Brasco, Disclosure, Quiz Show, and The Sum of All Fears, and Barry Levinson’s former assistant, Stephen Hauser.

The cast for Sphere includes Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, Rain Man, Marathon Man, Straw Dogs), Sharon Stone (Casino, The Quick and The Dead, Total Recall, Basic Instinct), Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Django Unchained), Liev Schreiber (Spotlight, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Goon), and Queen Latifah (Taxi, Chicago, Bringing Down The House, Stranger Than Fiction).

The cinematographer for the film was Adam Greenberg, who also shot movies like Rush Hour, North, Eraser, Ghost, Three Men And A Baby, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Iron Eagle, and Near Dark.

The editor for Sphere was Stu Linder, whose other credits include cutting Quiz Show, Rain Man, Sleepers, Wag The Dog, and Toys, among others.

The musical score for the movie was composed by Elliot Goldenthal, who also provided music for the films Heat, Frida, Batman & Robin, Demolition Man, Alien 3, Pet Sematary, Batman Forever, Titus, Public Enemies, and Across the Universe, among others.

Sphere‘s production designer was Norman Reynolds, who also designed movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, The Empire Strikes Back, Alien 3, Mission: Impossible, and Return to Oz, and additionally served as art director for Star Wars – A New Hope, Superman, and Superman II.

As with any adaptation, there are a number of details from the Sphere book that were changed for the film. Aside from the elimination of a few characters, the most interesting of these changes is actually the eponymous sphere’s coloration. In the book, it is silvery and chrome-like in appearance. Apparently, this was initially supposed to be the case on screen as well, but the decision was made for the sphere to be gold in the middle of the production, apparently for aesthetic reasons.

Interestingly, the ending of the movie was re-shot due to complaints from test audiences. While these sorts of changes are typically in response to petty complaints from fickle or shallow audience members, in this case, the change made the move more sensible. The initial cut failed to account for the decompression needed for the characters to acclimate from being in the far depths of the ocean, and test audiences didn’t buy it when the survivors made it to the surface.

Sphere grossed just over $50 million in its worldwide theatrical release. However, the production budget alone has been recorded as anywhere from $73 million to $80 million, making it a significant financial failure.

Unfortunately, the critical reception to the movie wasn’t any better: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 12% from critics and 38% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 6.0/10.

Personally, I think there are definitely some things to like about Sphere. For instance, Samuel L. Jackson is pretty damn good here, and is about as restrained, menacing, and cerebral as you’ll see him in anything. In general, the small cast puts out some solid performances. Aside from Jackson, Liev Schreiber is always a great supporter, and Stone does a serviceable job with her role. However, I think Hoffman doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the cast, and wasn’t the best choice to lead the film. I suspect that Levinson just likes working with him, and he was the most bankable name that was available to the production.

The biggest positive for the movie, however, it its design. The underwater facility just looks cool, and does a lot for the atmosphere of the film. Everything has a compelling science-fiction appearance, and it gets across the concept of the deep sea as a foreign world.

Likewise, I really like the concept for the story. I remember reading the book many years ago, and liking it quite a bit. The story is a bit surreal and highly psychological, which could have made for something compelling on screen. The book uses the high tension, claustrophobic setting to great effect, so there was certainly something for the film to work with. In the right hands, Sphere could be an effective science-fiction whodunnit, not unlike The Thing. At least, the blueprint was certainly there.

Unfortunately, in spite of the performances, the design, and a decent source, this movie is incredibly boring and forgettable. Honestly, it is a bit difficult to nail down exactly why. The whole movie feels a bit rushed, which makes it particularly difficult to get invested in the characters. At the same time, it is far from action-packed, so it is hard to say where all of the time goes. The movie certainly could have benefited from some character building sequences, as well as some better moments of sustained tension.

I think the biggest issue with the movie is that it was just put in the wrong hands. There’s nothing about Barry Levinson’s works that would indicate that he’d be a good fit for a psychological science fiction thriller. On top of that, the screenplay sounds like it was bounced around quite a bit, and probably suffered from that.

Overall, as I stated previously, Sphere is pretty forgettable. I do think that the source could make for a good sci-fi thriller someday, but this certainly isn’t it. With the recent television success of Westworld, I’m hopeful that people will start digging back through Crichton’s works, and will see the potential that was squandered with this iteration of Sphere.

Drive Angry

Drive Angry

Continuing my perusal through the works of Nicolas Cage, today I am getting into gear with 2011’s Drive Angry.

The plot of Drive Angry is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A vengeful father escapes from hell and chases after the men who killed his daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter.

Drive Angry was directed, edited, and co-written by Patrick Lussier. As an editor, his credits include a number of later Wes Craven movies: notably Vampire In Brooklyn, Music of the Heart, Scream, Scream 2, Scream 3, Red Eye, and New Nightmare. As a screenwriter and director, he has done Dracula 2000, Dracula II: Ascension, Dracula III: Legacy, Terminator: Genisys (screenplay), and the remake of My Bloody Valentine (director). His co-writer for Drive Angry, Todd Farmer, previously contributed to the screenplays for Jason X and My Bloody Valentine, and also appeared in the film as Frank.

The cast of Drive Angry includes Nicolas Cage (Snake Eyes, Vampire’s Kiss, Ghost Rider, Stolen, Con Air, Face/Off, The Rock, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation.), William Fichtner (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ultraviolet, Wrong, The Perfect Storm, Armageddon, Equilibrium), Amber Heard (The Ward, 3 Days To Kill), David Morse (The Langoliers, The Green Mile, Disturbia, Contact), Billy Burke (Twilight, Fracture), and Tom Atkins (The Fog, Halloween III, Maniac Cop, Night of the Creeps).

The cinematographer for Drive Angry was Brian Pearson, whose other shooting credits include Into The Storm, American Mary, Final Destination 5, Larry Cohen’s Masters of Horror entry Pick Me Up, and The Karate Dog.

The musical score for the film was composed by Michael Wandmacher, who also composed music for Underworld: Blood Wars, Piranha 3D, Punisher: War Zone, From Justin To Kelly, and the acclaimed video game Bloodborne.

The special effects foreman for the production was William Purcell, whose previous effects credits included RoboCop, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Super Mario Bros., Speed 2: Cruise Control, and Young Guns.

The character of The Accountant, who is played by William Fichtner, is shown with a type of Greek coin called an obol. While obols were an ancient form of currency, they are famously remembered for their use in funerals: according to myth, they were placed in a deceased person’s mouth or eyes, so that they could pay for passage over the river Styx and into the afterlife. The Accountant is essentially a gatekeeper for the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead, so the presence of the obol is a nod to a relevant ancient custom.

Originally, Drive Angry was written and envisioned for an older actor, ideally someone who was in their 70’s. However, when Nicolas Cage approached the producers to express interest, they decided to go with him in the lead.

The advertising campaign for Drive Angry heavily emphasized that it was filmed in 3D, in an attempt to capitalize on a gimmick which was rapidly coming back into fashion. Apparently, the plan to film in 3D was a major reason why Nicolas Cage was interested in being involved in the first place.

Drive Angry was made on a production budget of $50 million, on which it took in a lifetime box office gross of roughly $28.9 million, making it a significant financial flop. Critically, it didn’t fare any better. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% from critics and 37% from audiences.

The first thing that absolutely must be mentioned about Drive Angry is that William Fichtner’s character of The Accountant is absolutely fantastic. He clearly had an absolute blast playing the character, and adds an immensely entertaining layer to the movie. Likewise, the villain, played by Billy Burke, is quite a bit of fun, and hams up his preacher character plenty. For that matter, the entire cast is loaded with entertaining character actors from top to bottom: I’m always kind of a sucker for David Morse and Tom Atkins, and having them pop up added a lot of entertaining color to film, regardless of how small their parts were.

In regards to the cast, however, Drive Angry has an unexpected weakness: Nicolas Cage.  For a man who has made a career out of screaming, manic performances, Cage could have been a little more crazy for a movie called Drive Angry. For whatever reason, he doesn’t really own the material, and plays his character as subdued and brooding rather than enraged. He is still serviceable enough, but he certainly doesn’t elevate the movie, which is a huge waste of both his, and the material’s, potentials.

As far as other weaknesses of the film go, at least in my opinion, the 3D work definitely wasn’t worth it. I assume that the budget had to be inflated to accommodate the costs of the technology, and the movie would have probably been more aesthetically pleasing and less of a financial loss without it. It is probably a product of the era, but the 3D sequences just don’t look very good today: they are a little too flat-looking by current standards, thanks to the rapid advancements of technology over the years. Not only are the 3D-emphasized sequences dated, but they are even more jarring given how many practical effects are used alongside them.

Speaking of which, the practical stuff, such as the aftermath gore effects and most of the car stunts, look great. If they weren’t marred by so much bad CGI mixed in, this would be a pretty cool effects movie. As it is, though, the effects style is really inconsistent, and leaves a lot to be desired.

Part of why these drawbacks are so frustrating is because there really is a good idea here: the plot and characters are generally fun, and they capture the spirit of an old-school grindhouse picture. However, the bad effects moments are a huge downer, and undercut all of the good elements here, to the point that it is a hard movie to recommend, despite how much it gets right.

For fans of the old grindhouse b-movie style, I think you’ll wind up in the same boat as me with Drive Angry: at times, you’ll be ecstatic with the positives, and at other times, you’ll be groaning and shaking your head at the negatives. I personally think that the peaks are worth the valleys in this case, but just barely. For casual movie watchers, I think it really comes down to how much you can tolerate bad CGI. If you are accustomed to modern disaster movies and Transformers sequels, this will come as a breath of fresh air, and you’ll be able to appreciate the positives of the film more. For effects sticklers, the negatives might be overwhelmingly distracting.

The Alamo

The Alamo


Today, I’m going to delve into a historical war drama from 2004, which also has the distinction of being a major financial flop: The Alamo.

The plot of The Alamo is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Based on the 1836 standoff between a group of Texan and Tejano men, led by Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, and Mexican dictator Santa Anna’s forces at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

The Alamo was directed and co-written by John Lee Hancock, who has since helmed the films The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Founder. The other co-writers for the film’s screenplay were Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) and Leslie Bohem (Dante’s Peak, A Nightmare On Elm Street 5).

The cast of The Alamo includes Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, Bad Santa, The Man Who Wasn’t There), Jason Patric (Speed 2: Cruise Control, The Lost Boys, Sleepers), Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Watchmen, The Conjuring), Dennis Quaid (Jaws 3-D, The Right Stuff, Innerspace), and Jordi Mollà (Bad Boys II, Blow).

The editor for the film was Eric L. Beason, whose other credits include the recent horror hit Don’t Breathe, A Simple Plan, and Joy Ride. The Alamo was shot by veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, who also provided cinematography for 2012, Stealth, Click, xXx, Waterworld, Last Action Hero, Dances With Wolves, The Road Warrior, Young Guns, and Super Mario Bros., among many others.

The film’s musical score was composed by Carter Burwell, who has provided work on films like Seven Psychopaths, Anomalisa, Howl, A Serious Man, The Founder, Fargo, In Bruges, Three Kings, Blood Simple, and The Big Lebowski, among many others.

The story of the resistance and fall of The Alamo was famously brought to the screen in 1960, in a film that both starred and was directed by film icon John Wayne. However, that wasn’t the first time that the tale had been adapted: the first feature-length film that depicted the legendary story was 1915’s Martyrs of the Alamo by Chrsity Cabanne, which was itself predated by a 1911 short called The Immortal Alamo.

At one point early on during the production, Ron Howard had expressed great interest in directing the film, with Russell Crowe on board as his lead. However, as often happens, the plans fell apart, and the production ultimately wound up with the final team of Thornton in the lead and Hancock directing.

The Alamo had a production budget of $107 million, on which it only managed to take in $25.8 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This made it one of the biggest financial flops in movie history.

Critically, the movie didn’t do much better. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.0/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 29% from critics and 45% from audiences. However, one of its key proponents was Roger Ebert, who gave it a positive review, saying:

Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form.

As Ebert mentioned in the blurb above, one of the strengths of The Alamo is how well it builds the central characters: many of whom are quasi-legendary icons, whose enormous reputations in the cultural mindset outshine their truthful tangibility. The best scenes in the movie have either David Crockett or James Bowie staring down their bloated reputations. Ultimately, the result of the way the movie handles these figures might be less romantic than what people wanted or expected, but I think it is quite a bit deeper, and probably more faithful to the real men.

That said, there more than a few issues with the film. One of the biggest problems with this film is the pacing: it is just a bit weird structurally, and movie feels longer than it actually is because of it. This is at least partially because of the lengthy quasi-epilogue, which shows the victory of Sam Houston that followed the events at The Alamo. While there is some catharsis to showing this, it doesn’t merit the amount of time it wound up eating on screen. Some sort of stitched together montage could have gotten the idea across without so dramatically back-loading the film with a sequel built into the third act.

This brings me to something that I couldn’t help but think about on this re-watch: the key similarities and differences between The Alamo and a similar historical underdog war drama that hit theaters just two years later: 300. While 300 certainly has its fair share of issues, it succeeds on a couple of levels where The Alamo fails. First off, 300 has a very brief and effective epilogue that leaves the audience with a sense of fulfilled justice. Just like in The Alamo, the “good guys” won in the end. However, 300 didn’t require a whole extra plot to deliver that feeling to the audience (for the time being, let’s just ignore the sequel).

More importantly, however, is that 300 managed to get people to buy tickets, despite having a cast with very little star power. I think that this is mostly due to the way the battle sequences were done in the two films: The Alamo is very traditional, with frenetic energy and grime making up most of the war action. 300, on the other hand, is very stylistic and unique with its action, almost like a vicious dance. The movie (and, more accurately, the graphic novel) manages to use the claustrophobia of the setting as a way to place the audience/reader right in the thick of the action, right along the warriors. In The Alamo, the point-of-view of the audience is particularly detached, and I think that this affected the tension quite a bit. I don’t think that The Alamo did anything wrong, necessarily: it just didn’t take any big risks that would have gotten audiences talking about it afterwards.

As far as other positives go, I think that the key performances are generally pretty good in The Alamo, particularly from Billy Bob Thornton and Patrick Wilson (in one of his earliest film roles), but the movie definitely suffers from the lack of A-list marquee talent. Had this movie had a couple of more bankable names at the top of the cast, I dare say that it wouldn’t have bombed so hard, despite the quality of the performances.

Overall, I think that The Alamo was only one or two tweaks from being a really good movie, or at least a decent popcorn flick. The material, at the very least, could be elevated a lot by a visionary director with financial means. This adaptation of the story, while having good elements, plays it a little too safe stylistically, and is also a bit unpolished structurally. I still think it is worth checking out for people who are interested in the story, but for film fans, I think that it has been rightly pushed to the margins. However, the movie is by no means as bad as its financial reputation might lead you to believe.

Waterworld

Waterworld

waterworld1

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

johncarter1

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.