You’re trolling Netflix, trying to decide on something to wile away those hours between midnight and 2 am when you can respectably go to bed; or perhaps, in the long long ago, you wander the aisles of Blockbuster in search of a film you have not seen so you don’t have to rent Sleepless in Seattle again because there’s nothing else to watch. And then… you find it! It stars Johnny Depp and River Phoenix! Catherine Deneuve plays the main character’s lover! It takes place in an Orwellian dystopia from the Gattaca set-designer! It was directed by Ridley Scott! Written by Tom Stoppard! You’ve never heard of it, but that doesn’t matter because … look at that cast! That crew! That writer! It must be awesome.
How wrong you are. Because that phantom film is just awful. Like, truly, truly awful. The script has been chopped to ribbons, the secondary characters wander in and out of frame, there appear to be plot holes huge enough to drive a Dolorean through. Depp’s character vanishes halfway through the film. There’s tons of exposition about why all the buildings look like they were built by Frank Lloyd Wright, but none about why the main character has to have a brain implant. It ends suddenly on a twist that you don’t understand because the director hacked out the scene that gave you the necessary information. It is an unsatisfying piece of shite and you don’t know why. It looked so promising.
I find these kinds of films more depressing than just the bad ones. There’s pleasure to be had from a bad movie. See Plan 9 From Outer Space and marvel at its sheer incompetence, or Hell Comes To Frogtown and its sheer WTF-ness. But when a film promises to be good, when it has a good premise or a good cast or a good director (or all three) and it turns out to be confusing, poorly made, an embarassment to all involved, it isn’t fun. You can’t laugh at it. It’s just painful.
I once sat through all of Cleopatra just to see if it really was as bad as everyone says it was. Watching it, I kept trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Here’s a cast with Liz Taylor, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, at a time when Hollywood produced some really great sword and sandal epics. Taylor and Burton were in the midst of a passionate love affair when this film was made, too; surely that must translate to the screen. Right?
Cleopatra didn’t work because all the money seemed to go to costume changes and set pieces and not enough into the script. It was overloaded with emotion and yet had no emotional resonance; it was an epic love story with all the passion usually associated with cleaning the bathroom. It is a disappointing film because it promises to be so much, and turns out to be so little.
There’s a different example in a film like Caligula. I’ve seen the one too, so that you don’t have to. Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole in ancient, bawdy, violent and depraved Rome! Then you note the credits: the film was taken over by Penthouse magazine. Not only does it turn into a soft-core porn film for no apparent reason, but it’s a BAD soft core porn film. It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t even titillating. It’s just ridiculous. What’s more, it’s embarassing to watch proper actors like John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole standing there blinking as men with giant phalluses writhe around them. They seem to disbelieve what they’re seeing, hopefully considering how to fire the agent that got them into this. But they can’t escape. They can only look uncomfortable.
There is no defined way that good ideas go bad. Sometimes a studio will take control away from a director – beware multiple directing credits! – and hire someone new halfway through filming. Sometimes an actor is forced to take a role in spite of their inclinations. And sometimes it’s simply an idea that looks great on paper but simply does not come off. Maybe the director lost his/her mind. Maybe the writer lost control. Maybe it just did not work.
One would think that the classical era of Hollywood has the corner on the ‘good idea gone bad’ movie. Actors and directors were forced into making films that they often didn’t want to make, which is how you get Cary Grant and Loretta Young in Born to Be Bad (Incidentally, though, it’s also how you get Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, so it’s not all bad). But this is not always so.
Prometheus was one of the greatest disappointments I’ve ever experienced a the cinema. A good idea – semi-prequel to Alien with the original director, as cast including an Oscar winner, a Swedish badass and Michael Fassbender doing a Peter O’Toole impression – with a great opening sequence that slowly but surely descended into trite pseudo-intellectual bullshit. I realize that there are other arguments to bad had about that one, but … you’re wrong. Prometheus should have been brilliant; all the pieces were there. But somewhere along the way, something got lost, and I was horribly disappointed.
If I’m sounding vague – something, somewhat, maybe, perhaps – it’s because I really don’t know why these films fail. I don’t understand why they turn into what Robin Wood calls incoherent texts. It makes me sad to see a film and consider what might have been. I can only pray that when a director, an actor or a crew makes a bad movie, they have the sense to see it and make it truly bad. Halfway bad is just depressing.