There are several factors that can create anticipation leading up to the releases of certain movies. Often, it’s the sequels (and sometimes prequels) to wildly popular films that get people excited, though adaptations of bestselling novels and comic books have been awaited with almost equal degrees of enthusiasm, especially in the last couple of decades. A variety of other contributors exist, such as a movie’s growing controversy, behind-the-scenes buzz (both positive and negative), or sometimes simply the star power of an actor or director (especially if he or she has died before the film’s release).
The following is a list of films that had people counting down the months – or in some cases, years – leading up to their releases. When they finally opened, these films felt more like events than ordinary movies, though as we will see, not all could live up to the hype of their already built-in audiences.
With an abundance of HUGE movies currently on the horizon, let’s take a look back at what have been some of the most anticipated movies in history and see how they fared. In the interests of variety, only one film per franchise will be included*, as this list would otherwise become overwhelmed by Harry Potter and Twilight sequels (just to pick two completely random examples).
Please note: 1. The Nolan Batman films being considered a separate franchise from the Burton/Schumacher ones.
2. All box office figures courtesy of Boxofficemojo.com.
20. Hannibal (2001)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 39%
Domestic Gross: $165 million
Records: Highest-grossing opening weekend for an R-rated movie ever at the time
Reasons it was highly anticipated: How about being a sequel to a Best Picture winner – one of only three that won in the top five categories? That and being released ten years to the week after its groundbreaking predecessor made this a sequel that had audiences salivating.
How it measured up to expectations: Even the return of Sir Anthony Hopkins in the role that solidified the title character as one of the most iconic villains in history wasn’t enough to fully salvage this installment in the Lecter saga. What we got was a downright bizarre and – despite the unmistakable talents of the cast, director Ridley Scott, composer Hans Zimmer, and the gruesomely realistic makeup effects work by Greg Cannom – unquestionably inferior follow-up to a modern classic. Luckily, the recent NBC TV series has helped rehabilitate the image of the notorious, yet always fascinating, genius psychiatrist/cannibalistic serial killer.
19. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
Domestic Gross: $317.1 million
Records: 3rd highest-grossing movie of the year
Reasons it was highly anticipated: The fourth Indy film arrived a full nineteen years after the last one, with Spielberg back in the director’s seat and Ford back in the role that helped make him a legend.
How it measured up to expectations: It wasn’t universally panned, but many found fault with numerous aspects of the film, from the CGI gopher that opens the proceedings, to the cartoonish scene of Shia LaBeouf swinging on vines with monkeys (also CGI), to the infamous “nuke the fridge” plot point, to the simple fact that the story involves aliens. Still, those who proclaim it the worst Indiana Jones movie may want to revisit Temple of Doom…
18. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 45%
Domestic Gross: $82.2 million
Records: 5th highest-grossing movie of the year
Reasons it was highly anticipated: It was the first film based on the landmark sci-fi TV series – one that, though cancelled after only three seasons, had managed to develop a devoted cult audience.
How it measured up to expectations: Many were disappointed by the slow pacing and lack of sufficient action. The shoot itself had been a difficult one, fraught with delays, budget issues, and near-constant script revisions, all of which no doubt affected the final product. In retrospect, the contrast between this film and the immensely superior follow-up, Wrath of Khan, only heightens the flaws of what some critics dubbed “The Motionless Picture.”
17. Titanic (1997)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Domestic Gross: $600 million (plus another $58 million when re-released in 3D)
Records: 2nd Highest-grossing movie of all time
Reasons it was highly anticipated: It was, at the time, the most expensive film ever made (director James Cameron broke the record he had previously set in 1994 with True Lies). Adding the facts that the running time was over three hours and that production delays had caused the release to be pushed back from the planned summer opening, many expected the film to be as disastrous as its subject matter.
How it measured up to expectations: Cameron proved all the naysayers wrong – the film went on to break countless records, including the title then held by Jurassic Park as the highest-grossing movie of all time, and later won eleven of the fourteen Oscars for which it was nominated (including Best Picture). It also turned respected actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into overnight international superstars.
16. Goldeneye (1995)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
Domestic Gross: $106.4 million
Records: 6th highest-grossing movie of the year
Reasons it was highly anticipated: To say there was a lot riding on the seventeenth James Bond film would be putting it mildly. It was the first to star Pierce Brosnan as Bond, the first made after the end of the Cold War, the first to feature a woman (Dame Judi Dench) as M, and came after the longest gap since a previous entry in the franchise.
How it measured up to expectations: Fans and critics were impressed by Brosnan’s performance, which along with the memorable action sequences and unexpected twists made this a welcome addition to the franchise. Today it is generally considered one of the best Bond films (and the excellent Nintendo 64 game it inspired hardly hurts its legacy).
15. Avatar (2009)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Domestic Gross: $760.5 million
Records: Highest-grossing movie of all time
Reasons it was highly anticipated: It was James Cameron’s first feature film since Titanic (he yet again broke his production budget record). It took him fifteen years to develop, mainly because of the technological sophistication required for the film’s extensive motion capture and 3D effects.
How it measured up to expectations: Proving once and for all that James Cameron is not to be doubted, Avatar unseated Titanic as the highest-grossing movie ever made. Though some criticized the story’s noticeable similarities to previous films such as Pocahontas, FernGully, and Dances with Wolves, it remains a remarkable special effects accomplishment, and is largely responsible (for better or for worse) for the exponential rise of 3D films in the years since.
14. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 73%
Domestic Gross: $281.5 million
Records: Highest-grossing opening weekend for an R-rated movie ever, 2nd highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time
Reasons it was highly anticipated: The second entry in the sci-fi trilogy and follow-up to the 1999 smash hit – one of the coolest films ever made – definitely had audiences excited and wondering if it could surpass the original in sheer special effects awesomeness.
How it measured up to expectations: In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as The Matrix Revolutions, which was filmed concurrently with Reloaded and released only six months later. Still, it was all but impossible for this sequel to recapture the freshness of the first film – a much imitated and spoofed blockbuster surprise. The result can hardly be called a bad movie, but given that it retained the same stars and directors as the first, some consistency of quality in the franchise was to be expected.
13. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 52%
Domestic Gross: $229 million
Records: Highest-grossing opening weekend ever at the time
Reasons it was highly anticipated: Another sequel to a revolutionary special effects extravaganza, The Lost World was based (loosely) on Michael Crichton’s literary continuation of the story of genetically engineered dinosaurs run amok. The return of Steven Spielberg, Jeff Goldblum, and composer John Williams gave everyone reason to hope for the best.
How it measured up to expectations: Though it was undeniably entertaining and made with great skill, there was just no beating the first one. Critics were divided, as what could’ve passed for a fun creature feature inevitably suffered from unfavorable comparisons to the first film. The finale, in which a captured T-Rex lays waste to San Diego, also seemed out of place, as if the filmmakers grew tired of the ethical questions posed by the subject matter when faced with the opportunity to give in to brainless monster movie excesses.
12. Independence Day (1996)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%
Domestic Gross: $306.1 million
Records: Highest-grossing movie of the year
Reasons it was highly anticipated: Though not a sequel, remake, or book adaptation, “ID4” (as it was nicknamed), excited the public with promises of explosive action and a high concept alien invasion plot. Aggressively marketed by 20th Century Fox (a high-profile Super Bowl commercial effortlessly sparked word-of-mouth), the movie was primed for box office success for its July 4th holiday weekend opening.
How it measured up to expectations: It’s not the smartest movie in the world, but who can deny the entertainment factor? Yes, the Roland Emmerich project makes heavy use of stock characters, features some questionable tech solutions to complex problems, and may seem misguided now when viewed through a post-9/11 perspective (though the appeal of blowing up landmarks in movies appears to have once again become acceptable in recent times), but for a dated sci-fi film, it holds up quite well. Plus it propelled Will Smith to megastar status and made computers look cool.
11. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 28%
Domestic Gross: $296.6 million
Records: Highest single day gross ever at the time, 4th highest-grossing film of the year
Reasons it was highly anticipated: The second film in The Twilight Saga had the luxury of a huge fanbase clamoring for any morsel or tidbit about the film prior to its release. The return of Taylor Lautner, who had physically transformed himself in the interim between this and the first film in order to keep his role as the newly muscle-bound Jacob, only contributed to the fervor.
How it measured up to expectations: Breaking records for advance ticket sales and midnight screenings, New Moon scored the biggest opening of any of the Twilight films, making about half its total gross in its first weekend of release. Film critics were unimpressed, citing the film’s excessive length and poor pacing, but “Twihards” ate it up. Given the massive lead-up following the expectations-exceeding performance of the first one, the release of the second installment in the series seemed to mark the peak of Twilight mania (save, perhaps, for the release of the final film).