‘’I work for the public, for the people who are paying to go to the cinema, rather than for the critics.”
– Kevin Costner
In hindsight, one can still look back endearingly at once Hollywood heavyweight Kevin Costner, declaring such words the way a politician expresses admiration and undying duty to … the people.
As History has documented, however, Mr Costner, like so many politicians, duped the everyman with his artistic choices over the past two decades, including his recent foray into Netflix territory with The Highwaymen. Unfortunately for him, the critics, too, have sided with the audience most of the time.
But there are notable turns in Cinema, where, the critics DID get it right and an engaging piece of visual storytelling was let down not by some pretentious wordsmith or geeky academic cinephile, but rather, the moviegoers, who, in their poor lack of judgement, let a true gem sink.
The following is a list of films, when first released, were financial clunkers, ditched on their dates with movie goers, their dignity preserved only by enviable star ratings, glowing grades and heaps of praise from the authority police.
They’re an odd bunch, Movie Critics. Audiences have always shared a love hate relationship with them, perhaps rightly so, admonishing the high brows, who claim to know what can be considered universally “entertaining”, a subjective pursuit if there ever was one.
But in the instance of these films, despite the praise and applause showered by qualified ranking officials, the movie going public ultimately voted wrong. Sometimes the experts really are just that … experts.
1. Blade Runner 2049
Starting the list off with a touted behemoth that ultimately proved to be a clunker at the cash registers, especially in the United States, barely clocking over $90 Million, which isn’t much to brag about considering it’s Budget was nearly twice that.
Blade Runner is perhaps the oddest entry on here for multiple reasons: it’s both a reboot and a quasi sequel to the now classic original Blade Runner from 1982, which itself bombed. So why would Hollywood, a species well oriented in the task of imbibing self preservation over risk taking, do the unthinkable? Go against evidential history and pour in more money into renewing something that audiences never embraced in the first place?
And with glowing quality to boot too. Call it a rare moment of enlightenment on the part of the producers, steering away from the now ubiquitous reboot syndrome, where an expensive intellectual property hasn’t even been given the chance to fade gracefully from recent memory, before it is smacked back to life with new talent behind and in front of the Camera.
Blade Runner 2049, thankfully, despite the lukewarm showing of it’s predecessor, was akin for a reawakening, riding high on a wave of cult following that had sustained for over 3 decades. It’s the first shoulda-been-blockbuster that never was, getting a second shot to set things right.
And with Denis Villeneuve at the helm, Hollywood’s contemporary favorite export auteur, 2049 had the requisite “je ne sais quoi” going for it too, digging further down into it’s Steam Punk world into a political and social parable akin to visual literature that sci fi heavyweights like Isaac Asimov would applaud.
2049 also made the right casting choices, capturing grim mood with Ryan Gosling’s now perfected doomsday inexpressiveness first showcased in Drive. The supporting players, especially Harrison Ford, serve the story well, by building a regarded history for the character as opposed to l”et’s put him in there because we have to” first and then come up with a why.
The production values are top notch. The action sequences, though few and far between the elongated running time, are both visceral and earthy and a reveal that doesn’t cheat leads up to a climax with an emotional punch.
So what went wrong? Blame has been pinpointed to it’s extensive running time (164 minutes), but perhaps that’s too simple a reason to close the investigation on. Perhaps, like the film’s protagonist, the audience just got too caught up in the world of make believe sci fi, that when they got a shot at something real, they just didn’t know what to do with it.
2. Fight Club
“The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
Tyler Durden, the character played by Brad Pitt would wince now, looking back at just how much people did talk and do till date about David Fincher’s cult classic.
Even the studio anticipated losses, trying to salvage hope with a rushed marketing campaign undermining Fincher’s original vision.
In fact, since it’s release, Fight Club’s influence has grown as a quasi male pride moment, replete with testosterone, apathy toward consumerism and brotherhood solidarity akin to a College fraternity, except, here, one’s peers, the streets and disregard for expected life choices are the University.
The twist ending provides both a WTF moment as well as catharsis for the true fan, of which there are many.
Many great movies that didn’t do well at the cash registers are attributed to arriving before their time. Perhaps not so in the case of Fight Club. In fact, there’s a good chance it’d fare even worse today in the culture of #MeToo, political correctness and escalating label identities as the world becomes more accepting of the other(s).
The members of Fight Club, even though a support group themselves, rejected the idea of support groups and mutual civility serving the common good. For them, such social compatibility wasn’t a desired result, but a means to Brand people, not in the sense sought by SJW, but like cattle, feeding them a consistent dose of finely crafted image creation.
In a world currently going through a major identity upheaval, where what one is given noise over who one is, Fight Club is the sole cinematic pushback commentary, respecting the viewer for being, above all else, an individual. We should’ve returned the courtesy to the film.
3. Citizen Kane
This could be considered the original step child of Box Office blight. Over and above receiving glowing reviews upon it’s initial release, the film’s reputation has only grown, consistently ranking as the “Best Film of all Time” amongst respected media groups, so much so, that even the casual movie goer who’s never seen it, yet, is very much aware of it’s existence.
When it came out in 1941, Citizen Kane was a first for the audience and in many regards, for Hollywood as well.
Orson Welles, the young director, bereft of experience and know how, had amazingly landed a deal to write his own first picture and have final cut privilege, unheard of in the already well oiled musical and epic dream factory of Hollywood.
It employed techniques in storytelling including multiple narraters and non linear flashback structure that is still considered groundbreaking today.
On the production side, too, from the deep focus to low angle shots and sound with overlapping dialogue ( a feature transported from Welles’s Radio background), the film broke as many rules as it invented.
Most notoriously, it’s theatrical run and advertising was thwarted by the influence of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate upon whom the titular character was partially based upon.
Hearst vehemently opposed the comparison and executed his clout to minimize Kane’s exposure to the public by limiting showtimes at theaters and disallowing advertising within his own publications. Real drama superseded the onscreen one.
The film never had a fair chance at connecting with audiences, lost, for decades, an enigma, like it’s iconic last words. “Rosebud” is now part of Cinematic vernacular, but it took a tragically long time to get there.
4. Donnie Darko
It’s understandable when a film featuring a plane crash isn’t advertised heavily just weeks after the real life tragedy of September 11th. But barring art imitating life viscerally, Donnie Darko was destined to fail, no matter the time.
It was just too out there, unclassifiable: a sci fi? Psychological horror? Dark comedy? When one can consider checking on any or all of those boxes, the idea of focus groups goes out the window. No matter, Donnie’s titular end of the world cosmic visions and an eerie bunny that’s loonier than anything in Looney Tunes, stuck with the audience… eventually.
Saved from the embarrassing death of direct to video, Done Darko limped to single digit millions at the box office before exploding on DVD and subsequent releases incorporating director’s cuts, even spawning a sequel that the Director, Richard Kelly had nothing to do with nor did he wish to.
Kelly was just a 20-something when Donnie Darko released, courted at Sundance for his obvious talent. In fact, he appears to be prematurely retired, having not made another film since 2009.
Even the film’s star, Jake Gyllenhall, a relative unknown at the time, wasn’t a natural draw-in into the aisles. So, expectedly, it was just another relatively low budget college grad film that was even lucky enough to get made. But the deep impact stuck.
Whether it was the political undertones, the gloomy atmosphere of safe suburbia captured in a new doomsday light, conspiracy theories … people couldn’t get enough of Donnie Darko. It was a mad escape from a mad world tantalized further by the soundtrack echoing those words.
Donnie Darko, like the reclusive bunny, occupies an uncontested space in nearly every movie lovers collection now and will continue to do so till order returns. Going to be a while.
5. The Shawshank Redemption
The motherload of all “Oops” moments in Cinematic History. The Shawshank Redemption, was, admittedly a hard sell – a prison film helmed by an unknown director based on a lesser known novella by a author regarded more for his horror masterpieces. Plus the title tells the viewer … absolutely nothing. Also the female characters were … oh wait.
Finally, add the fact that is was released during the same time as Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, two of the most successful films ever, and Andy Dufresne and his prison mates didn’t have a chance at escaping Box Office Bombing.
One can’t blame the audience here really; even the biggest draws at the time including Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford passed over from starring in the unexciting project before the key roles were placed upon Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.
Despite the critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations, The Shawshank Redemption remained mostly a dud. That is, until it had the most unusual comeback ever witnessed … on Television. Purchased for a paltry sum by TNT in the States, the film was repeatedly played on the channel, and eventually, everybody caught on.
It became the most watched thing on cable TV, and rewatched. Nothing interesting to see? Shawshank is playing? Ok. The effect was hypnotic, imprisoning viewers, just like the old cellmate in the film who becomes institutionalized to the point that a release order fro freedom is met with dread.
The Shawshank Redemption is probably the most conventional film on this list. A survivor’s tale, filled with obstacles and hope. Simple. It’s the feel good film with a cherry on top. It doesn’t need analysis, an explanatory guide to dissect it’s goodness. It just is.
A perfectly capable movie that took it’s time and transcended competition comfortably to sit as the highest ranked film ever on IMDB. It’s kind of surprising that it soared so high and it would also be surprising if it didn’t. Thanks to The Shawshank Redemption, now more people know about Rita Hayworth than who Rita Hayworth was.