First, I want to make it clear what the intent of this list is. This is not a “Bottom 5” list. This is not a list of movies I didn’t like, or necessarily thought were bad. At the same time, neither are these all movies that were good. This list has little to do with how much I liked the movie, but rather it contains movies that had incredible potential but missed the mark in some way or another. 2012 was inarguably a great year for movies, but many of the most highly anticipated films ended up disappointing movie-goers, some of these disappointments are what I want to look at here.
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the defining achievements in film of the last decade, and joins the likes of Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter in terms of cultural legacy. Jackson and company took what was considered by many to be unadaptable material and made a series of sweeping epics with great characters, a deep honor for Tolkien’s original work, and, most importantly, great pacing and a structure that worked for film. When adapting material as beloved as The Lord of the Rings there’s a fine line that must be walked; you want to honor the original work as much as possible and stay true to the spirit of the story, but you also need to change the structure of it in order to work as a film, independent of the source material. This is where The Lord of the Rings films succeeded and where the first of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based on The Hobbit fails.
I liked The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey quite a bit, and it plays better on a second viewing, but even on repeat viewings the film suffers from a lack of focus. Where The Lord of the Ringsfilms took Tolkien’s long, often rambling writing and trimmed the fat in order to make well-paced fantasy epics, An Unexpected Journey lacks that same punch. In a way, it is the most Tolkien-esque of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films so far. It has the same tendencies for losing focus and getting off on tangents that Tolkien is notorious for. It is full of go-nowhere subplots and action sequences that have no bearing on the story, amounting to nothing more than empty spectacle. A perfect example of this is at one point, early on in the film, we sit through an extended flashback sequence that is only tangentially related to the main story, and then, immediately following, the film cuts to a character who we know effectively nothing about, doing things that are completely nonessential to the story at hand. The end result is roughly a half-hour of film that is, at best, only tangentially important and, at worst, completely irrelevant. The film feels bloated and overstuffed in an attempt to justify the decision to split The Hobbit into three films, which is a real shame, because there’s a lot of things about this movie that work really well. Most of the cast of characters is really good; the returning cast is all as great as you remember, and new comers like Martin Freeman as Bilbo establish themselves really well in their roles. The world of Middle Earth is imbued with the same degree of wonder and beauty that it had in the previous films, and it’s absolutely a joy to return to. Also, the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence is the most potent example of movie fun this side of The Avengers. Hopefully this year’s The Desolation of Smaug and 2014’s There and Back Again are more aggressively edited, trimming out the needless fluff and focusing on the heart of what is most important.
This was my most anticipated film of 2012, and so I’ll admit that this could be a film that suffers from unreachable expectations. The final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy had massive shoes to fill; after all it was following The Dark Knight, a film that by many is considered the greatest Super Hero film of all time. Not only that, but it was also following Nolan’s extremely impressive run of incredible films: The Prestige in 2006, The Dark Knight in 2008, andInception in 2010. Perhaps if this had just been a follow up to Batman Begins it would have been better received. However, I think there are some deeper issues with the film worth examining.
The biggest issue I had with The Dark Knight Rises is that it was a film that lacked a greater narrative or thematic goal beyond simply ending the trilogy. For your average summer blockbuster this wouldn’t normally be a problem, it’s always great when a film has a level of thematic depth that goes beyond the surface level story, but you tend not to expect it with the big summer action movies. However, Chris Nolan has never been known to make shallow surface level films. The speculation as to why the film ended up this way runs the gamut, from theories about Heath Ledger’s untimely death affecting the direction of the story to the idea that Nolan had simply made his definitive statement on Batman with The Dark Knight and had nothing more to say. Whatever the reason may be, the end result is a film that feels sort of phoned in, a movie that Nolan, one of the greatest filmmakers working today, could have made in his sleep.
The interesting thing, though, is that this is anything but a bad movie. It is extremely entertaining and, in a lot of ways, ties up the story nicely. It has some great set-pieces, features some strong character driven moments, and boasts the best screen version of Catwoman to date (despite never actually being referred to as “Catwoman” in the film). It has a reasonably satisfying ending, and is by no means a black mark on the series. Despite that, it’s a movie that doesn’t exist outside the theater. There’s no resonance. It lacks deeper themes to take home with you and think about days, weeks, or even months after you’ve seen the film. There’s not a whole lot to interpret or discuss, the movie just is what it is, and that’s something extremely disappointing coming from the man who gave us Memento, Inception, and The Dark Knight.
What the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer tried to accomplish with Cloud Atlas is incredible. The steps they took with this movie to shatter the conventions of a traditional narrative is nothing short of ground breaking. It tells six different stories taking place over a period of time ranging from the late-1800s to a distant post-apocalyptic future, and then connects those stories with narrative similarities, editing cues, and the use of the same actors playing different characters. This movie is a fascinating and hugely ambitious experiment, but unfortunately, I feel it’s an experiment that just barely fell short of completely working.
Part of the problem is that a few of six stories are distinctly less engaging than the others. For example, while the story of a revolution set in near future Korea is consistently entertaining, the late-1800s story of an explorer returning home from Africa is kind of bland and predictable. Even within certain stories the narrative effect of different segments can be kind of hit-or-miss. When intercutting between stories you want the audience to be just as engaged in what you’re cutting to as what you just cut away from, but in Cloud Atlas there are definitely times when the film cuts you to something that’s decidedly less engaging than what you were just watching. This hit-or-miss nature even extends to the performances. As I mentioned, one of the ways this film establishes its theme of the actions you take echoing throughout time is by using the same actors to play different roles across the various stories. While just about every actor in the film turns in at least one excellent performance, some of the characters played by each actor fall a little flat.
The film also struggles a bit in terms of pacing. While it is never boring, this is a nearly three hour film that feels every bit as long as it is, if not longer. A few of the stories feel like they’re being padded in order to keep pace with some of the more intricate narratives that they’re sharing the running time with. Overall I really admire what Cloud Atlas attempted to do, but I think they fell short of really nailing it.
John Carter was a movie that just couldn’t catch a break. Months before the movie was released, even before the film was 100% finished, movie publications started declaring it the “biggest flop in film history.” This is a movie that was getting eaten alive by the press before anyone outside of the studio even had a chance to see it. “How dare an animation director take on an ambitious adaptation of one of the most influential science fiction stories of all time as his live action debut?” they seemed to say, “who does he think he is?” In addition to this, Disney completely dropped the ball when it came to marketing the film. Instead of showing off a grand, old fashioned, sci-fi adventure or playing up the legacy of the project (“the Academy Award winning director of Finding Nemo and WALL•E brings you the story that inspired Star Wars and Avatar”) they chose to release extremely minimal amounts of promotion, all of which was laced in ambiguity. This was a movie that Disney was originally hoping would spawn a hit franchise, and yet there was not even a single toy tie-in. Even changing the name from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter represents the misguided nature of the way this film was marketed. In the end, all these factors combined led to some pretty dismal attendance, although, it was still far from the “biggest flop in film history.”
So how was the movie itself? Well, personally, I liked it quite a lot. It’s a movie that takes a second viewing to really appreciate, but it’s a fun adventure movie with some strong characters, a rich and compelling setting, and some really impressive visual effects work. Andrew Stanton is a great director who has an obvious love of the material, and for the most part handles the movie really well. The aspect, though, that keeps this film from achieving greatness is that it focusses more on holding information back from the audience for the sake of having narrative reveals. The film almost makes a point of keeping you detached from many of the main characters in order to reveal an important part of their character later on in the film. As you can imagine, it’s generally not worth sacrificing your character’s connection to the audience just for the ability to introduce little twists into the narrative. It also didn’t help that the film throws nonsense terms like Thark, Thern, Dotar Sojat, Barsoom, and the ninth ray at you in rapid succession; it can be a bit too much to take in at first (part of why the film improves so much on repeat viewings).
John Carter, despite its flaws, was a fun sci-fi adventure film that set up a lot of strong potential for the rest of the series; it’s just a shame that we’ll never get to see it.
Of the films I’ve discussed on this list, Prometheus is probably the most objectively bad. The story telling is an absolute mess, with character motivations changing left and right, nonsensical plot developments, and a narrative that is absolutely obsessed with the idea of asking questions that cannot be answered. It also can’t decide whether it wants to be a prequel to Alien or not. Admittedly, the idea of a quasi-prequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic was initially appealing, but in the film it never quite works. The Alien references end up, in a lot of cases, being more interesting than the main plot, and it opens a whole can of worms that creates maddening questions regarding the Alien canon. Some ambiguity can work for a story, and I often consider it poor storytelling to over-explain everything to an audience, but in this case it is frustrating because there doesn’t seem to be a deeper purpose to it. It’s not adding texture to the story, and it’s not tying in with a theme of the narrative, it is the theme of the narrative. Ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity is generally a bad idea.
However, despite all that, there’s a part of me that kind of likes Prometheus, or at least whatPrometheus tried to be. The movie is gorgeous, many of the performances are stunning (Michael Fassbender as an android named David is just about worth the price of admission), and it’s one of the most interesting science fiction works of the last several years. They botched the execution of it, pretty badly, I might add, but there’s still something interesting there, something that could have been incredible if it had been handled better.
This, really, is what this list is all about, films that so openly show us an incredible movie that could have been made, but wasn’t. This isn’t just a case where the original screenplay was better than the finished project, or when you hear stories from the production of the film about what almost happened differently. Instead it’s almost as if there is another, better movie, buried inside these films that at times rises up to the surface. They feel almost as if you could dig up this better movie with just another viewing or two, and in some cases repeat viewings of these films do present a more rewarding experience.
In a way, these kinds of films tend to be some of the most interesting of the year. What they almost accomplished is often far more interesting than the less ambitious less exciting successes of other films. I’ll take an ambitious failure over a boring success any day of the week.