There’s a long list of famously bad movies that are mocked and derided for getting it completely wrong. Films that fail to meet expectations so spectacularly that they found themselves the punchline to a cynical joke about Hollywood’s shameless banality. But sometimes, we rush to judgement.
Critics and audiences latch onto bad buzz and gleefully join the feeding frenzy that leaves an unconventional movie’s reputation in tatters. The fact that these films bucked a trend, defied industry logic, or simply confounded audiences’ expectations at the time makes them fascinating historical aberrations. As a former film reviewer and magazine editor and now lecturer in film I know, in some cases, famous movie flops can turn out to be innovative, challenging, and deeply satisfying experiences when approached with an open mind.
Here are five to watch this lockdown:
1. The Matrix Reloaded (2002)
While the Wachowski sisters’ groundbreaking first Matrix movie is by now an established modern classic, the sequels are only mentioned with hushed breath and raised eyebrows. Released to enormous hype alongside a barrage of Matrix spin-offs, the second film smashed box office records in its opening weekend. But both the film’s reputation and its audience numbers dropped off precipitously.
In the film’s opening moments it delivered similarly impressive visual effects. However, things took a turn as Reloaded moved away from the first film’s linear action-movie narrative to tell a sprawling tale of revolutionary uprising. This departure paired with the abrupt cliffhanger ending left many viewers frustrated and bewildered.
But freed from those expectations, Reloaded can be enjoyed not only for its truly jaw-dropping action sequences but also for shifting the franchise’s focus from the traditional hero’s journey to a focus on collective rebellion. And the fact that this rebellion is spearheaded by one of the most diverse casts ever assembled in an action blockbuster feels more urgent and meaningful now than ever.
2. Zardoz (1974)
When Sean Connery passed away recently, many fans couldn’t resist paying homage by sharing photos of his famously ridiculous “red diaper” costume from the movie Zardoz. Director John Boorman’s legendary flop certainly seems laughable in its wilful combination of intellectually ambitious science fiction and patently ridiculous silliness. This bewildering juxtaposition makes it a hard film to parse. It attempts to present a clownish philosophy that challenges us to take it seriously.
Set in a remote dystopian future, the film follows Connery as a barbarian tribe member who penetrates a matriarchal elite ruling his world from behind the scenes. Zardoz uses this narrative as a framework from which familiar gender roles are contrasted, often in a rather ridiculously exaggerated form.
But it’s precisely this tongue-in-cheek sensibility that makes this such a fascinating and provocative experiment. Where today’s movie franchises are either deadly serious or frivolous fun, Zardoz illustrates how silliness can go hand in hand with serious ruminations about gender roles, violence, and toxic masculinity.
3. Popeye (1980)
Paramount owned the rights to iconic comic strip character Popeye, and legendary producer and dealmaker Robert Evans assembled a package that combined the talents of director Robert Altman, TV star Robin Williams (in his first movie role), pop star Harry Nilsson, and renowned comics writer Jules Feiffer.
Working on a massive set constructed in a gorgeous bay on Malta, the production went massively over budget. And, far away from studio executives’ watchful eyes, the drug-fueled parties amongst the cast and crew soon became the stuff of legend. While the film made good money at the time, its troubled production cast a long shadow over its critical reputation, and the film is often included in lists of Hollywood’s worst movies. But the film is an almost magical foray into an idiosyncratic, totally self-contained comic book world.
4. Next (2007)
Some movies provide such unintentional campy delights that they fall into the “so bad it’s good” category. And then some delights are so spectacularly stupid, so willfully misconceived, so outrageously misjudged, that they transcend even this category. Next is one of those rare miracles that feels like it was made by aliens who made a valiant attempt to create a human movie.
The indefatigable Nicolas Cage stars as a man who can see exactly two minutes into the future, an ability that comes in handy making bets at casinos. This skill also makes him the target of FBI agents trying to stop a looming terrorist attack. Everything about the movie is so spectacularly wrong, from its nonsensical (and unexplained) central premise to its tastelessly stalkerish romance to its twist ending that simply defies description. Next demonstrates that a movie that does everything wrong, can still be extraordinarily entertaining.
5. Starship Troopers (1997)
Having followed a string of Hollywood hits with the notorious flop Showgirls, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s next project reunited him with RoboCop screenwriter Ed Neumeier for an adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s militaristic space opera. Critics at the time praised the impressive visual effects but criticised what they saw as a fascist undercurrent tainting the heroes’ triumph.
But this, of course, was precisely the film’s satirical point: Verhoeven directed an exciting action-adventure filled with literal star wars that plays like a propaganda film for a future America that has gone full fascist. The discomfort many people feel in watching Starship Troopers is the slow realisation that Americans love to cheer on their heroes – not in spite of the fact that they have bought into a fascist agenda, but because of it.