SN&R critic detonates some of film's biggest box-office bombs

Forget the Oscars: SN&R film critic Daniel Barnes examines the biggest, baddest crimes against cinema

Mars might need moms, but no one needs this politically incorrect mess of a film.

Mars might need moms, but no one needs this politically incorrect mess of a film.

“You are just gonna have to learn to sit on your regret and pain until it turns into a dull, persistent ache.”

—Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges), R.I.P.D.

The movie R.I.P.D. screened for critics on a hot Thursday evening at the Century Downtown Plaza 7 in Sacramento. The screening took place a day before the film’s July 19, 2013, worldwide opening, a likely sign that Universal Studios expected R.I.P.D. to take a critical lambasting, since the timing guaranteed most reviewers wouldn’t be able to make a Friday publishing deadline.

Of course, all that really mattered to the studio was the opinion of the public, and with a production budget of close to $130 million, the sci-fi comedy starring Ryan Reynolds needed a broad appeal in order to become a hit. That’s why it must have been disconcerting for Universal when it couldn’t secure a full house for the free Sacramento screening, especially since such events are strategically overbooked, with late-arriving ticketholders usually turned away in droves.

In the case of the R.I.P.D. preview, studio reps were actually seen in the lobby accosting moviegoers leaving other films that had just ended, and for the most part, unsuccessfully attempting to convince them to stick around for a complimentary screening. Not only was R.I.P.D. a $130 million movie that the public wouldn’t pay to see, it was a $130 million movie that most people did not want to watch for free.

As expected, R.I.P.D. was, well, ripped by the critics (netting a mere 13 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes), and took a bath at the box office as well, earning $79 million worldwide against that overblown budget (which doesn’t necessarily account for the film’s marketing or other costs). By some estimates, that makes R.I.P.D. the fourth-biggest money loser in American film history, and yet, it’s not even one of the two biggest bombs from this decade.

It’s been three-and-a-half years since I wrote a piece about five of the biggest box-office bombs from the previous decade, including legendary money losers like The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Gigli (see “Turkey Time”; SN&R Arts&Culture; August 12, 2010). Since then, five of the seven biggest box-office bombs in the history of American cinema have been released: Mars Needs Moms, The Lone Ranger, John Carter, Jack the Giant Slayer and R.I.P.D.—with other notable failures from this decade like Green Lantern and The Nutcracker in 3D not far behind.

Why have such an unprecedented number of box-office bombs been detonated in the last three years alone? The answers are predictable: Production budgets have continued to rise as special effects have become omnipresent; marketing campaigns are more expansive and expensive, generally eating one-third of a film’s budget; and the studios’ obsession with creating sequel-bearing franchises has led them to green-light nine-figure budgets for every vaguely recognizable property they can find.

There is a more pertinent critical question, though: Does the fact that these films bombed with the same ticket-buying public that possesses a seemingly bottomless appetite for Pirates of the Caribbean sequels mean that there is something secretly special about them? Many forward-thinking films considered flops in their time are now considered pantheonworthy, such as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, Fight Club and even Heaven’s Gate.

So, are any of these recent box-office bombs a future classic just waiting to be rescued?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: Noooooooo, dear God, no!

Mars Needs Moms, Green Lantern, R.I.P.D. and Jack the Giant Slayer are all flat-out ugly and unpleasant films to look at, listen to and think about. Each one is fatally marred by eye-numbing special effects, unappealing lead actors and insipid, often nonsensical patchwork narratives.

John Carter and The Lone Ranger are the most artistically ambitious of the group, and they also come closest to actually working. There are moments of beauty and brilliance in each film, and with less mercenary decision-making and better leads, they might have even been good. Both are oddball, borderline auteurist efforts whose need to appeal to every demographic possible ultimately leaves them tone deaf.

A lack of charisma in the lead roles proves too much for both films to overcome. In The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp has better conversations with his hat than with the nebbishy, borderline Judge Reinhold-ian Armie Hammer, and their excruciating banter negates the film’s occasional weirdo charm. Taylor Kitsch plays a Civil War veteran turned Martian-warrior-prince in John Carter, but he might as well have worn a Panthers uniform the entire time. He fails to bring any personality to the role, which sucks, because he’s pretty much the only character in the movie that isn’t a 15-foot-tall, four-armed, green thing with tusks.

There are a few lessons that Hollywood can learn from this recent glut of box office failures:

1. Above-the-line talent matters.What do Taylor Kitsch, Armie Hammer, Seth Green, Ryan Reynolds and Nicholas Hoult have in common? You wouldn’t want to watch them guest star in a basic-cable sitcom about a family of 1980s nerds whose youngest child grows up to be a cool 1950s greaser (CEO of basic cable, call me!), much less play the lead in a feature-length film intended to spawn endless sequels, prequels, reboots, preboots, remakes, premakes and make-boots. At the same time, actual stars have become so valuable that they can do whatever the hell they want, yet another reason why Johnny Depp spends much of The Lone Ranger interacting with his own hat.

2. Better dead than Red. I don’t know what it is about the Red Planet, but audiences flat-out do not want to watch movies set there. John Carter and Mars Needs Moms are the most egregious failures, but the recent Total Recall remake also flopped, and the era was littered with box-office bombs featuring Mars and Martians, including Mission to Mars, Red Planet and Mars Attacks! Hollywood, leave Mars to the Martians already!

3. Blacklist Ryan Reynolds. I’m not historically a supporter of Hollywood blacklists, but I’m prepared to work outside the box here. R.I.P.D. and Green Lantern failed miserably at the box office, and even though a few Reynolds films (The Proposal, Safe House) have been quite profitable, some dividends just aren’t worth their moral price.

4. Avoid offending everyone. Mars Needs Moms is a $150 million motion-capture feature-length by the Walt Disney Studios that depicts male Martians as dreadlocked minstrels and offers a gender-role discourse that can be summarized as “feminism destroys babies.” Disney’s John Carter merely portrays its Martians as an Avatar-esque tribal “other.” Meanwhile, the effects wizards behind The Lone Ranger spent countless man-hours trying to make Indian genocide look totally awesome. That’s dicey stuff for nine-figure budgeted movies that need to appeal to literally everyone.

5. Don’t make a $90 million version of The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker in 3D (the 2-D version was retitled The Nutcracker: The Untold Story), is easily the worst of this bunch, quite possibly the worst movie ever made, and yet it’s too deranged to be ignored. I’m not joking—I watched all 108 minutes of this film, and while I typically scoff at things like witches and ghosts and hot-air balloons, I’m 85-90 percent sure that this Nutcracker will somehow enter our dreams and attempt to murder us in our sleep if we don’t pay attention to it right now.

It’s credited as “A UK/Hungary Co-Production,” making it easily their most disastrous co-production since World War I. Nathan Lane co-stars as the creepy “uncle” (i.e., the part he was born to play), who talks straight to the camera, blabbers about Freud, sings of lost pebbles, and tells a small child, “If I seem far away … just think of me, and I’ll be close.” Good luck ever sleeping through the night again, kid!

John Turturro plays the Rat King as a machine-gun-wielding Nazi who kills a shark, sings hot jazz numbers and burns toys in front of children dressed like World War II refugees. At one point, Turturro snarls, “You ever wonder what happens to a doll’s soul when it burns?” Personally, I had never wondered that before watching the film, but now it’s the main subject in every one of my nightmares.

This is where I should reiterate that The Nutcracker is a $90 million film intended almost solely for children.

6. Never learn lessons. It may be that it’s impossible for a big Hollywood movie, especially an animated film that’s easily translated across different cultures, or a special-effects-heavy release, to lose money these days. Beyond the usual studio shell-game economics and presold licensing and distribution deals, American films continue to dominate the foreign markets, especially in the Third World.

That means the last, best hope for a new morning in American cinema is that moviegoers in developing nations will get just as sick of crap like R.I.P.D. as we already have.