10 Modern Hollywood Films that Showed Plenty of Promise but Ultimately Failed to Deliver

Ever go to the cinema with high expectations of the movie you’re about to watch, only to be bitterly disappointed by the time you leave? Mark Fraser tells of 10 such experiences…

10. Men in Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997)

men-in-black_film_1997_will-smith_tommy-lee-jonesThis sometimes amusing science fiction yarn had its moments and was almost pretty good. That, however, was its problem in a nutshell – it didn’t quite make the grade despite the fact it had so much going for it. When news first broke that MIB was going to be released, it really did look like it would be something special. After all, here we had an offbeat special effects-laden sci-fi comedy about a couple of black suited, sunglass-wearing secret agents who were protecting the world against a generally unknown and constant alien threat that was based on a comic book (by Lowell Cunningham) and directed by a former cinematographer who had hitherto shot some pretty interesting films (the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple [1984], Raising Arizona [1987] and Miller’s Crossing [1990]; Danny De Vito’s Throw Mama From the Train [1987]; as well as Rob Reiner’s Misery [1990]). Furthermore, it had an interesting cast, including the laconic Tommy Lee Jones, the hip Will Smith, the sexy Linda Fiorentino, the gruff Rip Torn and the quirky Vincent D’Onofrio. Unfortunately, the story never quite gathered enough momentum to become the screen gem that it could have been. Sure, it had its fair share of jokes – some of them admittedly a bit flat – but in the end it only reached the height of the flying saucer that Agent J (Jones) and K (Smith) shoot down in the movie’s less-than-satisfying climatic scene in New York’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. To make matters worse, MIB strongly suggested that a sequel would include Fiorentino as the first woman in black – something which never eventuated.

9. Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997)

Contact, Robert Zemeckis, Jodie Foster,Given the ground Robert Zemeckis and his cinematographer Don Burgess broke with their 1994 award winning Forrest Gump, it was reasonable that moviegoers were excited about the prospect of these two teaming up again to make a movie about humankind’s first contact with aliens. Yet despite some clever cinematic trickery and a mid section that involved trans zone space travel, Contact generally fell flat for a few reasons – not least being the melodrama which dragged the story out (particularly in the film’s last third) and the innocuous sentimentality that permeated the movie’s ultimate message. This was a crying shame given the film has so much going for it. Aside from the Zemeckis/Burgess factor, the story contained an intriguing premise (that the first contact between spacemen and Earthlings involves both black and white footage of Adolf Hitler’s welcoming address at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, later, some complicated 3D engineering schematics), it boasted a competent cast (namely Jodie Foster, James Woods and John Hurt) and it managed to piss off the Clinton White House, which was kinda funny given Bill had a penchant for currying favour with Hollywood types.

8. The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983*)

Star-Wars-Return-of-the-JediSo there we were back in 1983, eagerly awaiting the follow up to 1980s’ The Empire Strikes Back armed with questions. How were Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and token Negro Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) going to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the hideous Jabba the Hutt? Furthermore, how were they then going to bring down the evil empire? Additionally, how was poor Luke going to reconcile himself with the fact that his father turned out to be none other than his nemesis Darth Vader (David Prowse) , while his potential main squeeze really had the hots for his best friend Han. Well, as it turned out, Solo was rescued in the opening minutes; this was quickly followed by an exciting shoot out over a giant flesh eating vagina (a Sarlacc) in the middle of the desert on the planet Tatooine; while the rest of the movie – with the exception of an exciting chase scene through a forest – turned out to be poot. Admittedly we are going over some old and hackneyed ground here, but really – cuddly Ewoks helping bring down the Empire and the ghosts of Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi turning up at the very end to watch the celebratory fireworks on Endor? Creator of the franchise, George Lucas, can bang on all he likes about Joseph Campbell, but this conclusion to the first Star Wars trilogy looks more like the ruminations of a 14 year-old Californian teenager who is under the impression that combining B-grade Saturday afternoon matinees with basic anthropology and the muppets can create the equivalent of high art. Unfortunately, as we’ll see below, there was more to come. (*Note – while the original version of this film is over 30 years old, it gets thrown into the modern category given a retinkered version of it was released by Lucas in the second half of the 1990s.)

7. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

Total Recall, Film, Arnold Schwarzenegger,After Dutch director Paul Verhoeven made the satiric (and now original) RoboCop back in 1987, he was considered a hot property – and for good reason. Aside from the fact this violent and funny actioner was pretty damn good, Verhoeven had previously made a few films (like 1983’s The Fourth Man) in the Netherlands which suggested he was a film maker of some stature. This is one of the reasons why expectations were running so high when this $65 million turkey was originally released – that and the fact it starred Arnie Schwarzenegger when he was at the top of his game, was based on a screenplay by Alien writers Dan O Bannon and Ronald Shusett (along with Gary Goldman) that was lifted from a story by cult author Philip K Dick, and was shot by RoboCop director of photography Jost Vacano. Sadly, the combination of these talents didn’t deliver what should have been an action-packed roller coaster ride. Yes, there was plenty of shooting and a good dose of violence, but it was so ham-fisted that audiences weren’t even asked to suspend their disbelief. Instead the whole thing was just a predictable spectacle with a very run-of-the-mill superhero performance by the Governator. Even Total Recall’s opening credits are annoyingly tedious.

6. Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)

vampires john carpenter film top10filmsIt’s arguable that since remaking The Thing in 1982, the cinema of John Carpenter has dropped quite a few notches. (Christine [1983], Prince of Darkness [1987] and the remake of Village of the Damned [1995] come to mind here). That’s why, in 1998, hopes ran high that he could make something of a comeback with a horror movie that contained a fairly interesting premise (a modern day vampire hunter is employed by the Vatican to stamp out blood sucking evil) and starred an overpumped James Woods in the lead role. But did it work? No. A formulaic plot and a disengaging chief villain (Thomas Griffith) – plus the misfired attempt by a middle-aged Woods to play an action hero – literally drained this film of any tension. It also made sure the second chunk of Carpenter’s career continued to sink further into mediocrity.

5. Heaven & Earth (Oliver Stone, 1993)

heaven_and_earth_oliver-stone-filmWhile not entirely a stinker, this final installment of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy didn’t quite live up to its predecessors (1986’s Platoon and 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July). It was also somewhat patronising in its representation of the Vietnamese, who were essentially portrayed as humble, simple and wise country folk that – on the whole – remained steadfastly noble as they were systematically colonised by the French, brutally tortured by their own countrymen and, finally, given false hope by the liberating Americans. A sprawling biopic with a few good moments, Heaven & Earth ultimately proves that Stone’s heavy handedness and penchant for the bombastic doesn’t always work in his favour.

4. The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004)

the-day-after-tomorrowBefore making this global warming/climate change disaster movie, Roland Emmerich had shown he could deliver a blockbuster with 1996’s anti-logic Independence Day and, to a lesser extent, the not-so-popular 1998 remake of Godzilla. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising the imminent release of TDAT in 2004 generated quite a bit of hype – something that was helped by a massive publicity campaign which used the film’s scenes of mass destruction as its main selling point. The problem was this promotional strategy overused all of the film’s moments of carnage (including the Arctic polar cap breaking up and the tidal wave hitting Manhattan), meaning there was really nothing else to see when the film finally hit the theatres. Plus it contained a ludicrous story about a group of teenagers who are holed up in the New York library during the big freeze while the father of one of them (Dennis Quaid) comes to their rescue. The South Park version is much better.

3. Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001)

pearlharbor_ben-affleckAlthough Jerry Bruckheimer has produced some fairly dull blockbusters in his day, the Michael Bay-directed Armageddon (1998) isn’t one of them. Sure – it’s hokey and corny and probably a little too long in places – but all up it’s pretty entertaining. This is why, back in 2000 or so, the prospect of these two getting together again to make a movie about one of the seminal moments in WWII was a reasonably exciting one, particularly when the big battle scene would no doubt involve the clever use of CGI. Well, they got it half right, for on the whole their handling of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor wasn’t too bad. The problem was this was bookended by a dull-as-dishwater melodrama involving a love triangle between Ben Affleck, Josh Harnett and Kate Beckinsale that dragged the whole thing out to just over three hours, culminating in the US’ retaliatory attack on Tokyo. Given this overlong movie dripped with sentimentality and shameless patriotism, maybe it should have been called something else so audiences didn’t get the wrong impression it was going to be all about December 7, 1941.

2. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)

star-wars-episode-i-the-phantom-menace-liam-neesom_ewan-mcgregorPossibly one of the most anticipated Hollywood films of all time, this looked like it was going to be a hoot. After a 20-year plus hiatus from directing, the wonderful Georgie boy was going to return to the chair and make a movie about the early life of Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the gifted Jedi knight who eventually crosses over to the dark side to become Darth Vader. Not only were filmgoers given the impression that this would be a sad and tragic story about innocence lost and the universality of evil, but it boasted one of the meanest looking space villains ever in the form of Darth Maul (Ray Park) – a being so hideous that he could even have given Pinhead out of the Hellraiser series (Doug Bradley) a run for his money. So, the stage was set. Unfortunately, all audiences got was the highly annoying Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a few light sabre duels (yawn), some special effects and an extended race scene that resembled nothing more than an early PlayStation game. Now there’s disappointment.

1. Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)

mission_impossible_tom-cruiseWith his 1993 crime opus Carlito’s Way, it seemed the flamboyant Brian De Palma had finally refined his visual style, with the director tightening – to great effect – a lot of the excessive camera gimmicks on which he had previously relied. If anything, this Al Pacino vehicle unequivocally proved the Hollywood auteur could still make a decent action film following his previous forays into the gangster genre (namely the sometimes overwrought Scarface in 1983 and 1987’s The Untouchables). So when it was announced that De Palma was going to direct a film version of the popular 1960s TV series Mission: Impossible starring Tom Cruise and based on a script co-written by Robert (Chinatown) Towne, the anticipation was palpable. Disappointingly, upon its release all expectations were trashed as – with the exception of a couple of shots during the climatic train chase scene – the whole thing looked like it had been made for TV. So WTF happened? How was it that a film which should have been dripping with style turned out to be so bereft of life? And why did De Palma seem to take a step in the opposite direction when it came to his usually flashy handling of mise-en-scene. The answer to these questions could lie with one person – Cruise. As one of MI’s producers, it’s possible the actor made sure the leashes were kept on the director, whose career was still a little in freefall after the budget of his 1990 box office misfire The Bonfire of the Vanities (which De Palma also produced) blew out to $47 million. Whatever the case, this movie – with its convoluted and strangely unexciting plot – turned out to be way, way flatter than it deserved to be.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser.

Over to you: what modern films failed to live up to your expectations?

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Keith Reply

    Very cool list but I really, really, really disagree about Return of the Jedi. Yes it is the weakest of the original trilogy but that doesn’t say much. I absolutely love the film and I still think it wraps up the original trilogy nicely. Ewoks and Lucas tampering aside of course.

    I also really like Total Recall. I watched that film sooo many times growing up. Still find it to be a ton of fun today. The remake on the other hand…TRASH!

  2. Rodney Reply

    Yeah, I’ll echo Keith (above) with his sentiments on ROTJ. I loved that film, and even though it’s probably too episodic for its own good, wraps up the original trilogy well (the intercutting between the Endor sequences and the Death Star Luke/Vader/Palpatine moments is sublimely done) and delivers – for the most part – a rousing send off.

    What I have to thoroughly disagree with is your #1 spot – no way is that Mission Impossible a disappointment! Frankly, watching it back years later, it’s a wonder it wasn’t a bigger hit, considering those involved. The John Woo sequel probably should have taken #1, or at least been included in the top 5, when you think about where Woo was at in his career at that point (he’d recently come off Face/Off, I think) so to throw DePalma’s flick into the mix is baffling. Honestly, I was more disappinted with MI2 than I was enthralled with MI1.

    Having said that, I do agree with you about Men In Black. Ugh, that film had be so keen, then let me down hard.

    • Dan Reply

      I agree Rodney. I remember at the time Mission Impossible was seen as a disappointment and John Woo was tasked with bringing more action to the mix. What he achieved was a vacuous waste of time that lost the first film’s subtleties. I’d take MI 1 over MI 2 any day.

  3. Neal Damiano Reply

    Neat list but I have to disagree with Return of The Jedi and Total Recall I think both movies delivered especially Total Recall very entertaining. It is one of Arnold’s best performances (IMO) and a unique storyline. Lived up to the trailer for sure.

    • Rodney Reply

      I’m still not sure how ANYONE can be disappointed with Total Recall. Even fans of the book had to be impressed with how it did…. Surely?

  4. Dan Reply

    I’m not really sure of my expectations about Contact – I saw it as a teenager – but I do remember being blown away by it. I’ve a soft spot for Zemeckis anyway but I love Contact’s sense of wonder and the sequence when Arroway discovers the alien signal for the first time is one of the most thrilling scenes I’ve ever seen from such a basic concept. So that remains a favourite of mine.

    I’m also a big fan of Total Recall and I love the subversiveness of John Carpenter’s Vampires. Return of the Jedi was my favourite Star Wars film when I was a kid and I’ve grown to like Mission Impossible more on subsequent viewing.

    I definitely agree with you on Men In Black – each film has disappointed me more and more. Great idea but it has never fully worked for me.

    Phantom Menace is the ideal film for this list. I suppose it could never live up to the weight of expectation on its release but what a disappointment it turned out to be.

    I’d add Prometheus to the mix. I ended up liking the film but it hardly lived up to expectation.

  5. Dan Grant Reply

    Well written list, I give you full marks for that. But I disagree with pretty much all of it. I won’t say much about Menace because it seems to be the whipping boy for so many (I loved it though) but Return of the Jedi? It’s fantastic and it ends the trilogy on a very high note. The Day After Tomorrow? What were you expecting? Other than the humorous silliness of Dennis Quaid walking from Philadelphia to New York in about 2 days, the rest of the film is pretty much exactly as I expected it would be. Pearl Harbor had maybe the best hour of action ever put on film. Mission Impossible….I’ll just stop. I like your writing style, I just disagree with every film on here except for MIB. I’ll echo Dan’s comment, Prometheus should be here for sure.

  6. Adam Lumb Reply

    I completely agree with you on The Phantom Menace. It should have been far better than it was. Yes, you could say – with the legacy of Lucas’ Star Wars – The Phantom Menace had a lot to live up to so how was it ever going to achieve the un-achievable BUT we’d all be blaming the director if it wasn’t Lucas himself. My point is: if anyone was going to make it work as well as the originals, it was the man who created the Star Wars universe in the first place. What The Phantom Menace did was tell the cinema-going public that Lucas is a great ideas man but he can neither write dialogue nor oversee a movie’s direction with any restraint.

    One movie I would add to this list is del Toro’s horrible Pacific Rim. What the heck happened there! I wanted to see Real Steel times 1,000 but ended up getting a lazy, misguided computer game played out for me by characters cut out of cardboard.

  7. Dan Grant Reply

    Has anyone seen The Counselor? That movie was one of the worst of last year. It definitely has a place on this list.

  8. Dan Heaton Reply

    Mmm. I agree on a few of these, especially Vampires due to John Carpenter’s involvement. On the other hand, Contact is a wonderful adaptation of a tricky book from Carl Sagan, Return of the Jedi has so much to like, and Total Recall is good pulpy fun. I also disagree with Mission: Impossible, which did some really interesting things with what could have been generic.

  9. jackdeth72 Reply

    Hi, Mark:

    ‘Return of The Jedi’ was the weakest link of the trilogy. And caught some resistance in the multiple repeat arena in theaters once word got out about its too cute and not so subtly telegraphed ending. That said. It’s still a decent film.

    ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ probably didn’t fare well inside the coasts. Partly for Emmerich’s Michael Bay like direction. Partly for people not buying into “Global Warming”.

    I didn’t have high expectations for ‘Pearl Harbor’ even as its trailers were making through theaters.

    Thought that De Palma’s ‘Mission Impossible’ and most of the franchise were too slick and quickly edited for their own good.

  10. ruth Reply

    I agree w/ a lot of these. I just saw Contact and though it started of great, the ending just wasn’t what I expected. Pearl Harbor could’ve been such a great film had it not been for Michael Bay’s penchant for cheese and explosion!!

  11. Mark Reply

    @ all – thanx for the feedback. Regardless of your thoughts, I’m not going to capitulate on Jedi …

    @ Rodney, Keith and Neal – I’ve sat through subsequent viewings of Total Recall over the years, sometimes with the assistance of hops and herbs, but for the life of me I can’t embrace it … IMO it shooda been a bigger, better version of Robocop, but it wasn’t.

    @ Dan Top 10: Prometheous …. yes, perfect addition.

    @Dan G: “Mission Impossible …. I’ll just stop.” Please, please don’t – I’d love to hear the end of that observation. You’re right about Day After Tomorrow though – all I wanted was some more of the same that I hadn’t seen before I walked into the cinema; you are also spot on about Pearl Harbour – all I wanted there was a film about Pearl Harbour (read a shortened remake of Tora, Tora, Tora with some hot CGI action) without 2 extra hours of Ben Afflect-led melodrama.

  12. Dan Grant Reply

    I don’t have a lot to say about Mission Impossible because that’s one I kind of agree with. The first one kinda disappointed me but the sequels were terrific. Like I said, your article is fantastic. It’s incredibly detailed and you give specifics as to why you dislike the films. I have no problem with your opinions, I just see most of those films differently. You are obviously not the first one to say what you did about Pearl Harbor. I found the romantic triangle gave the film that emotional punch to the gut when Danny dies in Raif’s arms. Yes it is manipulative but it’s also very effective. And I’m maybe the biggest Michael Bay fan out there, there’s very little he can do wrong in my eyes. So I guess we just have some fundamentals we disagree on.

  13. Evan Crean Reply

    This is one of the few pieces where I legitimately take issue with some of the films that made your list. For me MIB, Jedi, and Total Recall absolutely deliver on my expectations. Although there are elements of each that aren’t perfect, I don’t think any of them disappoint me in a way that would make my list of 10 films that failed to deliver. In fact, I think Total Recall gets smarter and more interesting with each viewing, seeing how it layers satire and intrigue in a way that constantly keeps you guessing as to whether it’s real or not. Other than these three, I totally agree. Phantom Menace was a massive letdown for me as a kid. It wasn’t until Episode III that Lucas seemed to be hitting his stride again, and by that point, it was arguably too late.

  14. brikhaus Reply

    I gotta throw in my two cents. Like some of the others, there is no way that Return of the Jedi or Total Recall were disappointments. Total Recall is one of Arnold’s best films, and a delight in how obscenely violent, convoluted, and ironically funny it is. Return of the Jedi may not be as good as Empire Strikes Back, but it wraps up the Star Wars trilogy nicely, and has many great moments.

  15. Novroz Reply

    Totally agree with your number 1 and 2!! I would add Transcendence to the list as well.

  16. Ayush Chandra Reply

    The most surprising was The Day After Tomorrow………

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