Plenty of movies start with a pretty overdone premise only to make that story feel new and interesting again. However, for every About Time, Pirates of the Caribbean or Bone Tomahawk, there is an equal number of terrible movies that squander a great premise with bad or mediocre execution. Here are 20 movies that started with a brilliant idea but failed to amount to a great end product.
When famed director Luc Besson pitched Lucy to his team, he described it as one-third Leon the Professional, one-third Inception and one third 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s hard not to be intrigued by a film like that, especially when it carries such an interesting premise: the idea that we are only ever using 10% of our brains, but that as we begin to use more we gain superpowers before moving away from recognisable humanity altogether.
This is an awesome concept for a sci-fi action movie, and just weird enough for a creative director like Besson.
Factor in the casting of today’s reigning queen of action Scarlett Johansson and the always dependable Morgan Freeman, and we should be on to a winner.
Unfortunately, despite the movie’s willingness to go all-out and commit to its wacky premise, Lucy still manages to fall totally flat.
The shifting tone comes off as confusing rather than deliberate, and we somehow wind up spending both too much time and too little time discussing the science.
19. After Earth
When it was announced that Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith were making a post-apocalyptic action movie together, many jumped to the understandable assumption that it was a gimmick.
It probably didn’t help that M. Night Shyamalan was in the director’s chair, since he has never shied away from flashy filmmaking choices like big twists, secret sequels and wild concepts.
When After Earth was released following a $100 million marketing campaign, the verdict was not good. Critics tore the script to shreds, remarking on the stilted dialogue and lack of any emotional or moral nuance.
The acting also didn’t get a great reception, with the lack of chemistry made worse by the fake transatlantic accents and formality of the characters.
All that aside, though, the idea of a father and son relationship set against the backdrop of a future Earth occupied by aliens is an intriguing ine.
On top of which, the idea that the alien threat can only be beaten by suppressing emotions is also a great thematic touch. Shyamalan just wasn’t the person to do it.
18. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
When The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, it proved to be a global phenomenon that went far beyond the average horror movie.
The marketing campaign, hosted on the early internet and basically impossible to fact check, convinced many audiences that the actors involved really had gone missing and vanished off the face of the Earth, leaving behind just a camcorder recording of their last night in the woods.
So when a sequel was proposed, the writers went the meta-route, following a group of real-life tourists mockumentary style, as they descend on the town in which the first Blair Witch was set.
Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows was supposed to be a grounded exploration of mass hysteria, with fans of the Blair Witch myth eventually driven to horrific acts not by magic, but by the collective power of belief.
However, the movie was significantly changed in post-production to increase its marketability, and the film’s original psychological thriller tone was lost along the way.
Instead, we got a simple string of murders with a plot centred on early-2000s witchcraft, complete with a soon-dated industrial rock soundtrack and paper-thin explanations.
Basing a movie on a theme park ride or zone might seem like an odd idea, but it is one that Disney has returned to again and again.
Sometimes it leads to a horrific failure, like in the case of 2002’s The Country Bears; sometimes it makes for a surprising hit, like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Other times it ends in the waste of a truly great concept, as was regrettably the case for 2015’s Tomorrowland.
Tomorrowland blends the real history of Disney with a fantastical alternative universe, in which a group of scientists and inventors are working to create a fantastical retrofuturistic utopia, one only accessible through a hidden door in the It’s a Small World Disney attraction.
The idea of inventors worldwide working to create a conflict-free neighbourhood based on the World’s Fair is awesome, especially when it’s something that Walt Disney really did try to do in his lifetime.
However, the movie spends most of its time beating up goofy robots, having Hugh Laurie chew scenery and pretending that a woman in her 30s can convincingly play a young teenager.
16. The Invention of Lying
Romantic comedies with unusual premises are nothing new, but The Invention of Lying squanders a unique idea on a genre that it isn’t really meant for.
The film follows Ricky Gervais’ character as he is fired, romantically rejected and evicted on the same day, leading to him becoming the only person on Earth with the ability to lie.
We watch as he at first uses lying for selfish gain, but eventually moves towards using lies to comfort the sad and dying, only to accidentally create religion in the process.
The irony of protagonist Mark Bellison making the world objectively worse only once he starts trying to use his lying for good is really powerful.
Unfortunately the film gets itself tied up in a useless love story that is far less interesting than the philosophical questions being explored.
In the right hands, The Invention of Lying could have been a fun thought experiment that slowly descends into a hellish dystopia, instead of ending with a wedding and white picket fence.
15. The Running Man
The Running Man has one of the darkest plots of any movie. During a global economic crisis, our hero Ben Richards is a police helicopter pilot framed for a massacre he tried to prevent.
Whilst trying to escape the law, Richards is forced to participate in a game show in which he is chased by professional killers through LA, competing to survive and win a state pardon for his crime.
As if that wasn’t grim enough, the entire government is corrupt, faking the outcomes of the game show with digital effects and lying about Richards’ guilt.
Yet as downbeat as it sounds, The Running Man movie is more of a fun action romp than a genuine dystopian sci-fi, and is so far away from the Stephen King novel it was based on that even star Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was disappointed.
The problem can mostly be boiled down to the execution by the director, since the film is shot more like a television pilot than a frenetic action film, while a lot of the devastating emotion and commentary inherent to the story is lost along the way.
It will be interesting to see what comes of the planned Running Man remake from esteemed British filmmaker Edgar Wright.
14. The Island
If someone asked you if you wanted to watch a science fiction thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, wherein their characters live in an isolated pod following a climate catastrophe (and where they also slowly fall in love!), you’d probably say yes.
If you then found out that the climate dystopia angle was actually a lie the characters were being told, and that both of them were being raised to have their organs harvested for rich celebrity clients, you’d probably be even more on board.
That’s the plot of The Island, but unfortunately, the movie was released in 2005 to very little fanfare. The main problem? It was directed by Michael Bay.
Most critics agreed that the concept was intriguing, and that the early part of the movie was satisfyingly dark and eerie.
Sadly, the latter half of the movie following the protagonists’ escape from the compound dissolves into generic action fare.
The Island can be considered a victim of Bayhem. This is one movie which really needed a more intelligent, subtle director calling the shots.
Imagine a movie in which a man is gifted a remote that lets him literally control reality by pausing, rewinding and skipping through time.
You probably wouldn’t imagine this being the premise for a goofy Adam Sandler comedy, but unfortunately that’s exactly what 2006’s Click is.
Weirdly, the actual events of the film are pretty sad, with Sandler’s character Michael accidentally skipping ahead through his whole life.
As a result of this slip-up, Michael winds up losing his wife, father, family dog and time spent with his kids in the process.
The film received mixed reviews from critics, with most people speculating that the concept could have been used to much greater effect in a movie with a more serious tone.
Though Click definitely has its heartbreaking moments – it’s one in which Sandler delivers desolate devastation pretty well – the constant jokes and comedy make it hard for the emotions to stick.
12. In Time
Despite the fact that he’s been appearing in movies for a couple of decades now, it has yet to stop feeling surprising whenever Justin Timberlake is announced to be headlining a new film.
However, even more surprising than his decision to play a fuzzy emo troll in Trolls was his decision to star in the 2011 science fiction action flick In Time.
In Time centres on the idea of people being forced to spend minutes of their lives as currency, with a running, glowing countdown on their arm showing exactly when their clock will run out for good.
It’s an interesting premise for sure, but one that many critics felt was better dealt with in the 1965 short story Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman, which In Time claimed to have nothing to do with.
Not only that, but the film is dragged down by its heavy-handed storytelling and clumsy acting on the part of the two leads, which reduces the clever premise down to a lazy gimmick.
Considering the combined experience of Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried and writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), there’s no excuse for In Time turning out so poor.
11. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
The early 21st century has proved to be the golden age of comic book movies, with special effects technology having reached the point that filmmakers can really do justice to the superheroes of the printed page on the big screen.
In terms of iconography and influence, arguably no superheroes are as influential or enduring as DC’s Superman and Batman; characters who have enjoyed a long and varied relationship across many decades of comic books.
As such, the idea of the two mighty superheroes finally meeting in live action left audiences dizzy with anticipation – and this was only heightened by the revelation that the film would also see the long-awaited film debut of DC’s other legendary superhero, Wonder Woman.
However, from the moment it was announced that the film would be entitled Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, something felt very off. Adding to this unease was the fact that the film, having been originally scheduled to open in summer 2015, wound up being delayed by almost an entire year.
Far from giving audiences the expected heart-thumping epic adventure, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice proved to be a confounding, tedious mess. Overly downbeat, uncomfortably solemn and far too slow-moving, the film never finds the right tone and is overblown with a sense of its own importance.
Worse yet, it struggles in vain to sow the seeds for a slew of further DC movies, resulting in a pointlessly overcomplicated plot that at times strays into absurdity (one word says it all: Martha).
10. Last Action Hero
Last Action Hero poses a tantalising question: what if the hero in a bombastic Hollywood action thriller suddenly became aware that he was simply a character in a movie? Moreover, what would happen if he left his movie universe and came into the real world, where the same rules don’t apply?
This intriguing premise should, by all rights, have resulted in a smart satire of the bullet-ridden, wise-cracking, musclebound heroic cliches that had saturated American cinema for decades, reaching a particular peak in the 80s with such stars as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The problems began as soon as Schwarzenegger himself signed on to star in Last Action Hero, along with his Predator director John McTiernan (who had made Die Hard in the interim). As two figures who exemplified the cinema that the script was critiquing, perhaps they weren’t in the best position to tackle such material.
Things were only made worse by Schwarzenegger’s insistence on making the film suitable for family viewing. The fact that Last Action Hero’s screenplay was originally entitled Extremely Violent gives a fair indication of how heavily watered-down the end result is, to say nothing of its extremely muddled tone, ranging from spoof to straight-up action movie to hard-edged kitchen sink realism. (Small wonder dozens of different writers are said to have contributed to the final script.)
Learning about Last Action Hero’s troubled production does give some perspective on what a mess it wound up being. Rushed through production and editing, the film really shouldn’t have been released in the cut that made it to cinemas. It’s overlong, inconsistent and frequently makes little sense.
The greatest crime of all, though, is that Last Action Hero winds up totally underwhelming both as an action movie, and as a comedy (despite a few decent one-liners here and there).
9. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
If there’s one constant rule in the world of film adaptation, it’s that if you make a movie based on an Alan Moore property, Alan Moore will distance himself from the final product.
This is true of most films made based on Moore comics, from V for Vendetta to The Killing Joke, but it proved especially true when it came to The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
The idea of a steampunk alternative universe in which classic literary heroes and villains are translated into superheroes can not get much cooler, which is why Moore’s original run of comics is so beloved.
However, despite a talented cast that includes the great Sean Connery, the movie adaptation fails on almost every count.
Not only does it have zero respect for the source material, which angered fans at the time of its release, but the production was so chaotic and confusing that it caused Connery to retire from acting permanently because, in his words, he was “tired of dealing with idiots”. Yikes.
Small wonder that the League of Extraordinary Gentleman was a critical and commercial flop, and marked the end of director Stephen Norrington’s career.
8. John Carter
Few blockbuster failures from the past decade are quite so notorious as John Carter, the megabudget Disney production which crashed and burned on release in 2012.
Released on the centenary of A Princess of Mars (the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on which the film is based), the film was originally set to be entitled John Carter of Mars, and was intended as the first in a series of movies adapted from Burroughs’ sci-fi adventure series.
At the time of the film’s release, defenders insisted John Carter was simply a victim of bad timing. A film adaptation of A Princess of Mars had been on the Hollywood back-burner for decades, during which time many properties heavily inspired by Burroughs’ creation made it to screens, among them Star Wars, Flash Gordon, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Avatar.
As a result of this, when John Carter finally made it to the big screen, the resulting film seemed highly derivative of all those great sci-fi adventures that had come before – irrespective of the fact that the John Carter of Mars novels had paved the way for all of them in the first place.
Even so, once the dust had settled it was hard to deny than John Carter was a thoroughly underwhelming movie. Director Andrew Stanton fails to create a sense of wonder in his representation of Mars, and the performances all fall a bit flat: as Carter and the Princess Dejah Thoris, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins just don’t have the required charisma.
After reportedly costing Disney over $300 million, John Carter proved a huge money-loser for the studio, killing any possibility of further films. It’s a shame that a story with such obvious filmic potential would have to wait 100 years to get there, only to fail so miserably.
Few stories seem more perfectly suited to a filmmaker than Peter Pan did to Steven Spielberg. Who better to tackle the tale of the boy who never grew up than the director with such an uncanny knack for conveying a child’s perspective (as most famously demonstrated in ET)?
Yet more pitch-perfect casting came as larger-than-life comedy legend Robin Williams took the role of Peter himself, having left Neverland years later, grown to adulthood, and forgotten the magical days of his unusually long childhood. With Dustin Hoffman also on board to play Pan’s arch nemesis, the pirate Captain Hook, the stage was set for a truly legendary adventure.
Yet, while Hook went down well with some viewers, it’s difficult to watch the film without feeling that there’s something very wrong with the whole enterprise, with that real sense of magic and wonder conspicuous by its absence.
There is clear dramatic potential to the idea of Peter Pan having not only grown up and forgotten who he was, but also having taken up a ruthless corporate line of work and alienated himself from his family in the process.
Yet once Peter actually finds his way back to Neverland, it’s with the guidance of a lifeless, miscast Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell – and the magical world he’s taken away to seems more like an overpriced theme park than a place of real wonder and enchantment.
Hook then proceeds to wash away what little goodwill it has earned with a slew of adult-oriented jokes that really don’t belong in a family film, and high-flying sword fights with less sense of grace and excitement than an amateur stage production.
6. Reign of Fire
Few film franchises from the past four decades have been quite so influential as Mad Max – and over the years, countless filmmakers have attempted to find new and creative spins on that post-apocalyptic action format.
2002’s dark fantasy thriller Reign of Fire hit upon an absolutely scintillating hook: what if the world had been turned into a Mad Max-esque wasteland not because of nuclear war or disease, but because dragons were reborn in the modern world?
It’s an undeniably thrilling idea that appeals to the adventure-seeking youngster in us all – and pulses were only sent racing further when the first posters and promotional images for Reign of Fire were released, showing dragons in flight spewing flame over London, whilst military helicopters made a counter-attack.
If director Rob Bowman’s film had actually delivered on this promise of epic airborne action with dragons battling the Air Force, it’s doubtful that any audience members would have been left feeling short-changed. Alas, with a budget of $60 million (which didn’t go as far in 2002 as it might have in years gone by), Reign of Fire just didn’t have the resources to achieve this.
Instead, we’re left with a film that is largely grounded (in all senses) and which primarily emphasises human drama, with dragons only making occasional, fleeting appearances.
One might hope the human element would be compelling enough, given the presence of the esteemed Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale in the lead roles, but even they can’t lift the limp, prosaic storyline.
5. 15 Minutes
2001 crime thriller 15 Minutes hinges on the famous quotation from artist Andy Warhol, who said that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Today, most people wind up finding their proverbial quarter of an hour by going viral online, but 20 years ago the most surefire method was to get on the TV news.
Director John Herzfeld’s film sees a pair of Eastern European men seek out their own taste of fame by becoming high profile serial killers, capturing their crimes on video. Robert De Niro plays a cop on their trail, and – as the crimes of the killer also include arson – he’s unwillingly teamed up with Edward Burns’ fire department investigator.
15 Minutes was released at a time when Robert De Niro was still relatively new to more mainstream fare (having not long since made the likes of Analyse This and Meet the Parents), and as such his presence at the time seemed to suggest that audiences could expect a genuinely smart and sophisticated take on the police procedural format.
Sadly, this proved not to be the case at all. While it may make some pretence of being an edgy and bold thriller, 15 Minutes is turgid, lifeless and predictable, drowning in its own self-righteous cynicism.
The film purports to be critical of media sensationalism, repeatedly hammering home the idea that TV news glorifies violence – and yet, the film itself is every bit as guilty of presenting a lurid violent spectacle designed to get pulses racing. There are also distinct overtones of racism on display, given that the villains are immigrants.
Above all, though, it hurts to see De Niro demean himself so badly by taking part in something so clearly beneath him. Watching the film, it’s hard to avoid the sense that the once-great actor has simply given up – and, a paltry few films aside, he’s barely taken a role since that really lives up to his legacy.
4. Spider-Man 3
Given how commonplace comic book-based blockbusters have become in the past two decades, it’s easy to forget now just how great an impact the original Spider-Man movies had.
Director Sam Raimi, actors Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst and all their talented collaborators helped make the first two big screen takes on Marvel’s wall-crawling superhero some of the very best examples of comic book cinema up to that point.
All this being the case, hopes were obviously high when that same core group got together for a third Spider-Man movie in 2007, which would this time tackle a fan favourite storyline from the mid-80s: the introduction of Spider-Man’s black suit, which in turn led to the creation of super-villain Venom.
The problem was, while this was a storyline that the fans and the producers were keen on, it wasn’t a story that director Sam Raimi actually had much interest in. So as a compromise, Raimi agreed to squeeze in all the Venom stuff as long as he was also allowed to tackle one of his favourite vintage Spider-Man villains: Sandman.
However, on top of all that the third Spider-Man movie also needed to wrap up the existing story thread of Harry Osborn, and his fated transformation into the new Green Goblin. This was already a whole lot to squeeze into a single film, and at the same time Raimi and co also felt compelled to add… elements of old-fashioned jazz-based musicals?!
Under the circumstances, it’s doubtful Spider-Man 3 could ever have lived up to what came before, but it proved to be a terrible concluding chapter in what should have been a great movie trilogy.
3. The Dark Tower
For years, readers of Stephen King‘s Dark Tower saga had dreamed of the vast, genre-twisting fantasy saga being brought to the screen in all its glory, and for some time Hollywood had been trying to do just that.
Legendary horror author King wrote the series of novels over the course of 30 years, and in the eyes of many they are the true pinnacle of his already immense and significant body of work.
After spending many years in development hell, signs were initially good for The Dark Tower movie, not least thanks to the impressive casting of Idris Elba as the gunslinger Roland Deschain, and Matthew McConaughey as his sinister nemesis, the Man in Black.
Yet when The Dark Tower finally arrived in 2017, those familiar with the books were somewhat baffled that the epic, decades-spanning saga had somehow been condensed into a single movie lasting only 95 minutes, with the bulk of the characters from the books omitted completely.
Director Nikolaj Arcel’s film toed an awkward line, attempting to present something that would be accessible and appealing to a broad, uninitiated audience, whilst also pleasing the faithful. In fact, The Dark Tower fails in both capacities.
We’re left with something that feels more akin to a standalone Harry Potter/Percy Jackson clone for a young teen audience, rather than the mighty epic with a more mature appeal that it really should have been.
2. All Cheerleaders Die
When All Cheerleaders Die arrived in 2013, it felt like a long time since we’d last had a really smart and scary high school horror movie, and this independent production seemed to promise just that.
Co-written and directed by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson, the film was a remake of their own ultra-low budget video-shot movie of the same name from over a decade earlier. Approaching the same material with a bigger budget and more experience under their belts should by all rights have resulted in a more satisfying movie.
The movie centres on several members of a cheerleader squad who are accidentally killed, then brought back to life by another girl from their school who happens to be a witch. As is usually the case in such instances, the cheerleaders haven’t come back as quite the same people they were before.
It’s a fun core concept which immediately evokes such time-honoured teen classics as The Craft and Heathers, promising a movie that’s as funny as it is scary. There’s also more than a hint of a satirical edge, as it transpires one new recruit to the cheerleaders has joined in order to exact a sly revenge on the elitist group. There are also some secret same-sex relationships going on within the team.
So how is it that All Cheerleaders Die winds up such a lifeless, joyless experience? While budget constraints are clearly an issue, nothing can excuse how visually flat and poorly paced it is, and how neither the jokes nor the scares ever seem to land.
While it’s commendable that the film wants to seriously address issues of elitism, bullying and misogyny, it’s unforgivable that All Cheerleaders Die neglects to deliver the one essential quality of a teen horror comedy: it’s simply no fun to watch.
1. Southland Tales
Few, if any filmmakers of modern times have fallen from grace anywhere near as spectacularly as writer-director Richard Kelly did with his sophomore film Southland Tales.
With cult hit and critical darling Donnie Darko to his name, Kelly was widely praised as the next American auteur, not unlike Quentin Tarantino had been a decade earlier. As such, hopes were high that his second effort would prove to be his Pulp Fiction.
Not one to do things by halves, Kelly cooked up a sprawling, almost-impossible-to-summarise story of a near future Los Angeles on the brink of devastation, incorporating a movie star suffering from memory loss (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), a former adult film actress-turned-TV psychic (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an ill-tempered cop and his twin (both played by Sean William Scott), and all manner of counter-cultural figures and political insurgents.
Kelly can hardly be faulted for wanting to subvert expectation, and plenty of acclaimed films have managed to succeed with such complex, character-heavy set-ups (Magnolia, for instance). Unfortunately, Southland Tales proved to be far too unruly a beast for anyone to tame. In the wake of almost universally bad reviews, it bombed with box office takings of under $375,000.
Among the few that did see Southland Tales in cinemas, there are those who argue it’s a misunderstood masterpiece. However, above all else the film stands tall as a cautionary tale about keeping your ambitions in check, and not biting off way more than you can chew.