Whatever happened to the box-office bomb?

The joy of blockbusters.
July 13 2010 10:04 AM

A World Without Waterworlds

Whatever happened to the box-office bomb?

See all of Slate's Summer Movies coverage.

Still of Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb in “INCEPTION". Click image to expand.
Is Inception Hollywood's next great bomb?

People are understandably excited about Christopher Nolan's Inception. To start with, it marks the director's first film since his 2008 mega-smash The Dark Knight, which took more than $1 billion at the box office. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a dream thief who breaks into people's minds and steals their ideas, thus suggesting not only a blockbuster requiring an intimate knowledge of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy to understand it but also a withering satire on the way Hollywood comes up with its summer movie ideas. Most importantly of all, of course, it affords audiences a peek at that most endangered of species, an original idea for a motion picture, making it the only movie this year that could reasonably fail.

Remember that? When films used to fail? Films get called "bombs" all the time, of course—or "disappointments" to use the modern term. This year Prince of Persia, The A-Team, and Robin Hood all "underperformed," taking $190 million, $84 million, and $61 million respectively, although for the true belly flops, we must turn to poor old Jonah Hex, which debuted last weekend with a dismal $5 million, or Uma Thurman's Motherhood, a comedy about a stressed-out Manhattan mother that took just 88 pounds  when it opened in the United Kingdom earlier this year. On one Sunday, the box-office sales totaled just 9 pounds, meaning that only one person bought a ticket, thus providing a fresh twist on the old Buddhist paradox: Can a movie be said to bomb if nobody even sees it go off?

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The movie bomb used to be one of the more raucous spectator sports in America—watching Hollywood gather together some of the finest talents in the land, throw barrowfuls of money at them, lock them in a sound stage, and not let them out until they had made the biggest, proudest, costliest turkeys yet devised by human hand. Bonfire of the Vanities. Waterworld. Last Action Hero. Cutthroat Island. Their names alone were legend. They bestrode the world like colossi, their charred, rusting bulks a testament to the reach of man's hubris, the folly of human dreams, and the price of bottled water at Spago. They were so famous, people wrote books about them; we pored over every directorial temper tantrum and movie-star sulk like fish inspecting a shipwreck, looking for signs of the times, auguries of things to come, or else just a cheap shot of schadenfreude, although frequently it would be the bombs themselves that had the last laugh. Their notoriety was so great, their shadows so long, that eventually they were subjected to the same revisionism that envelops anything that sticks around in the culture for long enough. Recent critical opinion has it that Heaven's Gate is not a bad film, just a ruinously costly one, and even Ishtar has its defenders—ironic, coquettish types who wink at you from behind their yashmaghs.

What's happened to those films—the megabombs, the nuclear flops? Look up the list of the biggest flops on Wikipedia and you'll find plenty of movies from the last 10 years: You just won't have heard of them. Did anyone here see The 13th Warrior, a 1999 Viking-and-cannibal flick with Antonio Banderas and Omar Sharif? Or what about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a computer-animated Japanese-American co-production about marauding phantoms featuring the voices of Donald Sutherland and James Woods? Sad to say I neglected to see Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, a 2002 secret-agent thriller starring Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu, but I neglected even to hear about Soldier, a 1998 sci-fi flick starring Kurt Russell and Gary Busey. As for Anne Bancroft's last role, alongside Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt in the computer-animated dragon fantasy Delgo—well, here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know.

Together, these movies lost in excess of $1 billion at the box office. They didn't explode so much as implode, sucking up all traces of their existence like those depth charges you see go off in submarine movies, first pluming outward then, just as quickly, inward, smothered by the pound-for-pound pressure at 40 fathoms, of wherever it is that Japanese-American computer- animated co-productions starring Antonio Banderas like to lurk. There are some higher-profile productions in there— Gigli(2003), Battlefield Earth(2000), Catwoman (2004) all have something of the old negative glamour, the inverted stature—but to a large degree, we are in an A-list-free zone. The Alamo (2004) was all set to be a true $200-million stinker starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ron Howard until Disney got cold feet and stripped it down to a 95 million "disappointment" directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Dennis Quaid. Darren Aronofsky looked to be nursing along a beautifully misguided $70 million folly with The Fountain, his metaphysical head-scratcher set in three different time zones and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, until Warner Bros. pulled the plug and forced him to make it for $35 million with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz instead. Where's the fun in that?

In a way it was inevitable that Hollywood would wise up. The costs of franchise moviemaking had gotten too high, the risks too great. Failure was always such an un-American concept, anyway; it made perfect sense to simply abolish it. Not all failure, of course—we still get out Jonah Hexes and A-Teams—but here's what you don't see anymore: big box office failures of the magnitude of Waterworld, Wild Wild West, Hudson Hawk, Last Action Hero, or Cutthroat Island, the swashbuckler that derailed the careers of Renny Harlin, Geena Davis, and Matthew Modine—and the last film to actually force a movie studio to close, Heaven's Gate-style. By the time we got to Titanicin 1997 *, Fox and Paramount would have the sense to split the costs between them.

That didn't stop the Los Angeles Times from running a daily "Titanic Watch" column detailing the troubled production's every snag and snafu. Through the '80s and nineties, the press grew very adept at spotting these things ahead of time. A fired DP. Rewrites. Reshoots. A runaway budget. Those deliciously evocative words "action comedy." They smelled blood in the water, and they moved in for the kill. There was only one problem: Their narrative of Hollywood Hubris was a leftover from another era, before cable and DVD rentals, before the rise of the overseas markets and all the other ancillary revenues with which blockbusters beefed up their box-office figures. The press was all over Last Action Hero, pronouncing it a bomb-in-the-making before it had even reached cinemas, but thanks to overseas revenues, the film ended up making $137 million. Waterworld similarly wound up making $264 million. By the time we got to Godzilla, which made $243 million worldwide, we seemed to be witnessing a new breed of movie altogether: neither a hit nor a flop, neither a blockbuster nor a bomb, but somehow both, circling the earth with the stateliness of blimps, quietly siphoning up rental revenues from Abu Dhabi; pay-per-view profits from Stockholm, Sweden; cable kick-back from Kiev, Ukraine.

Nowadays, they are everywhere: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Speed Racer, Land of the Lost, Prince of Persia, the bombs that won't go off, all of them swirling in the same dust-cloud of disappointment that in the old days would have led to them being tagged "flops," only now, thanks to Hollywood's nose for the "presold," standing a pretty decent chance of making their money back—painfully, arduously, slowly but surely. It's not pretty, but Prince of Persia is well on its way to making a small profit, thank you very much, and the same goes for most of the year's other "disappointments"—Sex and the City 2, The A-Team, The Book of Eli—all of them failing upward in the modern way.

I miss the time when we let these things die. Because I am a sicko with an overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude, yes, but also because I think that failures can be just as revealing as successes, maybe more so. One From the Heart is one of my favorite Coppola movies, as beautiful and intricate as a Faberge egg, and I'm a big fan of the bomb buried deep inside Apocalypse Now: That film's proximity to pretentiousness is exactly what makes it such a thrill. I think that Hudson Hawk is not a bad movie. I'm not so certain that Ishtar is a good movie, but it evokes the friendship between Hoffman and Beatty at a high point in both men's careers; there is something lustrous and familiar to their tomfoolery, like old friends who cannot leave a joke alone. Until Waterworld beaches itself on that supertanker with Dennis Hopper, the movie is possessed of a salty, wind-in-your-hair sense of adventure: Costner looks good against an aquamarine backdrop. And I will never turn off The Abysswhen it comes on TV (not until the moment when Ed Harris comes back from the dead; then I'm outta there). James Cameron is one of the few filmmakers who regularly look as if they are going to deliver a 24-carat disaster only to make good at the last minute, thus pushing him into the company of such filmmaker-adventurers as John Huston and Howard Hawks, men for whom a movie wasn't really a movie unless it threatened to go into a life-threatening nose-dive at some point.

So yes, I will be first in line to see Inception, damp-palmed and a little nervous for Nolan, hoping he pulls magic out of the hat, grateful just for the suspense.

Correction, July 15, 2010: This sentence originally listed the wrong year that Titanic was released. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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