Movie-making is a high-stakes, all-in, kind of deal. You have to bet big to win big, most of the time. And when a movie tanks, it's easy to point fingers — but a lot of flops probably did seem like a good idea. But not all of them. Here are 10 big-budget movies that it's hard to see how anybody thought were a good idea.
Honestly, this list could have been populated entirely with campy-weird movies based on classic TV shows that had aging or non-existent fanbases. For every Charlie's Angels, you have a slew of disasters. The Bewitched movie had too low a budget to win a place on this list, but there are tons of others that could have belonged here. Dark Shadows, Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, Land of the Lost... there are so, so many. This film takes a much-loved but little-remembered steampunky TV Western and turns it into a Men in Black clone, featuring Kenneth Branagh as a mechanical spider. Who thought "steampunk comedy Western" was a license to print money?
There are a few movies here that appear on everybody's list of the "biggest box office bombs of all time" — but while you can make a strong case that Waterworld could have worked, it's harder to make that case for Pluto Nash. This was a fairly lavish space comedy, with a star who was doing well carrying mid-budget romps like Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle. But also, this film had been in development since the end of the Carter Administration. As Peter Bart wrote in Variety, "Pluto Nash has been in development since 1980, reminding us that any movie that gets rewritten year after year should be banished forever into development hell."
I have a huge, massive soft spot for this movie — Thandi Newton, Karl Urban and Judi Dench swanning around a glittery alien citadel in glam outfits, the "kill you with my teacup" scene, the space jailbreak, etc. etc. It's full of ridiculous fun. But they gave David Twohy a reported $120 million (still a lot of money back then) to make a massive Star Wars-y space opera adventure on the heels of a small-budget alien horror film that did unexpectedly well. It would be like if the sequel to Alien was a bigger-budget version of Ice Pirates, instead of Aliens.
We're skipping over Catwoman, which I can just about imagine was a good idea at first. (Except for the part where they did Catwoman instead of Wonder Woman.) And we're skipping over Stepford Wives, because it was slightly too inexpensive. Also skipping over Land of the Lost and a few other TV adaptations, because we're lumping those in with Wild Wild West. That means we're jumping a few years ahead, to the current "tentpole" glut. Sorcerer's Apprentice is another movie I have a huge soft spot for, because Nic Cage is charming in it and Alfred Molina is always a fun villain. And yet, even with Jerry Bruckheimer spearheading it, I can't quite see how anyone thought "that Mickey Mouse cartoon, except with Mickey Mouse replaced with a nerdy twentysomething Canadian comedian" was a slam dunk. Or the idea of "Nic Cage in a crazy wig is a wizard from the days of Merlin who hangs around New York until he finds an apprentice who messes everything up."
This list could also have been populated entirely by "big-budget vehicles for comedians," because that's mostly what jumped out at me when I was looking at movies with budgets over about $100 million. This film deserves a special place, however, because the idea of taking Jonathan Swift's famous satire on human nature, which depends on a certain mordancy, and turning it into a vehicle for Jack Black to make zany School of Rock-esque jokes just clearly seems like a bad idea. Everyone who actually read the book — which still does get read in school — will be disgusted (or avoid the movie because they think it's like that book they were forced to read in school.) And everyone else will just want slapstick involving teeny people.
And speaking of Jack Black, it's still kind of astonishing to contemplate how close we came to getting a silly version of Green Lantern, starring Black as a hapless schmoe who gets the most powerful piece of jewelry in the cosmos. To Hollywood's credit, the horribly ill-advised movies that almost happened are worse than the ones that did happen. We did, however, get a pretty costly Green Hornet film, starring Seth Rogen. Let's be clear here — when legendary Hong Kong action-comedy mastermind Stephen Chow was on board as director and co-star, then you can see how this looked like a good idea. But the green light probably should have turned yellow when Chow left the project, because the Hornet's sidekick Kato needs to be the star of the film for it to work. The resulting film isn't terrible, but it was never going to be a hit, even with new director Michel Gondry doing a zany spin on bullet-time.
Like a lot of movies on this list, C&A isn't a terrible film — we kind of liked it at the time. It is, however, a tough concept to sell, especially in the post-Western era. And this movie has a huge, glaring problem, before you watch a single frame: it has a campy title, but it's not a campy movie. You expect "Cowboys and Aliens" to be Blazing Saddles crossed with Mars Attacks. That might seem like an easy problem to fix — just change the title! — except that it's hard to find a non-campy title that tells people "This is a Western with aliens," because the concept is so oddball to begin with. It's like making a Busby Berkley musical about flesh-eating bacteria. But there's another thing about this movie — it was pitched as a graphic novel, that literally nobody read until the film had already come and gone. The notion that any movie based on a graphic novel will be a sure thing, even if the graphic novel has no fanbase whatsoever, is kind of an odd one. It's also how we got R.I.P.D. and a few other recent films.
This movie got kind of a bad rap — like several others on this list, it's actually not as bad as it was painted. It's based on a pretty nifty book by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed. The problem is, instead of just doing this film with regular computer animation (which probably would have been a lot cheaper than the estimated $200 million they poured into this film), Disney used Robert Zemeckis' pioneering motion-capture technique, as in Polar Express and Beowulf, and as a result the film was stuck in the Uncanny Valley. They had Seth Green "play" the main character (instead of getting an actual little kid) but then didn't use Green's voice. The whole thing was kind of a weird idea.
Remember the board game movie boom of a few years ago? Ridley Scott was going to direct a science fiction version of Monopoly! Actually, "Ridley Scott's dystopian Monopoly" sounds like a way better idea than "that board game with the pegs and the screens, only with aliens and a vaguely Transformers vibe." This movie goes to insane lengths to include shout-outs to a board game that nobody under 30 remembered, and everybody over 30 just wanted to hear someone shout "You sank my battleship!". Also, this is a film that you could reasonably have expected to be campier than it was.
And finally... sigh. The Chushingura, a vital story in Japanese national mythology, probably shouldn't have been a Hollywood film to begin with, because the concepts that propel this story of dishonor and revenge translate badly to a Western cultural context. Even if, say, Spielberg had made this into a lavish historical drama. But adding fantasy elements, and throwing insane tons of CG at the screen, should have looked like a bad idea right off the bat. By the time the pitch included, "And we'll have Keanu Reeves as a half-European outcast who was raised by friendly demons and is forced to cage-fight in a brothel," the meeting probably should have been over.