5 Films That Wasted Their Potential

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Sitting through an awful film is an excruciating experience, especially when you feel compelled to keep going for the sake of critical merit. The whole thing feels like a colonic irrigation that, lets face it, is even more wasteful if you don’t conclude it.

But what is so much worse than that, on so many levels of mental strife, is a film which has a great premise, great potential, but an average or downright poor end product. This is when your desperate pleas change from “this is awful!” to “why is this awful?!” And naturally it’s more torturous because you just know that, with a few more better aligned brain cells or less hangover infused writing sessions, you could be watching something better, good or great even.

Here are a list of films that had everything going for them, and how they failed to reach their heights, or simply fell apart all together.

Dreamcatcher

Given that Stephen King has written more novels than the population of most countries, it’s inevitable by the laws of probability that some are going to be poor, and somehow more likely still that those poor ones are going to be made into poor films. 2003’s Dreamcatcher is an example of this phenomenon.

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, and co-written by Kasdan and the highly regarded William Goldman, Dreamcatcher is the story of four childhood friends who, as grown ups, take their annual winter break at a log cabin in the woods. Each of them is different from your average Joe, sharing some sort of psychic link and boasting odd abilities. Then aliens show up, and they’re thrown into the middle of it as the army arrives and starts hauling ass.

The tragedy is that not only does Dreamcatcher have an intriguing premise, but it also enjoys an excellent first act. After a highly atmospheric opening, and a well paced character building segment with great dialogue and chemistry, it veers well into mystery suspense. Then it collapses in on itself in a mess of B-movie dialogue and plotting, hammy acting and absurd twists.

Tension evaporates quickly, as the story switches from horror thriller to action movie. This moment arrives soon after the arrival of Morgan Freeman’s military unit with a couple of ill-executed deaths and flat characterizations. The mistake is treating the rest of the movie as an alien invasion flick, with clichéd evil plans to boot, instead of keeping the focus on the friends at the centre of the story. By movie’s end, in a haze of stupidity, you simply don’t care about them anymore.

Die Another Day

Criticizing pre-Casino Royale Bond is a little bit too easy, and as much as Pierce Brosnan made an excellent 007, he suffered from being in some incredibly dumb installments, Goldeneye aside. The last of them, the fourth, is the worst of the bunch, despite much early promise.

Although the opening prologue is just as over the top and ridiculous as you would expect, with Bond taking on an army of North Koreans and making good work of it, it takes an excellent slant when he is captured, imprisoned and tortured by said goons, before eventually being traded back to the West in exchange for a war criminal. Upon return, he is castigated and stripped of his privileges, no longer a recognized MI6 operative.

So he becomes a rogue agent, no longer kept on a leash by the organization. It’s a great premise, the idea of ‘Bad Bond’, doing dirty work and breaking all the rules. It’s a fantasy many a fan had wanted to see play out for real.

But despite having that opportunity, Bond does nothing of the sort, instead proceeding as if nothing is amiss, quickly forgetting his mental scars and sense of betrayal. Not only that, but he gets sucked into yet another ridiculous, comic book plot with a space laser cannon, invisible cars, cosmetically disguised villains and Madonna as a fencing instructor. There’s a horrible feeling of dread for the franchise when the hero wind surfs over tidal waves in the North Pole using a piece of metal and a parachute. By this point, we’re watching the spiritual predecessor to GI Joe.

So much for darker and grittier…

Limitless

Limitless was always going to be made. After all it’s one of those Hollywood ‘hot property’ concepts. A down on his luck loser takes a mind altering drug, turning him into a super-genius. It’s the old myth of un-accessed parts of the brain containing human evolution, and one that is compelling when played right.

Bradley Cooper’s deadbeat writer is given a pill by his ex-brother in law, writes his novel in four days and is an expert at everything. He turns to the money markets, makes millions, and gets plenty of attention in the process. Then he’s thrust into a conspiracy of significant figures going after the drug, mysterious murderers on his trail and the horrible side effects of the pill. It sounds like a high-octane rendering of Flowers for Algernon.

But it doesn’t turn out that way. Seemingly working with a first draft script from a writer too attached to his protagonist, the main character sails through troubled waters with little real danger, escaping harm’s way as quickly as it takes to narrate a sentence long piece of exposition and explanation. There’s no morality tale, no dark side, just a fantasy and some half-boiled thriller aspects forgotten about as soon as they’re raised.
In the end, our hero has won the game with the sort of ease which is hugely disappointing, on his way to the very top. This is preceded by numerous missed chances at conflicts and crisis, of which there are too many to list here without segueing into a rant. But ultimately, nothing is sacrificed and nothing is at stake. What could have been a great morality tale about losing your soul, or the human condition, instead resembles a vanity induced fantasy.

The film’s message is this: If you are given a pill by an old acquaintance, which can alter your life and turn you into a superhuman thinker, then go ahead and take it. Nothing bad will come of it. You’ll be fine.

Caligula

Much of Roman history tends to be quite dry material, when it isn’t stolen from other cultures, that is. But one story worth a million dull ones is that of Emperor Caligula, the man who made his horse a senator and declared war on the sea.

The film follows ‘Little Boots’ as he becomes the supreme ruler of the empire, during an era of extravagance and debauchery. A childish, impish figure, Caligula finds himself in a position of absolute power and quickly goes mad, indulging himself in truly crazy fashion with absolutely no limitations.

What could be a fascinating glimpse at the corrupting nature of such unquestioned rule, absolute power corrupting absolutely, instead ended up being a huge cinematic disaster, famously so. Rather than make a focused character study about the descent into madness, instead the film projects a series of surreal, depraved scenes, with no real narrative focus or moral core.

It doesn’t help that producer Bob Guccione took the opportunity to throw in his personally filmed hardcore pornography, working off hours to edit them into the film. And before then, writer Gore Vidal had demanded his name be removed from the film after director Tinto Brass and star Malcolm McDowell changed the focus of his screenplay. And then Brass disowned it due to Guccione’s meddling. Chaos within the filming came across in the film, whichever version you happen to catch, but not in a constructive way.

Any hope that this could be used practically is pretty much torpedoed by the fact that the titular character is no different before his ascension, and shows no development. In effect, the piece becomes a tale of a madman who becomes emperor and turns into a madman who has more power than before. Or, perhaps, an overlong soft-core porn film with John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. And I don’t think anyone ever wanted to see that.

Avatar

It seems odd to pick the most financially successful film of all time for this list, especially when it’s so adored by so many. But sometimes it’s those at the top of the pedestal who deserve the most scrutiny, and in the case of James Cameron’s epic, there is a lot to scrutinize.

So, it’s the future, and Sam Worthington is in a wheelchair, shuttled off to the distant world of Pandora because his dead brother was supposed to be in some kind of cultural exchange program. He has to train up in order to inhabit an avatar of an alien race on said planet, because the future army wants to annex it and mine its special property, obtusely named ‘unobtanium’. So Sam Worthington mingles with the alien race, becomes enraptured by them, and joins them to fight off the army he was a part of once.

The most notable thing about Avatar is its scope and scale, its budget and its special effects, spearheading the 3D assault. The planet of Pandora is rendered digitally and intricately, an acid trip sea of glowing trees and purple stuff. Cameron famously waited fifteen years to make it. It’s a pity he didn’t work on the script during this time.

The thing that separates a mindless popcorn action explosion from a great film is good writing and plotting. Despite his clamor to get the film made, Cameron’s screenplay is still crammed with cringe inducing dialogue and basic plot points, not to mention a storyline which is somewhere between Dances With Wolves and Dune. It is rushed and neglected with the sole purpose of saving time for the CGI. When the final battle occurs, it may look great, but little empathy is stirred. The cardboard cutout characters invoke nothing.

You can’t deny that Avatar is entertaining. But were the action and scenery married with great characterization and compelling moments for the protagonist, it could have been more. There’s a journey in the story, an arc that is mostly ignored rather than allowed to grow. It should be the priority. Sadly, it is not, and as a result Avatar is watch-able rather than great; quite a gulf to overcome, really.

But who knows? Maybe it would have lost money if it had brains…

– Scott Patterson

4 Comments
  1. Staindslaved says

    I personally hate it when people are overly critical of Avatar or Titanic. Were they some of the best written screenplays or best acting performances of their respected years? No, but they were more than adequate in both these areas to keep the films entertaining and even engaging. The reason both of these films blew-up the box-office was because the melodrama was simply “good enough” and everything else (effects, cinematography, art direction) were mesmerizing and beyond anything anyone had ever seen before. How exactly did Avatar waste it’s potential or deserve to be compared with the other films on this list? Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark weren’t masterpieces when it came to their writing or acting but they’re constantly considered some of the best films ever made because their overall quality makes up for any modest shortcomings. I for one appreciate grand and epic film-making that tries to appeal to broad audiences and doesn’t ask you to “check your brain at the door” like the Transformers films or several of the comic-book/superhero film-of-the-months.

    FYI: I have always considered Dude, Where’s My Car? as possibly the greatest film that blew it’s potential. Two guys waking up after a night of partying and can’t find their car was easily one of the funniest concepts I’d ever heard of. Thankfully The Hangover took use of this and made the film we all should have seen in 2000.

  2. sillytee says

    i agree with ‘avatar’..mr. cameron is a lousy script writer. just look at the mess ‘titanic’ was storywise. my 5 year old nephew could have written something more exciting

  3. Edgar Chaput says

    ‘Die Another Day’ is what I meant to write, of course.

  4. Edgar Chaput says

    Oh, man, don’t get me started on ‘Die Another Die’ That movie is so wrong for every reason you wrote about. With Brosnan, we were not going to get a really, really dark Bond film, but at least there was something out of the ordinary happening in those first 30-40 minutes. And Brosnan isn’t all that bad in playing a truly focused Bond (see ‘Goldeneye’). And then the script decides to toss all of that into the garbage bin for one of the most ridiculous second halves in the history of the franchise…

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