Starting Nine is the method a lineup nerd uses to rank his personal favorites. These are not necessarily the nine all-time best entries of the subject being covered. It’s an exercise in finding the entries that best fit the profile for each spot in the batting order.
I’m a lineup traditionalist: I like dependable table-setters in the 1 and 2 spots, world-beating franchise powerhouses 3rd and 4th, potent sluggers 5th and 6th, hard-nosed role players 7th and 8th, and an underrated, dirt-dog workhorse in the 9-hole.
A bad movie is not necessarily a bad thing.
Some films feature absurd plot lines and/or dialogue, but exemplary effects and technical craftsmanship that still make them palatable (Demolition Man, Con Air). Others are intentionally made poorly, with campy or satirical stories that can only work if the creators are in on the joke with the audience (Army of Darkness, Idle Hands). Then, there are those gems that are made with such clueless devotion, such prideful ineptitude that you can’t help but appreciate the fact that the creator actually dared to attach his name to the project (The Room, anything made by Ed Wood).
In other words, there are a lot of “bad movies” that I will happily watch and enjoy. “Bad” is such a subjective term in cinema that, taken by itself, doesn’t describe a movie well enough to indicate whether or not it will make for an entertaining viewing experience.
In my opinion, the descriptive term “disappointing” is the ultimate death knell for a film. Promotional hype, which can drive a picture to great financial success, can also completely torpedo a viewing experience. A bad movie does not necessarily suck to watch … not unless you’ve been prematurely convinced that it was actually going to rule.
The purpose of most films is, first and foremost, to sell tickets. Creating an entertaining work of art is a distant second priority in comparison to generating a solid fiscal return. Marketing campaigns are engineered to drive audiences to the theatre in huge numbers. If the marketing department can use any means at their disposal to convince a massive audience to buy tickets, they have done their job.
Hollywood marketing professionals probably stand around the water cooler and tell war stories about how they made pieces of crap look like must-see classics and convinced thousands of us poor schmucks to pay to see them.
We tend to blame directors and actors for the disappointing stinkers we painfully endure, which may not be fair. Their performances were what they were. The director didn’t cut the deal with the NBA or Domino’s Pizza that thrust the movie’s title in our faces for three months leading up to its release. The actors didn’t design the movie poster that removed every pore from their faces and added 10% of muscle mass to their frames.
Disappointment is the last emotion we want to feel when the credits roll. When we experience that feeling, the fault should probably be aimed at the people who sell films to us the same way companies sell cookies and toilet paper.
Here is my Starting Nine of the most disappointing movie-watching experiences of my life. In retrospect, it appears that the 1990s was a landmark era of disappointment, at least in my life. These were my adolescent and teenage years, likely the most cynical decade of what has been a very cynical life. Regardless, I’m quite certain that this lineup would out-disappoint anyone else’s squad of discouraging trips to the theatre, no matter how historically diverse the opposing squad may be.
1. Twister (1996)
Our leadoff movie is, quite literally, full of hot air. Twister was everywhere before it was released. The special effects were groundbreaking for the time, although I feel like the cow being swept back and forth across the sky looked far too calm considering the circumstances. What really made this film a trendsetter in the world of schlock was the behavior of the characters. This movie’s glorification of something as b@tsh!t crazy as chasing tornadoes was both disturbing and hilarious. Let’s start with the characters’ inexplicable love of risking their lives in order to study tornadoes. Then there’s the outward mockery of the evil storm chasers (that’s right, there’s a crew of bad guy storm chasers for our heroes to do battle with) because they are “in it for the money, not the science.” And let’s not forget the legendary tales of bad-assery we learn about Bill Paxton’s character (a.k.a The Extreme!!!), who once stripped down naked and hurled a bottle of Jack into a tornado because that’s just what The Extreme does, maaaaaaan.
Twister is so over the top that it makes George Clooney’s awkward passion for commercial fishing in The Perfect Storm look somehow profound and reasonable. This movie was so terrible that Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn’t even save it. In fact, he probably set his career back a couple years just by throwing himself into the part and trying to do his job well.
2. Independence Day (1996)
Everyone was amped to see this when I was 14. The trailers focused on the humungous alien ships breaking through the clouds and hovering into position as they prepared to attack Earth, teasing the kind of epic movie we had never seen before. Us against them. Overmatched humans versus technologically advanced super creatures. The movie lived up to its promise … right up until the aliens fried New York City. After that, the creators just couldn’t help but nineties this film into oblivion.
Will Smith tragically loses his entire squad of fighter pilots, but then shucks, jives, and trash talks the alien jet that pursues him like he’s shootin’ some b-ball outside of the school. The sequence ends when he somehow knocks one of these gigantic, telepathic octo-creatures out cold with a single punch to the helmet of the alien’s spacesuit! The President of the United States growls like Dirty Harry for two hours, then jumps into a fighter jet (I guess the entire Secret Service was on a coffee break) and leads the final attack himself. Randy Quaid essentially reprises his Cousin Eddie role from the Vacation movies despite this being a thriller about an alien invasion. And can someone please explain how in the name of sweet baby Jesus did Jeff Goldblum manage to hack into the alien mothership and impant a virus using his mid-90s laptop? Good thing the futuristic extra-terrestrial operating system was not armed with Norton Antivirus software.
3. Batman Forever (1995)
The Hall-of-Famer of disappointing flicks broke my heart so much that I spent a week trying to convince myself I had actually enjoyed the movie. The follow-up to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns completely bailed on the dark, gothic, criminal underworld themes of the first two films in favor of a neon green steam-punk reality more aimed at selling toys than giving us the definitive Batman story we wanted to see. Joel Schumacher had an enormous budget and an all-star cast to work with. Unfortunately, Schumacher was clearly no Christopher Nolan.
Two-Face and The Riddler, who had such promise as a criminal duo, were utterly misplaced in this campy pile of crap. Jim Carrey was at his over-the-top worst, and the great Tommy Lee Jones came off as if he’d received acting lessons from Carrey before the film. Nicole Kidman’s sex-crazed Batman groupie/damsel in distress character is peak Hollywood chauvinism. Val Kilmer became my favorite actor after I saw Tombstone, and Chris O’Donnell felt like my surrogate best friend following School Ties and Scent of a Woman. Thus, you can imagine my disappointment after hopping aboard the hype train to see two of my favorites clad in ridiculous combat suits with ice-cutter nipples, stumbling into half-assed ambushes and doing practically nothing to escape the villains’ “master plan” at the end.
4. Face/Off (1997)
Arguably the two biggest stars of the mid-90s squaring off in a summer blockbuster where they actually switch identities? I couldn’t wait to get me some of that!
But this was the nineties, which meant Face/Off needed to be jam-packed with ridiculous fight scenes, impossible surgical procedures, and futuristic set pieces despite taking place in present-day Los Angeles. Why was Nicholas Cage imprisoned on a freaking off-shore oil rig where the prisoners wear magnetic boots that are permanently attached to the floor? Would it not have been impressive enough for him to escape from your typical maximum security prison? And after he jumps off said oil rig, how the hell does he make it to shore undetected and presumed dead? I guess when the Special Ops surgeons attached Nicholas Cage’s face to John Travolta’s body, they added a set of gills for no extra charge. Oh, did I mention this was a John Woo film? You know what that means! Lots of slow-mo shootouts furnished with gratuitous spins and flips, not to mention flocks of doves materializing during the climax for no apparent reason. Another special effects buffet that I was convinced would be so much more.
5. The Godfather Part 3 (1990)
The granddaddy of all disappointing sequels, this was one of the rare occasions where a terrible performance by a supporting actor actually sunk a movie. The premise of the film is actually fascinating and very ambitious. Michael Corleone makes a cunning move to legitimize his crime family by attempting to purchase a controlling interest in the corporation that owns the Vatican Bank, only to find criminal elements hindering that attempt at every turn. The main problem was that no story could ever live up to the legacy of the first two movies, which were probably the two best films ever made. The other problem was Sofia Coppola, director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, who subbed in for Winona Ryder in a critical role as Michael’s daughter, Mary, the heart of the movie and *spoiler alert* the ultimate price that Michael ends up paying for his life of crime. Sofia Coppola was in no way capable of pulling off the role. She was so bad that the movie’s final act of violence largely falls flat, barely salvaged from the pile of all-time awful endings by Al Pacino’s guttural wail of anguish.
6. Alien 3 (1992)
I feel that Alien and Aliens are the best first and second entries of any science fiction series of all time, followed closely by Terminator and Terminator 2. I was lucky enough to have parents that let me watch just about anything I wanted, so even at ten years old I was familiar with Ripley’s remarkable tale of terror, loss, and survival. The huge marketing hook for Alien 3 was the revelation that Sigourney Weaver actually shaved her head for the role, sending crowds running to the theatre to find out why Ripley, not to mention a famous actress like Weaver, would ever do such a thing. The film was dark all right, but not in the sense that the first two movies were dark. The movie takes place in a huge leadworks, the sets so gray and dim that it’s often tough to differentiate one supporting character from another or interpret the monster’s movements beyond mere running and twitching. It lacks the nuance, depth, craft, and structure of Ridley Scott’s Alien or James Cameron’s Aliens, shaping up to be nothing more than a derivative rehashing of the old “trapped with a monster” trope. This was director David Fincher’s first feature film. With no street cred at this point in his career, the movie was rife with interference from a studio that didn’t agree with his vision. The studio ended up re-cutting the film into a garbled mess with pieces of two different narratives spliced together as one. Oh, and the shaved head thing? There was a lot of lice on the planet, so everyone has to shave their heads.
Ripley deserved better.
7. Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars fans were clutching our retainers and pocket protectors with anticipation when it was revealed that George Lucas was making a prequel trilogy, resulting in perhaps the most hyped movie in the history of cinema. What we got was a dissertation on intergalactic foreign trade policy and Jar-Jar Binks. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor were as good as ever, but Jake Lloyd set the stage as a flat, wooden Anakin Skywalker whose mantle Hayden Christianson would take over in the next two films to portray the worst backstory for a beloved movie character that the world has ever or will ever see. The three-man light saber fight at the end is decent, but that duel was an unfair handicap match between two good guys and one bad guy. My sympathy on that one was with Darth Maul, who could have been the best villain in the entire trilogy if he weren’t killed off so prematurely. My biggest issue was with the CGI effects, which made the prequel universe of 50 years prior to the events of the original trilogy look a couple hundred years more sophisticated than that of the first three films.
Oh, and lest we forget: Jar-Jar is the worst.
8. Halloween Ends (2022)
I feel like the first film in the latest Halloween (2018) series was a pretty decent jumping off point for a new trilogy, whereas Halloween Kills (2021) definitely missed the mark. Regardless of my disappointment with the second film, I’m a huge Michael Myers fan who was still eager to see how creators David Gordon Green and Danny McBride intended to close out the series. The result felt like a slap in the face, and a reminder that there is no point in hoping for retreads of movies or characters of the past improving on the original. Other than Christopher Nolan’s Batman, a beloved character is simply never going to be done better the second, third, or fourth time around. Maybe that’s what Green and McBride were actually trying to say with this movie, as Myers is pretty much thrust into the background as a side character in this supposedly tragic Outcasts in Love story. I blame a lot of the hype here on Jamie Lee Curtis, who raved during production about what a fitting conclusion this film would be for her character, Laurie Strode, the original Halloween heroine. Something tells me that Curtis received a healthy profit percentage for this movie’s return, as that’s a hell of an endorsement for an utterly wretched conclusion.
9. The Devil’s Own (1997)
This was not some super-hyped extravaganza, but I was really excited for it when I first saw it on Coming Attractions on E!, a show I never missed. Brad Pitt plays an IRA terrorist hiding out in New York where Harrison Ford, a cop, takes him into his home and befriends him. Pitt was coming off a string of classics (Se7en, 12 Monkeys, Sleepers), and Ford was already on my Mount Rushmore of movie stars. What could possibly go wrong when you put these two together?
Well, they could hate each other.
Ford evidently thought Pitt’s Irish accent sucked, and Pitt thought the movie didn’t focus enough on his character. Eight rewrites later, the movie devolved into one of those blah But you were My Friend! crime stories that fell way short of my expectations. Upon seeing the trailer, I had pictured Ford as a detective on some anti-terrorism task force that dramatically discovers his buddy is the very man he’s been hunting all along, leading to a cat-and-mouse pursuit that turns deadly personal. As it turned out, Ford plays some schlub patrolman who Pitt moves in with until an English intelligence guy just tells Ford that Pitt is an IRA terrorist. We get minimal drama, a one-dimensional side villain for Pitt to spar with, and a lame shootout on a boat to wrap things up. I didn’t spoil anything here, but I’d be doing you a favor if I did.