“Reef? I got a reef. I got reefs comin’ outta my ASS!!”—Two-Time Academy Award Winner Marlon Brando
I haven’t written much about movies this year because I haven’t seen much. The last film I saw in the cinema was Mad Max Fury Road and you cannot convince me any film released theatrically since is worth my time or my money. But I did see a new movie on Netflix, a riveting and often hysterical documentary called Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Assuming PopChomp’s remaining readers live in Brendan Bailey’s basement, all three of you most likely remember The Island of Dr. Moreau when it came out in 1996. I remember seeing the poster and hearing murmurs of how terrible it was, but I’d given it little thought until I fired up Lost Soul on my laptop. According to David Gregory’s documentary, this may have been the most catastrophic Hollywood production since Vic Morrow donated his severed head to the cast and crew of Twilight Zone: The Movie.
I don’t wish to spoil any of the documentary’s funniest and strangest anecdotes, so I suggest you watch it on Netflix as soon as you’ve finished reading this straight white male’s opinion on the internet. To cut a long story short, upstart horror filmmaker Richard Stanley signed a deal with New Line Cinema to adapt H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Eventually, the studio fired Stanley because they didn’t want to work with an “artist” who took four lumps of sugar in his coffee – I’m not clever enough to make this up – and replaced him with Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer, who walked onto the chaotic set, screamed at everybody as often as possible, and didn’t particularly understand the film he was making. Meanwhile, Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando spent the entire production driving everybody crazy because they could.
I couldn’t recommend Lost Soul enough for anyone who has any interest in how Hollywood actually works. Then again, I’m a sucker for stories about gigantic film productions going bananas. I eat up disastrous film productions the way E! viewers are incapable of turning away from their television screens whenever a wild Kardashian appears. I own the Three-Disc Imperial Edition of Gore Vidal’s Tinto Brass’ Bob Guccione’s Caligula, which I purchased back when I was poor enough to afford tax refunds. One of my favorite books about filmmaking is Final Cut, producer Steven Bach’s firsthand account of the making of the notorious Michael Cimino epic Heaven’s Gate, which I’m finally going to see tomorrow when I go to Matt Abrams’ house.
This fascination is not necessarily a condemnation of the films as art. Box office receipts and onset gossip are ephemeral. I’ll happily declare myself a fan of such financial flops as Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Ishtar, and even Hudson Hawk. I suspect my interest is globally shared. Cinephiles recently rejoiced over the news that in ten years’ time, we’ll finally get a chance to see the aborted Jerry Lewis project The Day the Clown Cried, the heartwarming story of a clown in a concentration camp (I’ve given up drinking because I hope to be alive and well in ten years.) Meanwhile, movie dad Kevin Costner expressed pride in an interview over the 1995 fiasco Waterworld, explaining it was a huge hit overseas and has legions of fans all over the planet. And I’m quite excited to finally see Heaven’s Gate when I go to Matt Abrams’ house tomorrow. I may even tell you what I think of it when I do my final revision in a couple of days.
The thread running through all the aforesaid films and filmmakers is that nobody sets out to make a lousy movie. If you do, you work for Asylum. All artistic endeavors are gambles, and whether any movie works or not is anyone’s guess. As Withnail & I director Bruce Robinson once remarked: “If you haven’t got luck, you’re fucked.”
If the reviews are any indication, Fantastic Four didn’t have luck. Moreover, every new story from the set is worse than the preceding one. But despite my obsession with big-budget flops, I can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about this time. There is no question the film is a box-office disaster in the domestic market, but in fairness, Hollywood only makes movies for China anyway. Time will tell if the global figures add up in the film’s favor but even John Carter made money internationally. And do you even know anyone who saw John Carter?
Arguably, Waterworld represented a watershed (fuck off) moment for the industry. Despite the omens, Waterworld found an audience on the home video and international markets, respectively. Like John Carter, it did make money after all–as did The Lone Ranger. Even Heaven’s Gate, the film that bankrupted an entire studio, has been reassessed as a misunderstood masterpiece. The Director’s Cut is available on Blu-Ray via The Criterion Collection, which means you have to like it. And I can’t wait to like it when I watch it at Matt Abrams’ house!*
So why has Fantastic Four been depicted as such a remarkable failure when it appears no big-budget disaster is capable of failing anymore? I can only think of one rational explanation: Twitter. In case you’re unaware, Twitter is awful and you should delete your account immediately, but that’s beside the point. Upon the film’s release, director Josh Trank tweeted the following:
Rumors of how awful Fantastic Four was going to be had persisted for quite some time, but it was Trank’s tweet that sank its reputation for good. In the past, a filmmaker unhappy with his/her cut of a film could opt for the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym. More often than not, a filmmaker who has helmed a flop remains silent until long after the dust settles. But here was Trank, damning 20th Century Fox’s film in front of the entire world.
But Trank needn’t have worried. Had he stayed away from Twitter on opening weekend, the film may not have transformed into the P.R. disaster it is today. I barely noticed Fantastic Four until Trank publicly shamed it online, and why should I have? It’s not like the film was trying to achieve anything meaningful. At least The Island of Dr. Moreau was the product of an ambitious and creative mind as opposed to just a product. When you realize Hollywood is no longer writing blank checks for artists, it’s difficult to take any discussions of modern-day flops seriously. While I sympathize with Trank’s pain, I suspect he would not have been incarcerated in Director Jail for long had he kept his mouth shut. You didn’t see Edgar Wright tweeting bitterly about his Marvel jilting when Ant-Man came out. Maybe he decided to call up Richard Stanley and ask him to summon a demon to curse Kevin Feige instead.
The tweet will be forgotten and Fantastic Four will exist on its own terms. It will make its money back—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day—and the dreaded superhero saturation will continue. So the next time a lazy film journalist writes about an upcoming movie expected to crush the industry and bring Hollywood to Year Zero, don’t be fooled. There are no flops anymore—only toys whose returns of investment are taking longer to pay off than the others. The only tragedy is that these sluggish money-magnets have none of the spark, the madness, or the ambition of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Waterworld, or Heaven’s Gate. Will anyone make a documentary about the noble struggle to make yet another superhero movie? Will anyone care?
The flop is dead. Long live the flop.
* I didn’t.