Just now, I’m reading ‘Return to Tomorrow’ by Preston Neal Jones- a comprehensive behind-the-scenes account of the making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (A great read, by the way!)
It’s a well known anecdote that the motion picture- and indeed, Star Trek’s new lease on life, post-60s-cancellation- came about due to the success of Star Wars. It’s a Hollywood truism; whenever something unqiue comes out and becomes a smash hit, a wave of imitators quickly follow. Each genre ‘has its day’ in the post-pioneer boom; those genres that prove more enduring stick around, and are subject to waxes and wanes.
Sometimes, a film- perfectly watchable in its own right- has the bad misfortune to come out during this time. Perhaps it is a film that is trying to become a genre-reinvigorating ‘pioneer’ which, though enjoyable, doesn’t have the standout quality to revive an entire narrative field. Perhaps it’s from a genre that has since petered out. Perhaps it’s merely trying to do something different, regardless of what’s currently ‘in.’
For whatever reason, sometimes one of these films comes out, and flops badly. It bombs at the box office, and receives poor reviews from the contemporary critics. And yet, when viewed through the lens of distance, it isn’t a bad film. In a different setting, with the audience primed for its genre or type, it might have even been embraced. It was merely relegated to obscurity because of unfavorable conditions during its release date.
Let’s examine a few of these movies which, while not successful or well-remembered upon initial release, just might be worth another look…
Swashbuckling adventure and strong production values underscored by an excellent and adventurous score courtesy of John Debney, this mid-90s Pirate epic was nonetheless an expensive flop. While it lacks the supernatural element that put Pirates of the Caribbean over the top, if it had come out a decade later, after POTC had brought the ‘pirate film’ genre back out of obscurity and camp, and given it renewed credibility, I think it could well have done good business. Humor, rich location footage, and a strong female lead all mix to form a winning combination- or one that could have won, in an environment in which pirate films were taken seriously.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
I don’t understand why everyone didn’t love this one. I saw it in the theater five times, my current record. It is pure, bottled, child-like excitement to me- one of a select few films that can make me feel completely and totally like a kid again. The movie combines fun retro elements with an alternate-universe 40s aesthetic, and even a brilliant tribute to the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the period. In an era where Captain America and Peggy Carter have taken retro 40s technology and the things that existed only in pulps of the era and made them real, I feel that this brilliant film would thrive as it deserved to. Plus, look at that updated take on the Indiana Jones map-travel sequence. That’s genius! Who seriously DIDN’T love that?
In a similar vein comes this pulp serial. I almost described Sky Captain as ‘half Captain America, half Indiana Jones in style’… but I think that description is even more apt here. Part comedy, part noir serial, this story is a tribute to classic pulp fiction characters. It has a lot going for it in the retro-adventure department- along with big set-pieces, name actors, and a sense of fun often lacking in modern, gritty, gravitas-and-desaturated-grimness action films. Yet in the superhero genre, I think it could find a home easily in the retro-friendly, humor-friendly, adventurous environment that Marvel’s superhero renaissance has created. This is a film that would find a lot of common ground with Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of tone- and I think people are ready for that now, in a way that they weren’t (already had their fill, perhaps) in the mid-90s. And speaking of retro adventures…
The Phantom & The Shadow
Two actual pulp characters that got obscure mid-90s adaptations, the Phantom is a tongue-in-cheek look at the pulp hero that is well aware of its own conventions, and even pokes a little fun at them (“Don’t you know who I am? Xander Drax! …Begins and ends with an ‘X!'”) which I like, while the Shadow is a more-serious adaptation (minus one wickedly satirical scene lampooning the tendency for abrupt in-story product-advertisements within the narrative, back in the radio era) which I love. Both are possessed of fantastic scores- a fun jungle adventure theme from David Newman and one of Jerry Goldsmith’s most overlooked, chilling-yet-heroic classics, respectively. While the former works with some pretty spiffy cutting-edge 90s FX and strong action set-pieces in exotic tropical locales, the latter does brilliant things with sound, such as I’ve never witnessed in another motion picture. Both would thrive in this superhero renaissance, fitting in well with both the tongue-in-cheek superhero environment established by Iron Man (and so bizarrely eschewed by DC’s continued attempts to drive its most popular properties into the ground), and the retro-adventure, stylized 40s capers embraced by Captain America, Agent Carter, and Ant-man.
I love me some TRON. Before I knew Star Trek, before I knew Star Wars, before Narnia or Middle Earth or Doctor Who, there was TRON. It was my gateway into sci-fi, and I relish it to this day (while bitterly complaining to anyone that will listen that TRON: Legacy completely missed the point and failed to capture anything ‘TRON’ except the name!). The film has a fantastic musical score by Wendy Carlos, a truly unique visual aesthetic, groundbreaking special effects (from the same early-CG era as The Last Starfighter), and memorable characters- from recently-resurgent Jeff Bridges to classic sci-fi stalwart David Warner. It’s an adventure filled with wonder, and an expansive, intriguing setting that hints at a much broader world that the first film lacked the time to fully explore, filled with inhuman creatures and wondrous landscapes and cities. And yet… the film is regarded as a cult classic for nerds only. Generally, most ‘Legacy’ reviews seemed to suggest that Disney was taking a dorky, little-loved property and making it cool for modern audiences, suggesting a lack of popularity or general appeal for the original TRON. I have no doubt that in the modern age of computer-literacy and retro-80s nostalgia, TRON would do quite well… in fact, even in the early 90s, I think that the audience would have been receptive. And certainly, anyone who isn’t today… well, he and I shall have words. The film remains as fantastic as ever.
Sometimes, timing is everything. None of these films were released at a time where they could find their proper audience- and the legacy of their poor contemporary reviews still haunts them as a bad reputation. But a little re-examination- either in seeking the escapism that didn’t used to take itself so seriously, or embracing the wave of modern superhero films that try, in their still-overdramatic way, to return to the same- will yield a crop of fantastic and oft-overlooked motion pictures that are just as great as they’ve always been… but perhaps now have the chance to reach an audience that can appreciate them.
About Andrew Gilbertson
Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so.
He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…