10 SF & Fantasy Movie Flops That Shouldn't Have Been

FROM THE SFX ARCHIVES: Underachieving films we still kinda love, by Steve O’Brien, originally published in 2009. Would you add John Carter to this list?


1988 • Director: Terry Gilliam
Box office: $23.5 million
The tall tales and fantastical adventures of a 17th century aristocrat. Not exactly Ken Loach.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: Typically for Terry Gilliam it's bursting with invention and imagination. It's sharp and funny and rich in sumptuous visuals and great comic turns.
Why it probably flopped: Again, it's Terry Gilliam isn't it? Sometimes the full-on assault of his imagination can be a bit too much to take. And with a pretty unknown 62-year-old as your lead it's not going to break box office records. God, Gilliam can't even have a success when he's got Johnny Depp in his movie!


1985 • Director: Terry Gilliam
Box Office: $9.9 million
Ordinary Joe Sam Lowry gets sucked into a bureaucratic world of incompetence while investigating an administrative error that caused a terrorist to escape justice.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: Brazil is one of Terry Gilliam's most giddily inventive films. As a satire of a world made unnecessarily complicated it becomes more relevant with each passing decade.
Why it probably flopped: Well, it's Terry Gilliam isn't it? The former Python has hardly ever set the box office burning (partly because film companies never seem to know how to market his films). And its biggest star – Robert De Niro – Gilliam virtually hides away in a cameo! "Darling, do you want to go the cinema tonight to see a social satire set in a bureaucracy-crazy world starring – wait for it! – Jonathan Pryce?" "No. You're dumped."


1991 • Director: Joe Johnston
Box Office: $46.7 million
1930s stunt man inherits a rocket pack designed by Howard Hughes that the Nazis have their eyes on too. He becomes the flying superhero known as The Rocketeer.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: A great, fun, spirited update of cinema serials of the ’30s, this was an Indiana Jones for period superhero flicks. It also boasts Timothy Dalton as a Nazi secret agent posing as a suave movie star, a role that he plunges into with relish. If nothing else, this film should have been a hit so that Dalton would be remembered as something other than one of the lesser Bonds. It also has one of cinema’s great Zeppelin battles. Any film with a great Zeppelin battle shouldn’t flop.
Why it probably flopped: In its opening weekend in the US, Rocketeer opened fourth behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves , City Slickers and Dying Young – and it’s a zillion times better than all of those put together. Why did it tank so badly (especially when it had generally good reviews)? It was released as a Disney film, which some cinemagoers seemed to assume meant it was a kiddie film. The art deco posters, while a wonderful design, also left potential audiences confused as to what the film was all about. There’s also the fact that it all feels a little “parochial”. With both the Indiana Jones films and contemporary superhero flicks, audiences were used to huge, globetrotting adventures, but most of The Rocketeer feels confined to LA. It’s a solid, entertaining film, that does what it does well, but it’s not an overly ambitious one.


1986 • Director: Alan Parker
Box office: $17 million
A typically down-at-heel private dick is contacted by a man who turns out to be the Devil to track down a man who turns out to be himself. If you see what we mean.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: It's Mickey Rourke's best role with his old face and Alan Parker's heady combo of voodoo, film noir and horror still unsettles. It's one of his best movies and once seen is never forgotten.
Why it probably flopped: Too dark for American audiences? US crowds can be prickly when it comes to religion and Angel Heart doesn't shirk on the black magic. And of course Lucifer wins in the end.


1990 • Director: Joe Dante
Box Office: $41.4 million
The gremlins take over a New York skyscraper. Cue lots of movie in-jokes, pastiches and Christopher Lee.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: Joe Dante at least had the courage to make Gremlins 2 tonally a totally different beast to the first film. More live-action cartoon than anything, it's a bouncy love letter to the B movies so beloved of Dante.
Why it probably flopped: It was probably too different to the first Gremlins . Audiences are pretty conservative when it comes to sequels. The same, but a bit different is what they want, and Gremlins 2 was very different.


2002 • Director: Steven Soderberg
Box Office: $15 million (in the US)
The recently-widowed George Clooney character travels to a remote space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate the crew's disappearance.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: Despite the relative obscurity (for the multiplex crowd anyway) of its source material, this was an intelligent, handsomely-mounted SF film with the normally box office gold that is George Clooney.
Why it probably flopped: The lack of action and the laborious pace most probably scuppered Solaris ' box office chances. Sure, people like Clooney, but not moping through an entire film. And where were the space battles and aliens? This kind of SF story plays well in literature, but not at the Multiplex.


1993 • Director: John McTiernan
Box Office: $137.3 million
A young boy is given a magic cinema ticket that transports him into the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Cue lots of cameos and eventually Arnie's character leaving the movie and entering the real world.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: It's the only hybrid between Arnie's self-deprecating comedy roles and his muscle man parts. It cleverly sends up the conventions of big-budget action pics and its cameos and in-jokes mean it's a feast for the eagle-eyed movie buff.
Why it probably flopped: Perhaps too clever for its own good? We all know that movies aren't real life. Do we need a lesson in it?


1982 • Directors: Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Box Office: $40.5 million
A gelfling sets off on a quest to find the missing shard of the Dark Crystal to restore the balance of the universe.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: Despite its kiddyish look, The Dark Crystal is a dark and complex epic that, had it starred flesh and blood, actors, might be seen a truly great fantasy film in a genre that has too few shining examples.
Why it probably flopped: Audiences were probably expecting something a lot lighter, given the film's Muppet credentials. Who was it for? It was too dark for kids and too puppet-heavy for adults. Henson and Oz lightened up for their next more successful venture, Labyrinth .


2003 • Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Box Office: $179 million
You know the drill. Blind kid becomes lawyer and nocturnal crime-fighting fella, falls in love and fights a fat man.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: Johnson's noir-infused adaptation not only has Affleck in perhaps his only impressive role but a scene-stealing Colin Farrell as the psychotic Bullseye. Michael Clarke Duncan too proved an especially fearsome Kingpin. And it's full of juicy in-jokes for the comic crowd.
Why it probably flopped: Unlike Spider-Man or X-Men , Daredevil has never been known much outside of the comic scene and Affleck's star was already fading by the time the film was released. The costume is a bit gimpy, too. Maybe if they’d released the director’s cut instead – which later became available on DVD to great acclaim – it would have fared better.


1982 • Director: Ridley Scott
Box Office: $28 million
In a film noir LA of the future, a replicant hunter tracks down a group of rogue replicants who want to tell their creator how much it sucks to be created with an expiration date.
Why it shouldn’t have flopped: Such has been Blade Runner 's impact on screen sci-fi, it sometimes difficult to remember that it did flop. Dramatically. We spoke to Fox rep recently to ask if, over the years, with successive video, DVD and Blu-ray releases, the film has finally managed to break even, and were told, “Probably not.” But Blade Runner is clearly only a flop in terms of cold, hard numbers. Its amazing, gamechanging vision of the future still looks fresh and believable today, and Ridley Scott’s elegant direction treats the genre with the kind of cinematic respect it rarely benefits from. Maybe Blade Runner is all style over substance (and certainly, the script simplifies Dick’s novel to a detective procedural with a few metaphysical speeches) but sometimes cinema as pure immersive cinema can be just as artistically valid a wordy, worthy, socially aware script.
Why it probably flopped: Audiences expecting a Harrison Ford action film like Star Wars and Raiders were confronted instead with a slow-moving, mumbly, inscrutable curate's egg. And while the plot is, actually, fairly simple, the storytelling seems to delight in making the exposition as tricky to follow as possible (you often know what's happening, but not why). Ford himself is distant and hard to empathise wit throughout (a hastily added voice-over didn’t really help) and his love interest – a android – takes “ice queen” to new levels of glaciality.

Dave Golder
Freelance Writer

Dave is a TV and film journalist who specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He's written books about film posters and post-apocalypses, alongside writing for SFX Magazine for many years.