At this writing, there are 92 films to have crossed the $200 million mark at the U.S. domestic box office, with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen coming within a hair’s breadth of the five-day record to entrench itself comfortably as massive popular hit, despite being a solid contender for the title of “Worst American Film of the Last Ten Years”.
This got me thinking: we all know that dreadful movies make giant sums at the box-office every year, but what are the absolute worst of the worst? Movies that aren’t just mediocre and unworthy, but wholly bad? Surely, not too many of those could be out there, right?
Wrong, unfortunately. Here, in ascending order of their box-office take and rank on the domestic all-time list (as of 6/29/2009), are my picks for the ten worst movies ever to break $200 million – Transformers: ROTF excepted, being so brand shiny and new. (Figures from Box Office Mojo).
Mission: Impossible II (2000; $215,409,889, #78)
We can kick around for ages whether the first one is any good, whether the third one is the best, and so forth. But everybody agrees on this: the middle one is just so damn bad, and much the worst of the trilogy, and Exibit A in the prosecution’s case that John Woo shouldn’t ever make American movies any more. That is doubtlessly why it’s the highest-grossing in the franchise by a cool $35 mil.
Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007; $217,326,974, #75)
Damning proof of the out-and-out contempt with which studio executives hold our children. You would never, ever force this kind of object on somebody who you wanted to see grow into a fine adult with a quick, curious mind; you would only show it to somebody who you hoped to turn into a brainless automaton without any ability to judge the value of things whatsoever. Once upon a time, family movies were lavishly-made epics created by some of the most gifted people in the game: The Wizard of Oz, The Thief of Bagdad, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, anything from Disney’s Golden Age. Now, CGI anthropomorphs eating their own shit.
The Da Vinci Code (2006; $217,536,138, #73)
Poor Ron Howard; he’s got another one on the list. The problem I have with this film is its overwhelming sense of fatigue, as though absolutely nobody wanted to be there making it, not the director, who plainly hadn’t the slightest idea how to put together an adventure movie without filling it up with leaden exposition scenes, and surely not Tom Hanks, giving the only truly dreadful, sleepy performance of his career. Dan Brown’s torrid brainfart novel is a gripping drama in comparison; the less-popular sequel, Angels & Demons, is an improvement, much as slamming your dick in a car door is an improvement over catching it in a blender.
Rush Hour 2 (2001; $226,164,286, #67, )
Of course, Rush Hour 3 would come along and make it look like a masterpiece. But this one is a classic sequel to a film that sucked in the first place: every shrill gag and idiotically big setpiece is shriller and bigger, and Chris Tucker’s journey from loud jackass who was sardonically funny to loud jackass who was a fucking jackass completed itself with a loud clanking noise, somewhere in the back third of this barbaric, asininine collection of script notes from ad men.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000; $260,044,825, #41)
The one truly vile movie on this list. It’s one thing to take a classic holiday staple and triple its length by adding wobbly, go-nowhere subplots; it’s another to take a charming, slender novel and tart it up by tromping on everything delicate on the page and making it live-action in the most heavy-handed, unpleasant way possible. But the Gold Medal in the Shitpile Olympics comes when you do all that in a Christmas movie – a Christmas movie – that functions largely as a paean to the timeless joy and family bonding that comes from wanton product consumption.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003; $281,576,461, #36)
I’m going to let this one stand in for all the many films that raked in pile after pile of money because a very great, fun blockbuster was popular and got a sequel that missed the point entirely of what made the original such a success. So here’s to you, Pirates of the Caribbean sequels! and all you Shreks! and third entries in superhero franchises! But most of all, here’s to the Wachowskis’ disastrous misconception that what we all loved about 1999’s paradigm-shifting The Matrix were all the bits with people talking.
Independence Day (1996; $306,169,268, #28)
Looking back on it now, I kind of have a certain nostalgia for it: I mean, hell, it used practical effects! And there’s a kind of honesty to its narrative dumbness absent from the horribly cynical, test-marketed dross that gets thrown out most summers nowadays. But it is important to remember this doofy sci-fi action flick for what it is: the moment that solidified a trend that had been creeping into being some 20 years at that point, that you could make a movie as awful as you pleased and undemanding audiences would still flock to it as long as you had lots of crap blowing up.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001; $317,575,550, #22)
And here’s another trend that needs to be shot in the face and killed dead: certain properties are such surefire money-printing machines that you don’t need to put a remotely talented person in the director’s chair, and if the resulting film makes a beloved fantasy seem as magical and exotic as a jar of talcum powder, well, that didn’t hurt the sequels’ business any! In my most optimistic moments, I like to think that the gigantic sums of money brought in by The Dark Knight has finished this off, but those moments don’t last more than a few seconds at a time.
Transformers (2007; $319,246,193, #20)
Just because the sequel’s off-limits doesn’t mean I can’t still hate the holy shit out of the first one, in which Michael Bay throws shapes and noise at us for two wearying hours, telling a story that passes well beyond incoherence into outright resentment for any viewer who might try to watch it with some scrap of his or her brain left turned on. Ugly, loud, and stupid – a brutal combination.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999; $431,088,301, #6)
Some day, it will no longer be fun to beat up on the hopelessly misbegotten start to George Lucas’s incredibly underwhelming trilogy of prequels to one of the most beloved film series in history. That day has not yet arrived.