If there’s one thing film geeks love to do, it’s argue incessantly about movies. Endless debates rage over which actor played a superhero better, or which director tackled a particular franchise with more style and substance. And sometimes, a huge profile sci-fi/fantasy/superhero/horror flick arrives on the scene that instantly splits fandom in two. Films that ignite incendiary fury between those that see an exhilarating, brilliant epic, and those that see a ponderous, plot hole-riddled turd. The past 30 years have provided enough controversial genre films to fill a theater of warring nerds for days. Here are ten of the most polarizing:
10.) Prometheus (2012)
Coming in at number ten with a bullet, is Ridley Scott’s flawed but grandiose return to the realm of heady sci-fi/horror, Prometheus. The sorta-kinda prequel to Alien is currently setting the Internet ablaze with heated discussions and arguments about “Engineers,” rogue androids, Xenomorphs, the meaning of life, self-administered cesarean sections, and Guy Pearce in old age makeup. Marriages are falling apart, friendships are breaking up, and geeks are literally going insane — all because Ridley Scott wanted to come back and explain who that giant “Space Jockey” guy was in the first Alien film.
Why it’s loved: Those who are enamored of Ridley Scott’s visual style (and the Alien universe in general), seem to love the film for its absolutely stunning 3D cinematography, special effects, and art design; while also buying in to the profound nature of the questions the movie asks, namely, “Where do we come from?”, “Who created us?”, and “Why are we here?” When you combine the breathtaking depth of the epic alien environments, the building tension of a thousand things going horribly wrong for a handful of individuals light years away from home, the gruesome creature carnage, and the endless, existential debate over the film’s meaning — that’s a recipe for a film that will be embraced for a long time.
Why it’s hated: Most of the vitriol is aimed directly at Damon Lindelof’s screenplay, which critics of the film have lambasted for its perceived failure to answer any of the literally dozens of questions it asks (something Lindelof has been brow-beaten about plenty of times before *cough* LOST *cough*); not to mention the numerous plot holes and instances where characters do incredibly stupid things: A guy in charge of laser-mapping the alien lair — and who had a digital readout of the map strapped to his wrist — gets hopelessly lost; an expert biologist carelessly reaches out to pet a hostile alien snake; the crew of a scientific expedition is inexplicably kept in the dark about what they are doing or where they are going until they’ve been traveling in cryo-stasis for over 2 years; characters haphazardly push buttons and handle alien goo containers; and the captain of the ship leaves the bridge completely unmanned – while two crew members are lost inside an alien structure and need help/communication – so he can go off and bang Charlize Theron. (Okay, maybe that last thing wasn’t such a dumb decision.)
9.) Speed Racer (2008)
In the wake of the commercial and critical stoning they took over their ponderous and convoluted Matrix sequels, the eccentric director tandem of Andy and Larry Wachowski disappeared for five years, finally resurfacing in 2008 with Speed Racer – a kinetic, kaleidoscopic adaptation of the iconic 1960’s Japanese Anime series, filmed almost entirely in front of a green screen. It was projected as one of that summer’s top blockbusters, but it blew a gasket right out of the gate with a scant $18 million opening weekend, sputtering to a pitiful total domestic gross of just over $43 million (on a mammoth $120 million budget).
Why it’s loved: Loaded with dazzling colors, retina-burning CGI environments, and cool racecars performing physics-defying maneuvers at face stretching speeds — Speed Racer is a pretty crazy film, and that no-holds-barred dynamic is what endears fans to it. When you’ve got John Goodman wrestling ninjas in a hotel room, and CGI cars launching into aerial flips while shooting saw blades at the other cars zipping around a rainbow-colored racetrack, you’re either onboard with it or not. Speed Racer’s digital environments and overall visual aesthetic have drawn favorable comparisons to TRON. Fans hope that one day, the movie will have a similar cult-like following and be held in the same groundbreaking light.
Why it’s hated: Primarily for the same reasons that it’s loved. Speed Racer‘s detractors think the crazy color pallet and the zany hijinks (especially the boy-and-his-monkey-antics of Spridle and Chim Chim) are downright nausea-inducing . While Speed Racer enjoyed a period of resurgence and hipster-cred in the 1980’s, not many moviegoers in 2008 were clamoring for a live-action version of an Anime series. Those that did probably expected a grim and gritty reboot that played everything arrow straight, like Chris Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins, or the X-Men films, and not the hyper campy, hyper kitschy, and just all around hyper film Speed Racer turned out to be.
8.) Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Often dubbed “spaceship porn,” Star Trek: TMP (as it has become known), features no less than 45 minutes of gratuitous, dramatic camera pans over every inch of the Starship Enterprise. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way. Directed by Robert Wise, who was famous for two musicals: West Side Story and The Sound of Music — Star Trek: TMP looked and felt epic, with big-budget special effects and a dramatic score by Jerry Goldsmith. The film was made possible thanks to the grassroots efforts of the Trekkie community, who never stopped fighting to see their heroes back on the screen in any capacity. Of course, it also helped that a little film called Star Wars made ungodly sums of money, sending every movie studio into a frenzy looking for science-fiction projects.
Why it’s loved: Hardcore Trekkies had waited over ten years to see their beloved Captain Kirk and crew return to the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise and “boldy go where no man has gone before” once again, so there was a certain level of automatic adoration built-in when the film was released. The Trek fans also appreciated that the film had a certain level of intelligence to it; it wasn’t just another empty Star Wars ripoff with loud, flashy laser gun battles or clumsy attempts at mysticism. Its plot echoed many of the concepts introduced in the classic television show, that of powerful otherworldly alien or artificial intelligences causing destruction in an effort to understand humanity or the meaning of existence. They also enjoyed the sense of epic scope that Wise and Goldsmith brought to the Trek universe. Also: spaceship porn!
Why it’s hated: For many, Star Trek: TMP is seen as a ponderous, tedious, pretentious bore. There’s far too many slow, panning spaceship porn shots and dull conversations in the transporter room. During the show’s three-season run, the crew of the Enterprise developed great camaraderie and formed interesting and fun relationships. They also beamed down to dozens of dangerous, exotic planets populated by a menagerie of bizarre beings and creatures to solve problems that often mirrored the political and cultural issues of the times. There is very little of those elements in the film — the whole thing takes place in hallways of the Enterprise or in the dark, nebulous domain of the V’Ger probe, and much of the narrative focus is on a bald Persis Khambatta and a milquetoast replacement captain played by 7th Heaven‘s Stephen Collins. This stole time away from the key character dynamics of the show, namely the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy.
7.) Inception (2010)
Director Christopher Nolan followed up a film that many still consider the greatest superhero movie of all time, with this Matrix-esque mind scrambler that featured a team of “dream extractors” hired to delve into the layers of a man’s brain to do what is considered to be impossible: implant an idea in his mind. The film’s trailers featured some truly awe-inspiring imagery — a train plowing through the middle of a rainy city street; an entire city block rising up and folding in on itself; and a crazy, up-is-down, down-is-up, zero-gravity fight in a hotel corridor. Box office forecasts were on the conservative side; no one was truly convinced that audiences would flock to a summer popcorn flick that required them to think, but Inception raked in a staggering $293 million, good enough for the 6th-highest total of 2010.
Why it’s loved: Because of dark, stylish, and heady films like Memento and The Dark Knight — Christopher Nolan is a director that has garnered a particularly rabid and emotional fan base that will defend his choices well beyond the point of reason. So naturally, those fans ate Inception up like a bowl of ripe cherries. And while the Nolan fans were pleased that the film featured their favorite auteur’s trademarks, mainstream audiences that loved the film were blown away by its ability to combine a taut heist film with elements of drama and mind-bending science-fiction.
The concept of going to sleep and entering another person’s dreamspace was an intriguing one; something that hardcore geeks and fans of genre filmmaking could embrace and appreciate as a movie that sought to rise above mindless summertime explosion orgies. Inception is a film that you have pay close attention to, as the “extractors” — played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, and Nolan standbys Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy — delve deeper into different dream layers in order to complete the task of “inception.” And at its base, beyond all the crazy action sequences and convoluted layers, the movie has a simple message: when someone gets an idea in their head, it can consume them and eventually destroy them completely.
Why it’s hated: I think this sums it up pretty well:
6.) Superman Returns (2006)
For a six-year period, Bryan Singer could do no wrong in the eyes of comic book geeks. He ostensibly legitimized superhero “event” movies with his slick, but honest X-Men films, and when it was announced that he would be reviving the greatest hero of them all — the fan community was whipped into a joyous frenzy. But that goodwill was short-lived, as Superman Returns failed to truly capture the imaginations of modern blockbuster audiences.
It underperformed at the box-office, finishing with a disappointing $200 million domestic on a gargantuan production budget of $270 million. Superman’s failure had a chain reaction — because he walked away from directing X-3: The Last Stand, that film was turned over to hack director Brett Ratner, who promptly destroyed the franchise. Singer was never able to recover his one-time “Lord of Geek Cinema” status, and since Superman Returns, he has only one directing credit to his name, the mediocre World War II film Valkyrie.
Why it’s loved: There are numerous, lengthy essays emerging on the Internet touting this take on the Man of Steel as an underappreciated and misunderstood piece of epic filmmaking; a movie that attempts to explore the messianic aspects of the character as well as the faulty, base human traits he develops. It felt as if Bryan Singer was trying to make Superman a more three-dimensional character; to illustrate that although he is seen as a savior and has the power to save the world, he’s also taken on very human traits.
This is a Superman that was facing existential crises — he could love, he could reflect, and he could hurt, just like any of us. Fans of the film point to its breathtaking plane rescue sequence as a high point,as well as the casting of BrandonRouth as Superman and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Superman Returns also has a good blend of nostalgic iconography and 21st-Century spectacle; Singer pumped up the grandeur of the last son of Krytpon with awe-inspiring flying sequences and the soaring majesty of John William’s epic score.
Why it’s hated: Detractors feel Superman Returns is far too beholden to the 1970’s Donner Superman films — and with its modern effects, and the introduction of the “superchild — it’s a movie that doesn’t quite work either as a standalone Superman film, or as a follow-up to the Donner stories. With the advancements in CGI and special effects technology, Superman fans were expecting spectacular, action packed scenes of Superman flying at amazing speeds, throwing mighty punches at villains who could stand toe-to-toe with him; but what they got was just a new polish on an old shoe. Superman doesn’t throw a single punch in the film, and he ends up doing most of the same stuff he did in the Donner classic: save a plane from crashing, foil a bank robbery, contain earthquake damage, and stop Lex Luthor from carrying out yet another insane real estate scheme. People also seemed to wholeheartedly reject the characterization of Superman in this movie. A Superman who disappears for five years, then mopes around because Lois moves on with a stable family man? A Superman who becomes a “super-stalker,” creepily levitating above Lois’ house and using his supervision and hearing to spy on her? Factor that in with the terrible decision to include a Lois and Superman’s superpowered offspring (where were they planning on going with that?), and what you’re left with is a fan base pinning their hopes on Zack Snyder’s upcoming reboot.
5.) Alien 3 (1992)
How do you follow-up two of the most beloved and iconic sci-fi/horror classics of all-time, both of which were directed by absolute titans of modern cinema? In fans’ minds, you do it by going even bigger and crazier: a full-scale invasion of Earth by the shiny black “xenomorphs,” — with the survivors of Aliens, Ripley, Newt, and Hicks — caught right in the middle of it. This was actually the plan for a while, as early trailers for the project carried the tagline: “On Earth, Everyone Can Hear You Scream.” But the right screenplay never materialized, and FOX got gun-shy with the production budget, so Ripley and the aliens never got to Earth.
Instead, they crash-landed on a desolate, grimy men’s prison planet. David Fincher, then only known as a music video director, was given the reigns and turned in a controversial and bleak chapter of the Alien saga that –SPOILER WARNING — unceremoniously killed off Newt and Hicks, and ended with Ripley throwing herself into a furnace to prevent the ever-corrupt Weyland-Yuanti corporation from getting their hands on the Queen alien embryo inside her.
Why it’s loved: The argument supporting Alien 3 is based heavily on director David Fincher’s vision. Although bleak and dingy, it was still a vision, and Fincher was someone who cared about his craft, not just a hired hack brought on to pump some smoke into a spaceship corridor and point the camera at it. Some critics lambasted James Cameron for turning Aliens into just a another loud, dumb action movie that stripped the xenomorphs of their fear factor when so many of them appeared in full view and were dispatched with ease. So, in many respects, Fincher’s prison planet setting, and the fact that there was only one creature terrorizing the inmates, allowed the series to return to its claustrophobic horror-movie roots.
The Alien series was always full of sexual imagery, but Alien 3, with its bald, sickly male prisoners and the constant presence of insects and decay — seemed to take those innate psychological fears of our own sexuality and expand on them with a powerful allegory for the horror and isolation of the AIDS epidemic. Defenders of the third chapter also cite the strength of the character arc that Ripley goes through. She holds on to her convictions, even after tremendous suffering and loss. And with one final act of defiance, she sacrifices herself so that others may be spared the horror of a corporate-controlled xenomorph bioweapon.
Why it’s Hated: As I mentioned above, in the wake of Aliens, fans wanted even more all-out action between the aliens and the colonial marine forces on Earth as the trailer advertised, and they wholeheartedly rejected the dour, ponderous, nearly action-less pace of the dreary prison world film they were given. There was also tremendous outrage over the cheap and quick deaths of Newt and Corporal Hicks — characters that people had grown quite attached to in the years since Aliens‘ release. Fans viewed those characters as a source of light and hope for Ellen Ripley; her second chance at a family after suffering the loss of her daughter while she was drifting in a cryo-chamber for almost 60 years between the events of Alien and Aliens. Ripley’s suicide — which those who liked Alien 3 saw as one final act of nobility and defiance for a great character, and a fitting end to the saga — was also a sore spot for detractors, as they could only see it as depressing and completely unnecessary.
4.) Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)
Hoo-boy, now here’s a flick that can end lifelong friendships and tear apart lovesick newlyweds. Director Edgar Wright’s kinetic, hyper-stylized, and sharply-edited adaptation of Brian O’ Malley’s graphic novels is a vibrant mash-up of 16-bit video game references, superhero spectacle, and emo/hipster/punk/rock n’ roll culture. And yet, at its core is a sweet, John Hughes-esque romance between Scott (Michael Cera) and Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The film had tremendous buzz coming out of San Diego Comic-Con in 2010, but after the marketing campaign that left mainstream audiences baffled, its late-Summer release date was met with wholesale rejection at the box office. Yet, in the world of geek culture, and to its youthful, ardent supporters, Scott Pilgrim is a bona fide cult classic — destined to be quoted and cosplayed ad infinitum.
Why it’s loved: Edgar Wright is a huge reason for Scott Pilgrim‘s initial and enduring adoration. His directing style is bold, bright, brash, cinematic, and dynamic – while at the same time – technically masterful. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in considered an absolute clinic in editing, filled with clever, razor-sharp transitions between scenes and clear, kinetic action cutting. This is a film that assaults the senses with lightning fast dialogue and quips, early 90’s video-game culture references, numerous physics-defying fight scenes against a menagerie of colorful, super-powered douchebag ex-boyfriend archetypes; all set to a pounding, surging garage-rock soundtrack. But beyond its colorful surface, the film is about learning to let go of the obstacles that sabotage our relationships. We’ve all done stupid things when it comes to romance in that period of transition from our late teen years and early twenties to “adulthood,” so audiences related to Scott’s journey to find self-respect and to overcome his insecurities, his fears, and his attachments to the past.
What it’s hated: The bile and vitriol spewed at Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was unprecedented; mostly shot in the direction star Michael Cera. People absolutely hated the guy. They found his twee, mumblecore shtick grating, and his Scott Pilgrim character callow and undeserving of Ramona’s love. As for the bulk of the film itself? Instead of feeling thrilled by the frenetic editing and dazzling vibrancy of the effects, they found it cloying and pretentious — a loud, obnoxious, over-edited piece of smug hipster trash that was trying to make them feel stupid and uncool.
3.) Avatar (2009)
After directing the highest-grossing movie of all-time, James Cameron vanished for nearly a decade, focusing his efforts on documentaries that further explored the Titanic wreckage, and developing new filmmaking technologies. He resurfaced in 2009 with Avatar, a sci-fi/fantasy shot with groundbreaking motion-capture techniques and digital 3D cameras at a staggering budget of nearly $400 million (with marketing costs factored in). Incredibly, the film went on to earn a mammoth $750 million at the domestic box office and a mind-boggling $2 billion overseas, making it the highest-grossing film of all-time.
Why it’s loved: Audiences quickly fell under the spell of Cameron’s 3D spectacle, thrilling to the exploits of the N’avi on the luminescent world of Pandora. They were blown away by the motion-capture technology that transforms a wheelchair-bound Sam Worthington into an 11-foot tall blue cat-warrior who falls in love with Zoe Saldana (also an 11-foot tall blue cat-warrior) and tries to prevent a militarized corporate entity from stripping Pandora of all its natural resources, displacing the N’avi people in the process.
Cameron’s digital 3D was very impressive, providing a palpable sense of vertigo during the beautiful dragon-riding sequence, and placing the audience right in the middle of incredible aerial battle sequences between the N’avi and the flying machines of the colonizing humans. The film’s simple, straight-ahead storyline and universal themes of choosing honor over materialism, the struggle of a primitive society vs. a technologically superior invading force, and the importance of preserving the beauty of nature connected with mainstream movie-goers looking for pure escapism.
Why it’s hated: Well, you could probably start with things like “unobtainium.” Seriously. The element that the greedy, militarized Earth-based corporation is trying to mine on Pandora is called “unobtainium.” But stupid, sloppy details like that only scratch the surface of why many cinephiles call Avatar one of the most overrated movies of all-time. Often mocked as “Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves in space,” the film was derided as an over-simplified, thinly veiled re-telling of those stories, in which a “white savior” adopts a native tribe for his own and marries one of them, eventually helping them to fight against the same invading force that he was once a part of.
It was seen as trite and predictable, with horribly wooden performances from Sam Worthington in particular. Conservatives railed against the film for what they perceived as an obvious, liberal, clunk-you-over-the-head message that militarized corporate interests destroying nature to obtain resources was pure evil. Critics also seemed unimpressed with the design of the N’avi, and Pandora, citing numerous filmic and literary sources that they claimed Cameron plundered or plagiarized.
2.) The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions (2003)
The Matrix caught the world by surprise in the Spring of 1999. Flying under the all-encompassing hype machine of Star Wars: Episode I, The Wachowski Brothers action/sci-fi hybrid melted audiences’ brains with its one-two punch of groundbreaking “bullet-time” effects and the startling revelation that the modern world we lived in was nothing more than a computer simulation fed to us by machines who conquered and scorched our planet, then used the electrical impulses in our catatonic bodies as fuel. The Matrix became a cultural touchstone in genre filmmaking almost overnight, but four years later, its sequels Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions split its loyalists right down the middle.
Why they are loved: Those that remained true to the Wachowski’s felt the sequels expanded upon the vision and the concepts introduced in the original film, opening the door for deeper philosophical exploration and more epic storytelling. The Wachowski brothers peppered the sequels with tons of unique ideas — rogue programs in the Matrix that could create “keys” and “backdoors” ; software glitches in The Matrix that served as the basis for ghosts, vampires, etc. in our perceived reality; hints about The Oracle’s true purpose, Agent Smith becoming a virus that could overtake the Matrix as well as inhabit a physical body in the real world, The Architect’s revelations to Neo about his true purpose and the reality of what Zion really is, etc.
Matrix fans also appreciated that the Wachowski brothers continued to push the envelope in terms of action sequences. The sequels feature several high-octane set-pieces, including the famous “Burly Brawl,” (in which neo fights hundreds of Agent Smiths), the insane highway chase/battle, the all-out war between the rebels in their armored “walker” suits and the squid machines in Zion, and Neo’s final clash with Agent Smith in the city during a crashing thunderstorm.
Why they are hated: I distinctly recall the exact moment when The Matrix Reloaded lost its grip on the audience –the infamous “rave” scene in Zion, an overly long sequence of muddy humans writhing and flailing to thunderous drum beats. It was meant to be a juxtaposition of the primal human spirit against the soulless technological construct of the Matrix, but it seemed to be openly rejected as hokey and incredibly boring.
After that, the rest of the film didn’t seem to stand a chance. It was filled with superfluous characters spewing out baffling exposition dumps, tedious speeches about causality, cryptic riddles that would never be answered, and empty fight scenes that didn’t have the same stakes or crackle. The absolute breaking point was the utterly confusing and tedious “Architect” sequence which put some detractors to sleep and others into full-on eye-rolling mode. By the time the third and final chapter of the saga rolled around, the damage had been done; the series seemed to lose its cultural relevance and palpable sense of excitement with a healthy portion of its once-rabid fan base, and it certainly wasn’t helped by a replacement Oracle, some more mangled Eastern philosophy, and meaningless action scenes.
1.) The Star Wars Prequels (1999, 2002, 2005)
There is no series more controversial or polarizing in the realm of geek culture than George Lucas’ now infamous attempts to explore all of the cool things the characters in the original trilogy referred to in passing — The clone wars, Luke and Leia’s mother, Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side of the Force, etc. Just mentioning the word “prequel’ these days carries a stigma of folly and ruination with it, which may explain why studios are starting to shy away from the term, and why Ridley Scott altered the screenplay and the title of Prometheus. (The film was originally titled Alien: Paradise, and was a direct prequel to his 1979 movie, Alien.)
The Star Wars films are woven into the fabric our society; they were a phenomenon for the ages, and moviegoers were champing at the bit to see more adventures in the stars with Jedi, Sith, wookiees, bounty hunters, and droids. But instead of three films that were universally embraced as instant fantasy classics, what they ended up with was a series of films that split the nerd universe in two — with some fans abandoning their love for George Lucas’ saga altogether, and others immersing themselves far deeper.
Why they are loved: The proof is in the poodoo folks — Star Wars fans are still legion, and the truly dedicated are out there gobbling up the merchandise and defending the prequels to anyone who will listen. Go to any comic book/sci-fi/role-playing/anime convention, and you’ll see plenty of prequel-themed cosplay and toys on the dealer tables. The Clone Wars, a Prequel spin-off animated series that details the battles fought between episodes II and III, is one of the highest-rated shows on Cartoon Network, and is enormously popular with children. The diehards will always love and defend anything that involves lightsaber battles, cackling Emperors, comical droids, epic spaceship battles, and the familial conflict of the Skywalkers. In this regard, the Prequels delivered to the faithful; answering questions they pondered for decades and filling in the missing back story of that galaxy far, far away.
Why they are hated: It all begins with Jar Jar Binks. Poor Jar Jar was a misguided, mildly annoying supporting character in The Phantom Menace, but talk to the betrayed legions of Star Warriors, and they’ll tell you he is evil incarnate; an Antichrist that left the once-proud Star Wars universe in flame and ruin. Yet, he was only part of the problem, for what followed in Jar Jar’s wake was more childish poop humor, wooden acting, flat dialogue, obnoxious CGI environments that stripped the grittiness and realism out of the films, the dreaded midicholrians (a scientific explanation of The Force), and an actor playing Anakin that was petulant, whiny, stiff and simply unlikable. George Lucas became an object of scorn and ridicule, a fallen idol that betrayed his own philosophies and became the thing he had always feared the most – a corporate machine bent on total control.