Ah summer, that hazy, magical time of year when everyone flocks to the Cineplex to escape the brain-melting heat to see equally brain-melting blockbuster movies and eat overpriced concessions. Every year, between May 1 and August 31, the major studios wage a bloody death match for box office supremacy, shoving aside dramas, biopics, and more challenging original concepts in favor of massively budgeted sequels, reboots, and remakes – bursting at the seams with plenty of superheroes, dinosaurs, aliens, natural disasters, monsters, robots, explosions, pirates, 3D, and America’s national treasure, Michael Bay.
Some of these summer tent poles go on to shatter box office records and become pop culture touchstones, while others simply fade away, or are so execrable they achieve near-legendary awfulness. Those are the kinds of disasters I want to focus on here, so without further ado, here are 10 of the absolute worst summer blockbusters of all time:
[Criteria: Since Jaws is considered to be the first real “summer blockbuster,” followed closely by Star Wars, we’re only dealing with films from the late ’70s-on. Also, as per usual, only films containing geek genre elements (superheroes, time travel, spaceships, zombies, robots, creatures, etc.) were considered.]
10.) Batman & Robin (1997)
George Clooney is still apologizing to this day for how awful his portrayal of the Dark Knight is in the fourth installment of the Batman series kicked off by Tim Burton’s iconic 1989 blockbuster. Its list of transgressions is lengthy and seared on the collective consciousness’ of nerds everywhere: The “bat credit card,” rubber nipples on every costume; a woefully mis-cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, spouting bad cold-themed puns; Batman and Robin playing ice hockey with a diamond; Batman surfing through the sky on a rocket ship’s door, Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl; Bane being reduced to a grunting goon with painted veins and muscles; a campy tone that makes the 1960s TV series look like The Watchmen; Joel Schumacher bowing under studio pressure to make the costumes and vehicles more “toyetic,” and on and on it goes. Batman & Robin is so terrible that it almost caused irreparable damage to Batman (and superhero movies, in general). It took eight years and a complete 180-degree turn in tonality to finally get him back on course.
9.) Super Mario Bros. (1993)
First of all, if you want a comprehensive look back at the complete insanity that is the development, production, release, and reaction of the Super Mario Bros. movie, you should read this magnificent Grantland piece from a few years back. The short of it is, In 1993, a film based on the hugely popular video game series Super Mario Bros. seemed like a surefire proposition. However, instead of producing a faithful, colorful, kid-friendly adaptation of the game’s iconic imagery and characters like Mario, Bowser, Koopas, The Mushroom Kingdom, etc. – Hollyweird dumped the famous video game brothers (played by John Leguizamo and the late, great Bob Hoskins) into a dark, industrial hellscape called Dinohattan, where the plumbers did battle with grotesque Goombas with teeny dino heads on huge bodies and a scenery-chewing Dennis Hopper as Bowser. It was an unmitigated disaster, but now rumor has it Disney is looking to secure the rights to the property for a bright, CG-animated feature, which seems like the most obvious money-printing concept in history.
8.) Van Helsing (2004)
Hugh Jackman was one of the hottest and most sought-after actors in Hollywood after his breakout performance as Wolverine in the first X-Men movie. Aside from being locked in contractually for X2: X-Men United, he could have had his pick of roles. So what did he choose to do? Three of the worst movies of all time: Swordfish (2001), Kate & Leopold (2001), and this gothed-out turkey, which posited the Aussie hunk as a younger, leather-clad, ass-kicking Dutch doctor
Abraham Gabriel Van Helsing (yes, that Van Helsing, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel). Directed by The Mummy’s Stephen Sommers, Van Helsing was a silly, overlong mess – dripping with terrible CGI creatures and a nonsensical plot involving Count Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankesnstein’s monster, and even Mr. Hyde. Despite flopping, the movie went on to inspire countless dreary, desaturated crapfests wherein classic fairy tale or literary characters became gizmo-wielding badasses who battled bad CGI monsters like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Brothers Grimm, Snow White & The Huntsman, I, Frankenstein, and Vin Disel’s awful-looking The Last Witch Hunter.
7.) Jaws 4: The Revenge (1987)
Everything there is to know about this sequel that no one asked for can be summed up in Michael Caine’s immortal quote: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
6.) The Last Airbender (2010)
By the time this big-budget adaptation of the mega-popular Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series came around (The ‘Avatar’ portion had to be jettisoned, thanks to James Cameron’s 3D epic), director M. Night Shyamalan’s once-promising career trajectory was plummeting into the abyss, and when the final box office tallies trickled in, his days as a visionary auteur whose name could be featured on a poster to sell a movie were over. One of the big issues with the film—aside from Shyamalan’s eye-rolling expository dialogue—was the cast he assembled to read said dialogue as bored and dead-eyed as possible. The entire ensemble was woefully mis-cast and Shyamalan quickly became embroiled in the infamous “racebending’ controversy.
Race issues aside, M Night’s greatest transgression was turning a beloved property filled with life and spirit and creativity into a dour, lumbering, disconnected bore.
5.) Total Recall (2012)
This limp remake of the fun and subversive Paul Verhoven/Arnold Schwarzenegger ’80s classic is hopelessly bland, shamelessly derivative, and utterly soulless in every way. It’s a perfect example of what disgruntled fans on comment threads and message boards are talking about when they lament the death of imagination in Hollywood and the constant recycling of old concepts.
The film blasts more lens flares in your face than J.J. Abrams ever did over the course of his entire filmography; steals action sequences right out of Minority Report, Revenge of the Sith, and other Sci-fi films; recycles CGI models and copies character and vehicle designs from I, Robot, Halo, and Star Wars; and blatantly lifts the entire Chinatown setting and visual aesthetic of Blade Runner‘s Chinatown wholesale. Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, and Jessica Biel conduct a clinic on how to be utterly nondescript in a film, listlessly stumbling through action scenes to reach the end of shooting to collect a fat paycheck. Even the normally amazing Bryan Cranston is reduced to a one-dimensional corrupt political mastermind caricature.
In the end, Total Recall is a wholly unnecessary, forgettable, disposable, by-the-numbers piece of shit; a soulless abomination stitched together from the spare parts of a dozen superior science-fiction movies. It remains, to this day, one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life.
4.) Godzilla (1998)
The hype heading into Godzilla in the summer of 1998 was immeasurable. Everyone expected big things from this monster-sized blockbuster, which was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Emmerich and his Stargate and Independence Day cohort, Dean Devlin. Finally, we were going to get a Godzilla movie that utilized the CGI breakthroughs seen in movies like Jurassic Park to create a more realistic monster that could smash actual buildings to smithereens, instead of a guy in a rubber suit stomping on toy tanks and plastic models.
However, instead of the all-out, city-devastating carnage we were thirsting for, we were treated to two hours of a wishy-washy love story between Matthew Broderick and Maria Pitillo – with Hank Azaria running around with a camera thrown in for good measure. The Godzilla design didn’t look much like the beloved, pug-nosed brawler many of us grew up watching on rainy Saturday afternoons, which didn’t really matter, since the movie barely offered a glimpse of the creature – keeping it conveniently underwater or hidden in rain and nighttime scenes until the final confrontation due to limitations in the CGI budget. Things then went completely off the rails when a sequence near the climax completely ripped off the tense raptor chase scene from the aforementioned (and vastly superior) Jurassic Park.
Godzilla ’98 also holds the distinction of being the only film on this list that earned its spot in part due to featuring one of the worst musical crimes committed against mankind on its soundtrack – the ear-destroying collaboration between Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page, “Come With Me.” Ugh.
3.) TIE: Cowboys & Aliens (2011) Wild Wild West (1999)
I wasn’t going to do any ties (because that’s kind of a cheat), but I had to squeeze in these two awful western/sci-fi hybrids. Here’s a bit of fun movie trivia for you: No human being has intentionally or voluntarily watched Cowboys & Aliens since its brief theatrical run in the summer of 2011. Even one of its executive producers is embarrassed at how half-assed the concept and execution of the movie turned out. Jon Favreau was white-hot coming off of two successful Iron Man movies for Marvel Studios, but even his direction and an incredible star-studded cast featuring the likes of Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, and Sam Rockwell couldn’t make this tone-deaf mish-mash of genres work.
Wild Wild West, meanwhile, is a shining example of Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith’s unchecked arrogance in the late ’90s. Coming off previous July 4th weekend smashes Independence Day and Men In Black, the producer-director and Mr. “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” probably thought they could sneak this silly, overstuffed reimagining of an obscure ’60s TV show past an unsuspecting, gullible public distracted by flashy trailers and Will’s hip-hop rejiggering of a classic Stevie Wonder tune. Thankfully, nobody was fooled, and Wild Wild West got his ass handed to it by The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers:The Spy Who Shagged Me.
2.) Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014)
It was a little difficult finding the right Transformers film to slot into this position, because every single one of them (following the barely passable original) is equally offensive and commits egregious sins against cinema and, well, all of humanity. In the end, I truly believe Age Of Extinction is the nadir of this awful franchise and possibly modern blockbuster filmmaking itself.
Any movie that stops its threadbare narrative cold so a character can inform the audience where to go and how to procure legal documentation for the express purpose of having sex with underage teen girls is loathsome enough, but then of course you have the grating, unlikable characters, hyper-kinetic crash-editing, no plot to speak of, zero narrative cohesion, gratuitous product placement, military fetishism, juvenile fixations on T&A, a bloated run time, endless metal clanking, empty and meaningless action, and of course, enough explosions to annihilate a small country. As I stated in my previous full review of the film, “Transformers: Age Of Extinction isn’t a movie, it’s a test of human endurance.”
1.) Battlefield Earth (2000)
Long before Will Smith enlisted his son Jaden and embattled director M Night Shyamalan to produce a two-hour Scientology seminar in the guise of a multi-million dollar budgeted sci-fi blockbuster (After Earth, which almost made this list), noted Scientologist, dancing actor, and insane person John Travolta spearheaded an expensive adaptation of some prime Scientology source material – L. Ron Hubbard’s novel Battlefield Earth: A Saga Of The Year 3000. The result was one of the worst movies of all time, and hands down the most excruciating would-be summer blockbuster in history.
Travolta and co-star Forrest Whitaker donned ridiculous dreadlock wigs and insanely high platform boots that made the ones KISS wear on stage look like ballet flats in order to portray the villainous alien Psychlos, and were shot in endless, nauseating dutch angles that stretched throughout the film’s absurdly long running time. (A cursory glance at the IMDb page shows it runs 118 minutes, but it fees more like 10,118.) Lambasted by movie reviewers and laughed off by audiences, Battlefield Earth was a full-blown financial and critical catastrophe – a poorly lit, terribly written, hideously acted blight on cinema. But hey, if it’s any consolation to Travolta, he would go on to play an even hammier, more cringe worthy bad guy in The Punisher three years later.