I haven't been to a movie in theaters since A Good Day to Die Hard broke my heart. Instead, I've been rewatching old movies and looking for missed opportunities. This isn't about making a generic bad movie good; any bad movie could be better. This is about seeing a movie with an amazing premise or cast or both and seeing all of that potential getting absolutely squandered.
Not in the spirit of being a downer, mind you. I do this as an optimist. I think these movies deserve another chance. We can rebuild them. We have the technology.
Hancock is a 2008 movie that stars Will Smith as Hancock, a foul-mouthed, alcoholic superhero. He fights crime, but because the amount of shit he has to give about normal human beings can fit in a thimble, he's pretty arbitrary about what he will and won't do for the city of Los Angeles. He'll save one guy from dying but cause millions of dollars in damage in the process. Eventually he gets paired up with a public relations consultant who is determined to clean up Hancock's image.
This movie seemed like such a no-brainer. By 2008, we'd seen superhero flick after superhero flick that all followed the same basic formulas; a movie about a realistic, gruff, drunk superhero who didn't really give a shit about being a superhero seemed like natural and necessary commentary on the genre. Every ingredient for this movie seemed perfect. Will Smith? He's one of the biggest stars on the planet! Jason Bateman as the PR guy tasked with improving Hancock's image? What an awesome pairing! Directed by Peter Berg? He created Friday Night Lights, so I will never stop loving him. $150 million budget? That's so much money!
At no point did this movie know what it wanted to be. Look at the Wikipedia entry about it; they call it an "American superhero action comedy-drama film." That's too many descriptors. Tooooo many, especially for a movie that can and should be incredibly straightforward.
I would have loved Hancock as a comedy about a gruff superhero and the nerdy PR guy who was trying to straighten him out. Wacky! I also would have loved it as a gritty, realistic take on superheroes; what happens when you get a Superman without any of the morals or inner drive to do good? That would have been interesting. Instead we got a movie that was sometimes both but mostly neither. There were moments of goofy slapstick ...
... and moments of real violence ...
... and moments of heavy emotional stuff ...
Then out of nowhere, they threw in a ton of weird, needless mythology. When Will Smith meets Jason Bateman's wife, Charlize Theron, he finds that she also has powers, and the twist is that they're not superheroes; they're immortal angels. The last two angels on Earth, in fact, and if they get too close to each other, their powers weaken, because something something something angel magic bullshit.
How did a movie that was almost definitely sold to a studio with the logline "Reluctant Superman as an alcoholic" turn into a not-totally-comedic-yet-not-totally-dramatic movie about angels that aren't allowed to be around each other?
I'd still like to see the kind of movie Hancock should have been. We remade Spider-Man after two freaking minutes -- we can take another crack at Hancock, right?
#3. The Village
If seeing Signs made you question whether writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was talented or just lucky, The Village confirmed that it was the latter. The Village is about a community of people living in an end-of-the-19th-century village that is, according to legend, surrounded by horrible monsters that will rip them apart if they ever leave their village and enter the woods that the creatures call home. The elders who run the village do everything they can to keep everyone from leaving, and they're mostly successful.
Eventually, one of the inhabitants (pre-crazy Joaquin Phoenix) gets stabbed by another inhabitant (pre-crazy Adrien Brody), and the elders agree to let a blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) leave the village to get medical supplies. That's when the already-tired-at-the-time Shyamalan twist kicks in and we learn that this isn't a 19th-century village at all; it's a secret compound masquerading as a 19th-century village. The elders won't let anyone leave not because of monsters, but because they don't want their inhabitants to know that there is a whole modern world out there, with roads and cars and medicine and science and movies and black people.
Bryce Dallas Howard decides to return back to the simple (but totally fake) village. In fact, everyone stays there, except Adrien Brody, who dies dressed as a spooky monster.
My issue with this movie wasn't that there was a Shyamalan twist; it's that the twist was the most exciting thing about the movie and they buried it at the end. This movie is about an experimental town living in a secret compound with most of the inhabitants completely unaware of the fact that the modern world is right in their backyard. Or at least that's what the movie should have been. Instead, it was a movie about a strange town with fake monsters and weird rules and oh, by the way, it's actually on a secret compound, but don't worry because that doesn't impact the plot. At all.
Also I was being generous earlier when I said "spooky."
If you're making a movie about a village full of people who don't realize they've been brainwashed and lied to, the most compelling story you can tell is the one that shows your audience what happens when those people find out the truth. The Village is a fish-out-of-water movie that spends two hours with the fish still in the water.
The Village movie that I'd like to see would be more like the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes: A disadvantaged species (in this case, the brainwashed village-dwellers) rebel against their superior captors and try to adjust and adapt to a world that is immediately hundreds of years more advanced. What is that like? What happens when you get a community of suspicious people who essentially look at the world like time travelers from the past? Interesting drama, I bet.