5 Theories That Make Famously Bad Movies Awesome
Bad movies are everywhere -- in theaters, on TV, and we're reasonably sure that terrible script ideas constantly hover around Michael Bay like cartoon stink lines. But while it's easy to shit all over these films, let's take an affirmative approach for a change. If you use a heaping helping of positive thinking, some cinematic turds can become cinematic gold. Or, at the very least, semi-watchable. For example ...
Aliens Aren't The Real Bad Guys In The Alien Movies -- It's AI
Alien: Covenant, which came out this past summer, isn't good. Even after audiences laughed at Prometheus for having a team of scientists act like Camp Crystal Lake counselors, Covenant somehow made its characters even stupider. People willingly shove their faces into slimy monster eggs and have steamy shower sex despite the fact that all their friends have been murdered. And remember how people criticized the Prometheus guys for recklessly taking off their space helmets on an uncharted planet? The Covenant crew throw on nothing but some windbreakers and floppy hats, as if their expedition is sponsored by J. Crew.
What's interesting about the movie, though, is that it's establishing an elaborate creation mythology for the Alien series. It's basically a Bible story with vagina dentata monsters. Our first clue that things are about to get Biblical is that the ship is named Covenant, as in a pact with God, and it has an Ark-like load of couples to populate a new world. Also in the not-so-subtle Biblical allusions camp, James Franco is seemingly Space Jesus.
The movie was originally subtitled Paradise Lost, a reference to John Milton's epic poem about Satan and the Fall of Man. Despite the name change, a lot of that's still in the movie. The android David rebelled against his human creators in Prometheus. By the time of Covenant, he's killed all the Engineers, aka the alien species that genetically manufactured the human race. So yeah, David has killed "God" two times over, and has cobbled together an entire army of gross-out monsters, as Satan generally requires an army of high-grade slobs.
But more interesting than simply dabbling in familiar theological themes is the way this movie, in a sense, becomes a sacred text for the original Alien. If you think back, the villain of that film wasn't even really the alien -- it was Ash the android, and to a lesser extent Mother, the ship's computer which was presumably from Apple's "Uncomfortably Oedipal" line of future operating systems.
With Covenant, we get to see the crazy ancestry behind that conflict. Ash is likely a descendant of David, who genetically engineered that black Flubber stuff into the alien in the first place.
So the events of Alien aren't merely an incredible screw-up on the part of a space mining company; they're another example of AI trying to eradicate humanity with the alien, which we now see is a decades-old conflict. Also, if we view Alien as the primary story, and Prometheus and Covenant as religious texts, their crazy, nonsensical tone makes a little more sense. Which is why robot Michael Fassbender made out with another robot Fassbender. Exactly like in the Bible.
The Star Wars Prequels Are Far Better When You Realize The Jedi Are Supposed To Suck
We've certainly said some harsh things about the Star Wars prequel trilogy in the past, most of which involved the words "steaming" and "pile." But you know what? Let's go in a different direction for a moment and *takes a moment to regain composure* ... defend the prequels.
We all know the trilogy's flaws -- the movies feel like a high school drama class was inexplicably green-screened into Narnia. Part of the reason we all may have bristled at Episode I is that the Jedi we were so excited to finally see in action were kind of awful. They were dull, judgy douchebags, pretty much the intergalactic equivalent of the Shark Tank investors.
But the story makes a little more sense when you realize that the Jedi are supposed to be flawed. It's an organization about to topple for a good reason. As Professor Joshua Sikora points out in a documentary all about defending the prequels, the biggest character arcs in the trilogy belong to Yoda and Obi-Wan, and you might not have even noticed it.
In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon whisks Anakin away from his home in Tatooine and his single mom, who has to stay behind and remain a slave. Quite messed up stuff for a series that was once about partying with teddy bears.
At first, it seems like some crazy anomaly, as if Qui-Gon is the black sheep of the Jedi who keeps luring small children away from their homes ... until we realize that this is what the Jedi do. Yanking kids away from families is business as usual for them. That way, they can train the little tykes free of the distractions of love or home-cooked meals or rage-fueled political conversations.
In case you didn't notice, this doesn't go well. The Jedi's sloppy methods end up creating Space Hitler, and most of them get murdered. Here's the pivotal moment: At the end of Revenge Of The Sith, Luke and Leia are born. They're the twin offspring of the Galaxy's most midichlorian-filled individual. If anyone could be trained, it's these two. But Yoda and Obi-Wan realize they totally fucked up. So in the end, to balance things out and make things right, they do the opposite of what they did in Episode I: They return a child to Tatooine.
The final shots of the movie show us that the best place for a child is with a loving family ... as opposed to, you know, space wizard cults. George Lucas himself has adopted three kids, so the message of prequels is ultimately a personal one. Of course, the twin who ended up at a desolate dirt farm instead of a goddamn royal palace kind of got the short end of the stick.
Showgirls Is Filled With Mind-Boggling Symbolism
One of the most maligned movies of all time, the erotic drama Showgirls stars Elizabeth Berkley from Saved By The Bell and co-stars the death of every Saved By The Bell fan's childhood innocence.
But did Showgirls get an unfairly bad rap? At least one person thinks so. Critic Adam Nayman wrote a whole book about how underrated Showgirls is, and he makes some damn good points. For one thing, the sex-filled movie is also full of thematically consistent references to mirrors and doubles, as if Alfred Hitchcock got a gig at Cinemax.
When we first meet our protagonist Nomi, we immediately see that she aspires to become the lead dancer, Cristal, played by Gina Gershon. Nomi's quest to become a different person is played out in the movie's mirroring theme. When she first sees Cristal dance, she imitates her movements from the audience.
The movie is also full of literal mirrors. Whole conversations occur during which people are looking at each other's reflections:
The movie is also a mirror of itself, opening with Nomi hitchhiking into Vegas and ending with her leaving. She even gets picked up by the same guy:
The character's names also feed into this theme. "Cristal" refers to crystal, which obviously is a reflective surface, and "Nomi" should clue us into the existential dilemma of our hero, because her name sounds like "no me." Yeah, and we're only getting started. The movie also gets surprisingly meta. We all went into this thinking it was contrived to arouse straight men in the age of 56kb/s internet modems, but what happens in the third act? There's not only a horrifying rape scene, but Nomi is also forced to go full Charles Bronson, avenging her friend and roundhouse-kicking the shit out of the rapist.
Nomi is rejecting the toxic masculinity that we all thought was part and parcel of, well, Showgirls. She finds herself by breaking the confines of a two-dimensional character, and in the end, essentially decides to leave her own damn movie. Metaphorically, that's represented by her leaving Las Vegas, but to make it even clearer, the final shot is of her on a billboard that looks suspiciously like a movie advertisement:
The Happening Is About The Societal Pressures Around Starting A Family
M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening told the terrifying story of an epidemic of suicides, made all the more terrifying by the fact that the person in charge of untangling this killer problem is the founder of Wahlburgers. It's a stupid-as-hell thriller that almost killed the director's career. But what if it was supposed to be dumb? And what if, even in its dumbness, The Happening was all an elaborate allegory for the pressure to form a conventional family unit? Like American Beauty, but with more people being run over by lawnmowers.
Mark Wahlberg plays a high school science teacher, the kind whose lectures sound like a confused frat boy trying to quote Bill Nye. More to the point, he plays the part with the kind of annoying "Oh jeez" optimism you'd expect from a 1950s matinee idol ... which seems intentional. Why else dress the star of Boogie Nights in one of Urkel's sweater vests?
As the B-movie plot progresses, so does the camp value. In one hilarious moment, a woman busts out an iPhone to show Wahlberg footage of a lion tamer feeding himself to the lion as if it's a YouTube cat video. Which it technically sort of is.
To truly appreciate The Happening, we need to pull apart its two metaphorical layers. The first is the more obvious environmental one. It turns out that the trees and plants are responding to humanity's decimation of the Earth by releasing a toxin that kills us off, specifically in areas with nuclear facilities. This in itself is a throwback to the B-movies of the '50s and '60s, which took fears of atomic power and turned them into genre terrors.
And it doesn't get any more ridiculous than the fact that the movie's villain is a slight breeze -- less the stuff of Hollywood wide releases, and more like if a group of teenagers tried to make a horror movie using stock footage from a nature documentary.
Then there's a secondary theme: that of the pressures of marriage and family. We learn that Wahlberg and his wife, played by Zooey Deschanel, have been fighting over whether or not to have a baby. When the "happening" happens, they're forced to go through the paces of the life of a "traditional" married couple. What's their first move? Get out of the city and head to the suburbs. And then they have a kid! They take care their friend's daughter after he dies.
Then they go house-hunting, a theme underscored by the fact that the first place where they seek shelter is a model home for sale.
They end up having to go live with a crazy old lady -- which seems out of nowhere in the plot of the movie, but in terms of this metaphor, she is a surrogate senile parent they have to tend to later in life.
And how do they eventually win? They stop giving a shit about the toxic air, and instead of separating (the working theory on how to avoid the toxin), the couple come together and the deaths magically stop. It's as if the '50s-era horror story was pushing these two into embracing '50s-era values. In the final scene, we see that they've decided to embrace their marriage, have a baby, and presumably spend their remaining Saturdays bickering with each other at Costco. Otherwise the world's plants will murder them.
Batman v. Superman Is All About King Arthur
Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice is a crazy mess of a movie, from its depiction of the Dark Knight branding criminals like a cattle rancher to a Superman who broods like a 13-year-old whose parents won't let him go see My Chemical Romance. But you can kind of appreciate it more when you understand where Zack Snyder is coming from. Specifically, Camelot.
Apparently, one of Snyder's favorite movies of all time is the 1980s King Arthur flick Excalibur -- aka that movie in which Helen Mirren is a dry-ice-filled sorceress. In fact, Batman v. Superman signals that the epic sword-and-sorcery movie is going to be an influence right off the bat (pun not intended) by showing Excalibur in the very first scene, on the marquee at AMC's less-popular Crime Alley location.
Knowing that Excalibur, a film full of villainous plotting and insane dream sequences, is the touchstone here really helps you acclimatize to the movie's tone. Not only does the movie's broad, melodramatic story and multitude of prophetic dreams start to make a little more sense, but the references get even more explicit. In the end, Batman becomes a literal knight in armor:
And Batman pulling a glowy green sword out of some stone also comes straight out of Excalibur.
Lois Lane has to later retrieve the Kryptonite spear, because she's a stand-in for the Lady in the Lake. (And hey, they even have the same initials, more or less.)
As discussed on Entertainment Weekly's podcast, Excalibur (the sword) is ultimately used to slay the true enemy, with the hero impaling themselves to get to the bad guy, which is almost exactly what happens at the end of Batman v. Superman:
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Check out the movie version of David Wong's first book John Dies at the End, starring Paul Giamatti.
What the Hell Did I Just Read: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, the third book in David Wong's John Dies at the End series, is available now!