It’s not that I needed any more excuses to talk about my love of Solo: A Star Wars Story, but here we are. The latest Star Wars film looks set to be the first one that loses money, and so it shall forever be resigned to the status of flop. I wrote about what makes a cinematic flop earlier this week, so I won’t go into that topic too much, but it has sparked further thought on the inimitable appeal of something that aims high and falls disastrously short.
We’ve all loved something that failed to meet the expectations of audiences and critics alike. Sometimes, you go against the grain and find a film or album or T.V. series that clicks for you in a way it didn’t seem to for the general public. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Often, you can’t even describe why you love something the way you do. It’s instinctual or personal or sometimes just inexplicable.
It’s not uncommon for a piece of pop culture to find its true audience later in its life, or for the same critics who lambasted it the first time around to change their opinions once they realize how good the thing in question really is. Home releases for films have given myriad movies a second life: It’s a Wonderful Life was viewed by contemporary critics as a saccharine disappointment by Frank Capra, but became a classic thanks to Christmastime T.V. screenings in America; The initial reviews for Blade Runner were decidedly mixed before its ascent to cult status; Hell, basically every film crowned with the honour of cult classic got there after starting out as a flop.
Not every flop is a critical one. More often than we’d like it to be the case, sometimes critics are ahead of the game and audiences either aren’t ready or weren’t in the mood for a particular thing. A studio may think they have a sure-fire mainstream hit on their hands and pump tons of money into its production and marketing, only to realize upon release that its ideal demographic is a sliver of what it needs to be a hit. It may be a minor form of consolation to see such pop culture be vindicated in the long-term, but the money won’t return.
In celebration of our favourite pop culture flops, here are a few of the things I wholeheartedly love that didn’t ignite with audiences upon release. In order to be considered a flop for this post, the pop culture in question must have under-performed with the paying audiences and/or critics. It can still be a flop if critics loved it and audiences didn’t, but not so much the other way around (part of what makes a great flop rebirth is the notion that audiences had to rediscover it).
(Look, we all know I could put Solo here, but I won’t because I’m sure you’re all sick of me talking about it. Rest assured, I shall continue my squee in the upcoming Box Office Report.)
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Hey look, it’s that other movie I can’t stop talking about, but it fits the criteria so I’m gonna do it anyway! I remain convinced that some insidious curse must have been placed on Guy Ritchie’s reboot of the classic T.V. series, because this had all the makings of a hit: Propulsive action, endless charm, an effortlessly cool aesthetic, four painfully charismatic leads who have sexual chemistry oozing out of every pore, and a kick-ass soundtrack complete with jazz flutes. What more did audiences want? Perhaps they were put off by the remake aspect, or there simply wasn’t all that much residual affection for a show twice the age of the film’s target demographic. Critics at the time didn’t mind The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but they weren’t as enthused about it as they would become (something that seems to bug Guy Ritchie to no end). This is one of those films that I can pass on to friends or family and know they’ll instantly love it. Its appeal is so magnetic once you give it a chance. Maybe now that Henry Cavill’s won over more fans thanks to his moustache antics, those neglectful audiences will come back to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. There’s always a place for them to geek out in our comments section!
Ace in the Hole
If I was forced to give an answer as to who my favourite director of all time is, I would probably say Billy Wilder. I don’t think there’s a film-maker, living or dead, who has such a diverse, daring and artistically fascinating filmography as Wilder. The ultimate cynic, described by Andrew Sarris as being too cynical to believe even his own cynicism, Wilder was particularly sharp with his dissections of the American Dream: Think of the bastardization of the upper-middle class ideal in Double Indemnity or the borderline-orgy of the workplace in The Apartment or the exposing of the Hollywood fantasy for its toxic reality in Sunset Boulevard. During his time, Wilder was fundamentally a studio man and a director who made films for the masses. He wanted his work to be popular, and for the majority of his career, he was a guaranteed hit maker.
And then came Ace in the Hole, his first critical and commercial bomb. Audiences fled from this scathing satirical drama while critics attacked it as a brutally unfair condemnation of the great American institutions of the police and press. Ahem. Nowadays, the film has received the attention it deserves (and a Criterion release), and it may be Wilder’s most eerily prescient. Kirk Douglas plays a conman newspaper guy who finds work with a tiny Albuquerque publication after being kicked out of the big leagues. He stumbles across a man trapped in a cave and spins it into the ultimate human interest story, convincing everyone involved (except for the trapped man himself) to drag out the drama for as long as possible while he reaps the benefits. The film, by Wilder’s own admission, was basically his way of telling audiences they were sick, voyeuristic bastards who loved nothing more than a plane crash, so it’s no wonder they weren’t keen to see this film. However, Ace in the Hole is a film way ahead of its time. I can’t imagine why it would resonate in the age of fake news, abuses of power and snake oil salesman made gods…
My favourite T.V. show that doesn’t feature dapper cannibals, HBO’s Carnivale lasted two seasons and is basically only ever talked about by me, my professor, my sister and a bunch of T.V. critics. Daniel Knauf’s wildly ambitious historical fantasy-drama was sold to me with the line, ‘Imagine if Stephen King, John Steinbeck and Angela Carter met in some run-down Dustbowl diner and started telling stories together, then David Lynch did all the accompanying artwork.’ The series, about the battle between good and evil set to the backdrop of a rundown circus during the Great Depression, actually did reasonably well upon release. Critics were impressed, if not bowled over, and audiences did tune in to check out this much-hyped drama from the same channel that made The Sopranos. The problem is that what counts as amazing cable ratings now were a disappointment in the pre-Peak T.V. era. If it aired now and achieved the same ratings, it would be held up alongside any other adored drama, but alas, some things are ahead of their time. Carnivale has aged wonderfully and seems all too appropriate for an age of stories about mythic evil made manifest through charismatic conmen. I keep waiting for people to rediscover this gem, which is easily one of the most beautifully constructed shows of the millennium. If you liked episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, check out Carnivale.
Like any good Rocky Horror fan, I stridently avoided the pseudo-sequel for years because I knew it could never live up to the original film. In fairness, the first one is still better, but Richard O’Brien’s follow-up may have aged better in terms of its themes. Imagine if Brad and Janet’s car never broke down so they never got their fishnet freak on and you get the alternate world of Denton. Here, everything takes place inside a T.V. studio: Private issues become top viewing entertainment, homes are full of product placement, and even invasive mental health treatment becomes the hot new trend of the day. Essentially, O’Brien made a reality T.V. satire before reality T.V. became the inescapable force it would evolve into. There aren’t quite as many toe-tapping delights in the musical numbers - there’s nothing anywhere near as catchy as the “Time Warp” - but lyrically it’s on a new level for O’Brien. I also prefer Jessica Harper as Janet to Susan Sarandon.
What are your favourite pop culture flops? Let us know in the comments!
(Header image courtesy of HBO).