This week, in honor of the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000, we’re asking: What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen while trapped in a theater?
I vividly remember a vacation to South Padre Island that I took with my parents in 1994 for two reasons. One, the first day coincided with O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase, so I spent most of it inside, sacrificing beach time in favor of watching it unfold. And two, that turned out be a huge mistake, because it rained almost every day thereafter, meaning we ended up spending a lot of time playing cards and making trips to the only movie theater in town, where—for the first and only time in my life—I walked out on a film. It’s still difficult to fathom who The Flintstones was even made for, though it goes without saying it wasn’t for 15-year-old me. A live-action adaptation of a creaky 1960s cartoon whose humor is too juvenile for adults, yet built around an embezzlement plot that’s far too convoluted and boring for kids, The Flintstones was banking, like so many reboots of its ilk, on nostalgic parents looking for entertainment the whole family could tolerate. Still, not even 35 screenwriters, nor the charisma of John Goodman, nor a dry roof over my head could save it from being one of the most excruciating moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. Approximately 25 minutes and 2,500 rock puns into it, I opted to go stand outside and watch the puddles ripple in the parking lot instead. Say what you will about The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas, but at least it has the schadenfreude of watching Stephen Baldwin bottom out.
The only movie I ever walked out of was Startup.com, a 2001 documentary about a start-up (natch) failing in the wake of our first popped tech bubble. But the same oppressive dullness that propelled me from the theater prevents me from recalling a single cogent detail of the film to mention here. So instead I’ll say 1998’s Godzilla, which was the height of ’90s fascination with reviving old properties and ignoring absolutely everything people liked about them in the first place. It’s low-hanging fruit to pick on a movie universally reviled for 20 years, but no less true for it. Did this Godzilla have atomic fire breath? Maybe? Kind of. They sort of obscured that point in case it was too ridiculous for their giant lizard movie. And turning the third act into a poor Jurassic Park knockoff where the heroes have to flee from Velociraptor-sized Godzilla offspring was a special kind of “fuck you” to an audience that thought it was paying to watch a creature the size of a building step on stuff. Also, Matthew Broderick’s character insisted on wearing a terrible backwards hat the whole time.
Hearing a scatalogical joke once can be funny. Hearing it over and over, repeatedly, in a seemingly endless variety of ways, while people take time in between each telling to explain to you what’s so funny about it? It would be excruciating even if you weren’t in the theater, which is how I found myself walking out of The Aristocrats, the only time I’ve ever abandoned a film I paid money to attend before it was over. The movie’s central conceit is how a variety of comics tell an old vaudeville gag, meant to be unspooled in the most disgusting manner possible, meaning everyone has their own spin on how to deliver an unrelenting stream of potty-mouth perversion. This documentary purports to delve into the psychology and philosophy of comedy, as well as the mind-set of stand-up comedians, but it quickly devolves into an exhausting and repetitive slog through people essentially saying, “Here’s why this is funny.” And the old saying is true: If you have to explain it, maybe don’t make a feature-length film about it, especially one showcasing many of my favorite comedians. There were only about six of us in the theater, and about 45 minutes in, I realized with a shock that I was bored out of my mind watching a film I’d been excited to see. Exeunt me.
As a professional film critic, I see bad movies in the theater on a semiregular basis, and if you count small regional film festivals, that tally sometimes includes movies so amateurish, so not-ready-for-release, that it seems unfair to even judge them by any standard rubric of quality. So I’m going to bend the rules a little bit and single out a pair of movies I caught back to back, and on my own dime, during a time when said dime came straight from my parents’ wallets. In the summer of 1997, most of my allowance went to the local multiplex, and I’m sure I saw worse movies that same season than the two I foolishly decided to watch as part of an unwittingly masochistic double feature. But holy shit, it’s hard to think of a more miserable four-plus hours at the movies than Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin,
followed immediately by Speed 2: Cruise Control. Twin paradigms of ’90s blockbuster badness, each running what felt like an endless 125 minutes, these bogus sequels assaulted my still-developing taste buds in distinctly offensive ways, like a multicourse meal made from spoiled ingredients. They were two bad tastes that tasted terrible together: an endless, brain-dead kitsch parade, chased by a thrill-free thriller that almost comically misplaces the fundamental appeal of its predecessor. Even at 13, I should have known better to mainline those two movies in one sitting. All future double bills have been much more conservative, especially during the times when my own hard-earned money has been on the line.
I’ll go see pretty much anything; for example, I even saw Dude, Where’s My Car? in the theater. So I distinctly remember the only time I ever walked out of a movie. Because I worked in the Old Town neighborhood, my friends and I got free tickets to go see What Women Want at the nearby Piper’s Alley theater. The fact that it was free should have clued me in why they were so desperate to pack the theater for this clunker. Mel Gibson’s Nick is already a casanova before a freak blow-dryer bathtub accident leaves him with the ability to read women’s minds. He, of course, uses this newfound ability to its full advantage: to try to win over the then-ubiquitous and obviously spray-tanned Helen Hunt, who has just received the promotion he wanted. It’s so unbelievably sexist. For example, Nick can’t hear the thoughts of his assistants, presumably because they don’t have any. And all the women around Nick apparently can’t stop thinking about how attractive he is and also can’t stop looking at his crotch. It became clear early on that Nick was bound to learn a valuable life lesson at some point, but my time was too valuable to waste until he found it. So I left. Dude, Where’s My Car? was better, and it had Stifler in it.
I’ve seen all of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies in the theaters, and in college I saw Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull on opening night, but I feel very confident in saying that Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is the worst movie I’ve ever seen in a theater. Even if you ignore stupid stuff like Gotham and Metropolis being practically right next to each other, the hoops the film has to jump through to get Superman and Batman to fight, and the whole “Martha” scene that ends the fighting in a heartbeat, the movie is still garbage for one specific reason: It turns Batman into a killer. I understand that he’s supposed to be a darker and more desperate version of the character, but no matter how you justify it, a Batman that puts machine guns on his jet and blows up criminals with his car isn’t Batman. He’s just the Punisher with better equipment and a different aesthetic.
It cannot have helped that when I saw the film, a day or two before New Year’s, 1) I was hungover and 2) my friends and boyfriend at the time, all of whom usually have good taste, insisted on viewing Avatar in 3-D. What is there to even say about “blue FernGully”? About “Pocahontas in space”? (Besides that the unimpressive 3-D graphics made me even queasier than whatever beer I’d had the night before and I had to go to the bathroom multiple times to splash cold water on my face.) I can now scarcely remember the actual story of the film, but for the not-even-believable-within-the-scope-of-fantasy plot point of the protagonist and Zoe Saldana’s character twisting their tail things together to… both become cartoons? What I do remember is leaning into my best friend throughout to provide what I’m sure was very insightful commentary. “I can’t go to a bad movie by myself. What, am I gonna make sarcastic remarks to strangers?” Jerry says in the Chinese restaurant episode of Seinfeld. At least with Avatar, I had friends there to take my shit.
Living in Austin in my early 20s, I had access to all sorts of vital cultural institutions: the city’s storied concert venues (all the cool ones have closed now, don’t even bother), its shamefully underrated comedy scene, and the crown jewel of Austin moviegoing experiences, the Alamo Drafthouse. But none of the Drafthouse’s many locations were charging $1 admission for poorly received John Travolta action-thrillers in 2010, which is why I wound up driving 20 minutes to a second-run theater in suburban Round Rock to see the utterly baffling From Paris With Love. Heading to the Cinemark 8 for its weekly discount day had become a ritual for my friend Mike, and I tagged along a few times, seeing 2012, Hot Tub Time Machine, and other features for which I didn’t feel like paying full-price. But I still remember things about those movies. I can’t even remember why we settled on From Paris WIth Love that week, if we even had a reason beyond the cheap tickets and the ludicrous Heisenberg look Travolta adapted for the film. Pierre Morel’s follow-up to Taken harkens back to those heady post-Pulp Fiction days when Face/Off and Broken Arrow recast Travolta as the overacting face of big, explosive blockbusters—but it’s actually just a movie where the erstwhile Danny Zuko is an unhinged CIA agent who is very particular about his energy drinks. With Jonathan Rhys Meyers as his mismatched partner, the absurd miscasting of the film overshadows any of its gunfights and car chases. Even at a dollar, I still feel like I overpaid to see it.
I’m a big fan of Alison Brie—she’s one of the most underrated comedic performers working today—so I went into Sleeping With Other People with high hopes. Those hopes were dashed within the first 20 minutes, as it piled on cliché after cliché with little more than a knowing wink to indicate the film “got it” and was “commenting on the rom-com tropes” without actually elevating that trite material or saying anything fresh about it. Those 20 minutes also solidified my distaste for Jason Sudeikis, whose mugging kind of charm is just smarm. Brie deserves better—both in scripts and in co-stars.
As a kid with an inordinate love of world-building, conspiracy theories, and grouchy Tommy Lee Jones, I loved Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black with a passion when it came out shortly after my 13th birthday. By the time I was a college freshman, though, I probably should have figured out that not even a well-applied neuralyzer can make the exact same premise seem fresh a second time around. Nevertheless, on a parents’ weekend during my first year at Purdue, I dragged my mom to see Men In Black II, an act I still periodically apologize for. The laziest possible retread of the first film’s plot beats, with none of its sense of wonder or discovery, MIB:II is the only movie I’ve ever seriously considered walking out of. But I didn’t, which means I got to sit through the entirety of Lara Flynn Boyle and Johnny Knoxville wandering around in the shadow of Vincent D’Onofrio’s villain performance from the first movie, and got treated to an idiotically bro-like locker room ending that not only seemed to confirm that the movie was mostly an excuse for the stars to hang out and shoot the shit but also managed to undercut the weird, mind-bending conclusion of the original.
Like the burning hatred of a comic book supervillain for their arch nemesis, my continual shit talk about Zack Snyder has an origin story. The year was 2009, and I and my then-boyfriend went to the theater, paid money for tickets, bought our popcorn and our sodas, and excitedly settled in to see Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen. We were (and still are) big fans of the graphic novel, and had seen 300 a few years earlier and liked it. This guy had potential, we thought, and with Alan Moore’s source material, this was going to be a grown-up superhero movie in the vein of The Dark Knight. Then the film began, and disappointment began to set in. Snyder had read the book all right—he was even copying panels from the source material exactly—but he didn’t understand it at all. He was idolizing characters that weren’t meant to be idolized. He had taken a politically charged story about the inherent fascism of superheroes and turned it into a video game cut scene. They had entrusted one of the greatest graphic novels of all time to a shallow fan boy. The ride home was very quiet.
There’s little worse in the movie world than when a filmmaker strives mightily to find some universal truth and ends up only with a pile of clichés and no real story to speak of. The completely forgotten teen drama The Chumscrubber squandered its adult supporting cast—Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, Allison Janney, William Fichtner—aiming squarely for the world of American Beauty angst and ending up with fists made entirely of ham. Did you know that suburban life isn’t all perfection and sunshine? Or that heavily medicating teens for just having feelings is probably not the best idea? At least it gets batshit for a minute, when Fiennes’ character suffers a head injury and starts seeing dolphins everywhere—if I’m remembering that right—but it’s not enough to put The Chumscrubber into so-bad-it’s-good territory. It’s just bad bad.
My parents and I had a mini-tradition of going to see a movie whenever they would come visit for my college’s parents weekend. Who knows what provoked us to choose the miserable Clint Eastwood clunker Hereafter for one of those occasions. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the plot of this drama of the “people connected all over the world because of death” genre other than it was maudlin, tedious, and featured manipulative uses of both the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 terrorist attack on the London Underground as plot devices.
The Assassin has been hailed as a modern-day wuxia classic, and its director Hou Hsiao-Hsien was awarded best director at Cannes for the film. Much of the praise has been given to its cinematography, which employs a lush color palette and graceful tracking shots, as if the viewer were swept into a Chinese brush painting. I was mesmerized by its aesthetic ambition. But by minute 45, the story was trudging at such an torturously slow tempo (“glacial” would be too kind an adjective), my wife and I left in the middle of the sold-out screening. The Assassin, the first 45 minutes at least, was for me a tranquilizer dart that made you hallucinate vivid colors and in Mandarin. It remains the only film I’ve ever walked out on.
There was a Cinemark movie theater near my parents’ house in Cleveland that seemed to still be open through sheer corporate inertia. I went to see movies there at all hours of the day merely as a means of wasting time and almost never encountered another soul on the premises aside from the bored, stoned ticket clerks, who would at first look up in shock when I’d enter and then, over time, wearily nod at me in recognition. It was a great theater for making fun of movies in, as there was no one for you to disrupt; you could blatantly crack open a smuggled beer in the theater and not net a second look from another theater-goer, because there wasn’t one. The employees were more apt to ask me for a beer than kick me out.
So it was with great excitement that some friends and I went to see WWE Studios’ 2006 flop The Marine, starring the wrestler John Cena, as the second part of a double-header that began with WWE Studios’ other 2006 flop See No Evil, starring Kane. A theme night that rich had to be seen through to its conclusion, but within minutes of the first film, we knew we had made a grave, hours-long mistake that no amount of wisecracks could correct. And yet, still we soldiered on, much like Cena’s character in The Marine, to the theater, where we solemnly performed our sworn duty to watch the second of two WWE films in the same evening. I remember nothing of either film but will never forget the looks we shared with each other as we exited the theater, eyes sunk back in our skulls, smiles long since evaporated, friendships hanging on by threads. The theater employees looked on in pity as we shuffled silently out into the night, then went back to their solemn task, standing guard to an empty monument.
You might say I should have known what I was in for when I went to see Father’s Day. No, not the 1997 comedy starring Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. I’m talking about the 2011 movie starring Adam Brooks as a guy named Ahab whose white whale is a serial killer and rapist. It’s Troma’s attempt at neo-grindhouse, but it’s just mean-spirited shlock. The violence of the rape and murder scenes is just gratuitous, and that’s all before the penis eating and “incest by necessity.” It was only because I was at a midnight screening and not wanting to ditch my friend that I sat through to the conclusion, so the characters were put out of their misery long before I was.