The Most Disappointing Year in Movies

In 1997, a film cynic was born.
By  · Published on April 25th, 2017

Seeing Star Wars ruined should have been a sign that 1997 would be the worst year ever for blockbusters. George Lucas’s Special Editions, intended to “improve” the original trilogy but mostly doing the opposite, started arriving in January. By the time of the release of the new version of Return of the Jedi in March, my anticipation for anything ought to have been demolished. But I couldn’t have imagined that was only the beginning.

Actually, the first steps towards the end of an era were made in the early ’90s. That just wasn’t a great time for big movies compared to the prior decade. Some of my biggest letdowns of all time included Hudson Hawk in 1991 and Death Becomes Her in 1992. Jurassic Park wasn’t good enough for me, having read the book. Independence Day put me to sleep in the theater. Beloved series begun in the ’80s such as Batman, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Alien, Terminator, and Beverly Hills Cop had already gone south.

Still, I was young and hopeful 20 years ago, and the summer of 1997 looked so promising. Always willing to give second chances back then, I even felt strongly that the next installments of Alien, Jurassic Park, and maybe even Batman would be improvements. Big new projects were on the way from auteurs I’d recently latched onto as a loyal follower, directors like Luc Besson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Danny Boyle, and of course Quentin Tarantino. Plus there were new works from Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Richard Donner, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Zemeckis, and James Cameron.

None of the movies I looked forward to lived up to my expectations. Kicking off the summer, Besson’s The Fifth Element wound up the kind of movie that easily looked amazing in trailers, thanks to incredible special effects, production design, and costumes, but failed as a whole thanks to shoddy storytelling and a few obnoxious and/or just downright awful performances. Chris Tucker didn’t fit right. Ian Holm took on a broad characterization and failed me completely in the third act. It was no Nikita or The Professional.

Two weeks later, Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park managed to be even more disappointing than the original. Not just because, again, I’d read the book – it was hardly based on Crichton’s sequel novel anyway – but it turned something that was at least thrilling into a dull yet kind of goofy rehash. Honestly, by the movie’s final third, with the T.rex stomping through San Diego, I had given up on it being the movie I wanted it to be and appreciated some of its ridiculousness. At least it made me laugh.

Through the summer, I continued to be crushed by movies I wanted to love so badly. Zemeckis’s Contact was smart and serious and satisfying up to the ending, which didn’t work for me. Spawn was a dumb and silly and unsatisfying movie with terrible special effects from start to finish. Donner’s Conspiracy Theory was a convoluted mess. And if you think last year was the worst for DC superhero movies, you didn’t live through 1997’s Batman & Robin and the Shaquille O’Neal-led Steel.

Worst of the worst, though, hit theaters in November. Like The Fifth Element, the latest Alien movie looked stunning in stills. Jeunet was imported by Hollywood complete with his Delicatessen and City of Lost Children DP, Darius Khondji, in tow. Marc Caro, who’d co-directed those two prior features was also on board to help conceive the visuals. Certainly Alien: Resurrection would have the best style of the franchise. Unfortunately, the substance didn’t carry over, possibly due to the language barrier, as Jeunet didn’t speak English at the time he made his first English-language movie.

And 1997 closed out with Cameron’s Titanic, which would go on to claim a nearly unbreakable box office record and win Best Picture at the Oscars. True story: my eyes watered the first time I saw the Titanic trailer and it showed the poor people trapped in the lower floors who’d wind up drowning for being lower class. I felt embarrassed of that while watching the movie in full because it lacks any sort of emotional engagement. Yes, I was wowed by the disaster spectacle but surprised at how bad the script is.

Don’t get me wrong, 1997 is not the worst year for movies. A lot of great stuff came out that year, including Boogie Nights, Good Will Hunting, Gattaca, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Face/Off, none of which I was thinking about much, if at all, before seeing them. And looking back, there’s at least one truly terrific movie that initially disappointed me because it wasn’t what I’d anticipated: Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

As I nostalgically reflect on the time when I stopped having high expectations, when I ceased to hang up photos from magazines of movies not yet seen, when I realized that no favorite filmmaker of mine was infallible, when I basically became “The Film Cynic,” a name that would be cemented as my reputation via social media handles, I do honestly think more about what I love about The Fifth Element more than the parts that disappointed me. That fight sequence on the cruise ship set to operatic dance music, for example, is superb.

In context with everything else, the movies of 1997 just happened to be a cheesier bunch than I was used to or had been prepared for. To appreciate most of that year’s output requires an appreciation of more camp. Batman & Robin goes overboard in a bad way, and Face/Off and Starship Troopers go over the top with better effect than others, and in between we got humorously stupid blockbusters like Con Air, Volcano, and The Postman.

To now enjoy The Lost World, The Fifth Element, Titanic, Alien: Resurrection, and Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary, which also didn’t work for me then, is to accept them more as lighter, maybe more cartoonish comedies than I did when they were released – and maybe more than they’d been intended to be. But the truth still stands that a lot of 1997 movies, including those disappointments, are not good movies. They’re big-budget B movies, similar to the stuff Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampoons, except they feature more expensive, greater-quality craftsmanship and artistry visible on screen.

How I Earned a Reputation for Hating Movies

It took me 20 years of life to become cynical about the movies, and now it’s been another 20 and I’m still always hesitant to have high expectations for anything. We’ve actually seen worse Jurassic Park, Alien, and Luc Besson movies since 1997, and as we head into the summer of 2017 (which has its own Alien and Besson movies), it’s still difficult to have complete hope that seemingly sure things like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Dunkirk will be triumphs.

So I keep up with the low expectations and yet remain optimistic that something, among those three or the rest of the year’s crop of movies, surprises me. If this is the “wrong” way to look forward to what lies ahead, so be it, but it’s much rarer that I’m disappointed, and I’ve never been so disenchanted by the movies as a whole as I was two decades ago.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.