We constantly get our hopes up for upcoming movies… and then they let us down. It’s easy to get sucked into the hype cycle, as people talk up their projects — but sometimes, you can tell just from the way people talk about a film that it’s probably not going to work. Here are eight key phrases that usually indicate danger.
Note: We’re being very careful to use the word “usually” here, because any of these things could apply to a handful of great movies as well. But these are things that, when I hear them, usually set my Spidey-sense tingling. For more early warning signs, check out our list of ways to tell from a movie trailer that it’s going to be awful.
So when we’re in a junket, or obsessively combing through every interview about a movie for scraps to put into Morning Spoilers, here are the things that we hear that make us worry:
1) “We realised that nobody had ever told the origin of ____”
This is a huge one. People say this a lot about prequels — or origin stories of longstanding characters who have appeared in multiple forms over the years, but never had their origin story told. For example, they said this a lot about Oz The Great and Powerful: Why does L. Frank Baum never go into detail about the origins of the Wizard of Oz in his books? The Wizard’s origin is discussed in a paragraph or two, here and there, but never really gone into. Ditto for how Kirk and Spock first met, in Star Trek. And a ton of others — I feel like every few weeks, there’s another project where the producer or screenwriter is saying the origin story is the great unexplored territory. Often, they say this about projects that never get off the ground, maybe because they eventually realise the origin story isn’t as interesting as they thought. And the fact is, usually the origin story was left unexplored for a reason — some characters just don’t need origin stories.
2) “It’s our Star Wars” (For things that are nothing like Star Wars)
Let’s get this out of the way right up front — Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn also said this about his movie, which did actually rule. But when people say “this is my Star Wars,” they usually aren’t comparing any of the actual elements of Star Wars to anything in their movie. They’re meaning “this will be a huge expansive saga with cuteness and danger,” or else, “This was something where I obsessed about the crunchy edges of the mythos for way too long.” For example, Last Airbender writer/director M. Night Shyamalan made a big point of comparing his movie to Star Wars in every interview, but the resulting film did a disservice to both the original cartoon and Star Wars. Also, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem writer/directors the Strause Brothers invoked the Star Wars comparison a lot. The point is not that people shouldn’t invoke Star Wars — it’s just a bad sign when you invoke it for stuff that’s really nothing like Star Wars.
3) “It’s not a remake. We’re putting our own spin on the concept of ____”
See Total Recall, RoboCop, Death Race, a few other things. When people who are taking on a beloved old property and refurbishing it for the 21st century keep insisting that they’re not simply doing a new version of the original, sometimes they mean it. And Death Race is a perfect example — it contains almost nothing of the Roger Corman film, except for cars and the Frankenstein mask. (And I kind of liked Death Race for what it was, but it’s not really in the same league as Death Race 2000. Ditto for RoboCop.) I guess when people seem like they’re trying to have it both ways — invoking a classic thing, while also saying they’re not doing that thing — then that’s usually a big flashy light of warning.
4) Any phrase that includes “service” as verb.
I freely admit that this is just one of my pet peeves, like the word “franchise.” People in the movie business use the word “service” as a verb quite a bit, and it brings to mind the image of grease-covered truck-stop-bathroom shenanigans. They talk about “servicing the mythos” or “servicing the characters,” or “servicing the story” — and basically this means “giving screen time to.” But in a way that implies that what’s being serviced is one element of a big box of toys, along with the VFX and the explosions and whatnot — and it also often means that something is being given screentime, rather than actual development.
5) We had no idea what we were reacting to on these green-screens
Channing Tatum’s interviews about G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, from before the movie came out, are pretty hilarious to read now. Tatum talks a lot about how he had to get over his fear of overacting, and stop taking the movie so seriously, at the insistence of Dennis Quaid and director Stephen Sommers. But most tellingly, Tatum talked a lot about how he had no idea what he was doing in any given scene, and none of it made sense to him in the moment. He told Blastr:
I’m sitting there looking at a green screen like, “RIPCOOOORD! NOOOO!” Stuff like that, and you’re just like, “What am I doing?” Or you’re like, “You get the rockets, I’ll get the nanomites. Wait a minute, what are nanomites?” I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re just having fun with it.
To be fair, lots of actors talk about having to act against greenscreen and imagine that they’re looking at a dragon or a robot or whatever — but when that crosses over into “I don’t know what’s going on,” that’s frequently a bad sign. I feel like Jake Gyllenhaal said similar stuff in his interviews for Prince of Persia, and the actors in the Star Wars prequels were also somewhat befuddled. Update: Commenter Grok points out Ian McKellen actually cried on the set of The Hobbit due to excessive, bewildering greenscreen.
6) We do reference that in the film.
People say this in interviews if their movie is based on a thing that they’re actually not really including — the big example that comes to mind is Battleship. Director Peter Berg was forced to spend every interview discussing how they were really going to work in references to the board game in the movie, even though the movie was largely nothing to do with the board game. To a lesser extent, this came up with Watchmen as well — Zack Snyder tied himself in knots explaining how “the squid” from the comic was still in his movie. (Because the anagram S.Q.U.I.D. was used for something.) Your mileage may vary — a lot of people felt Watchmen worked better without the squid, but I actually felt the ending was flat without something that over-the-top. But in general, when people are forced to explain in interviews how they nod to something that was a core element of what they’re adapting, that’s often a bad, bad sign. (And I feel like I hear this a lot, beyond these two examples.)
7) We had to go back and fix the tone.
OK I have to confess — I got sucked into spending a couple hours last night reading all the interviews that people did about the Jonah Hex movie, which are the purest distillation of “we already know this movie is a disaster, but we still have to sit here promoting it” that I’ve ever seen. And one of the things that comes up a lot in the Hex interviews is the question of the reshoots that happened, with Francis Lawrence reportedly stepping in to direct some new material. Everyone involved points out — correctly — that reshoots don’t necessarily mean a movie is in trouble. (They really don’t. Every Marvel movie has had reshoots.) But then they explain that the tone of the movie was wrong, and it needed to be made less comedic. And THAT actually is a huge warning sign. Michael Bay similarly said that last year’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles needed huge reshoots because the tone was wrong, although he said this after the fact:
I’m texting Drew. Then he goes to the bathroom. I go to the bathroom. He’s at the urinal and [I say], “We are in so much f — ing trouble!” I write Paramount, “Guys, we have a serious problem. We need funny writers right now. Because the pipeline has to keep going.” We really had to get that tone right. It was dicey.
8) My character was changed a lot after I took the role
The other thing I got from the Jonah Hex interviews was that Megan Fox kept saying that she did not sign on to play a “hooker with a heart of gold.” And whenever an actor admits that the role they ended up playing was really not the one they thought they were playing… that’s also a huge danger sign.