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Biggest box office flops cross genres and defy starpower

After Disney announced it expects to lose a gigantic US$200m on John Carter, we look at the 10 biggest box-office bombs of all time. Did they deserve their fate? Have they improved with time?

Emile Hirsch, right, as Speed Racer, driving the Mach 5, followed by Matthew Fox as Racer X in a scene from Speed Racer.
Emile Hirsch, right, as Speed Racer, driving the Mach 5, followed by Matthew Fox as Racer X in a scene from Speed Racer.

With Walt Disney Company's recent announcement that its sci-fi epic John Carter is expected to create a US$200 million (Dh734.6m) black hole in the company's finances, the film looks set to jump right to the top of the list of the biggest box-office bombs in history.

But unlike many that already make up the roll-call of cinematic calamities, John Carter - the story of an American Civil War veteran transported to the planet Mars - wasn't universally despised by critics and garnered more than a handful of positive reviews.

Its misfortune is more likely to have been a result of Hollywood economics: the film's production budget was estimated to have reached a stratospheric $250m, yet it boasted no big-name stars and many felt the marketing campaign had been mishandled from the start.

With John Carter joining the list of cinema's greatest flops, what better opportunity is there to take a look at its infamous companions and ask whether their fates were truly deserved?

Cutthroat Island (1995)

Net loss: $147.2m

(Source: Box Office Mojo. Figures adjusted for inflation.)

Pirates may have reaped billion-dollar Hollywood bounties in recent years, but a decade before Johnny Depp's high-seas adventures, a swashbuckling Geena Davis delivered what the Guinness Book of World Records still lists as history's biggest box-office bomb. Directed by her then husband (Renny Harlin), Cutthroat Island contributed to the bankrupting of Carolco Pictures and dealt a serious blow to the careers of both the filmmaker and star. Of the few who actually paid to see it (I was one), most regarded Cutthroat Island not as a contender for one of the worst movies of all time, but instead something that was simply far too unremarkable to stand a chance of recouping its colossal budget.

The Alamo (2004)

Net loss: $146.6m

Retelling the story of 1836's Battle of the Alamo, the Ron Howard-produced movie failed to rouse US audiences upon release and was widely ignored overseas. Once again, reviews hadn't been savage, but most agreed it was talky, too long and not exactly compelling - three things it could not afford to be when costing an estimated $145m and with Dennis Quaid as its biggest star. But The Alamo's poor performance was not terminal for director John Lee Hancock's career: his 2009 film The Blind Side recouped more than 10 times the value of its production budget.

The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)

Net loss: $145.9m

The story of a nightclub owner (Eddie Murphy) who fights to keep his business out of the hands of the Mafia, there was little reason for this film to be set on the moon. If it hadn't been, it wouldn't have cost upwards of $100m to produce and its abject lack of humour, soapy performances and crushingly stupid storyline would have mattered far less. A near-unwatchable folly, this is the worst film on the list by light-years. Remarkably, Eddie Murphy continues to make movies.

Sahara (2005)

Net loss: $144.9m

Paramount Pictures had hoped to create a blockbuster franchise with Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, the daring adventurer of Clive Custler's novels. Attempting an Indiana Jones-style action-comedy, the film - about the search for a US Civil War battleship hidden in the African desert - was lightweight and preposterous. It became infamous for the legal battles between Custler (who claimed his right to creative control had been denied) and the producer Philip Anschutz, who accused the author of "blackmail and sabotage".

Mars Needs Moms (2011)

Net loss: $140.5m

The cataclysmic failure of this technically demanding animation last year reportedly led to Disney's decision to drop "of Mars" from John Carter's original title. The story of a young boy who attempts to save his mother from Martian kidnappers, the film was praised for its visual style, but some felt it lacked imagination and heart. Questions were also raised over the future of the performance-capture technology used (which allows actors to control the facial expressions of digitised characters), something that many found simply too creepy.

The 13th Warrior (1999)

Net loss: $137.1m

Based on Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, the film features Antonio Banderas as a 10th-century Arab warrior who reluctantly accompanies a band of Vikings to kill the mythical creature Wendol. The adventure offered plenty of action, but little of interest to tie its vastly expensive set pieces together. After dire test screenings, the movie was re-edited several times, but even this couldn't save it upon release. Omar Sharif, who made a cameo appearance, was so disappointed he threatened to retire from acting.

Town and Country (2001)

Net loss: $124.2m

Who would've thought a simple romantic comedy could become one of the biggest box-office bombs ever? The story of the complicated life of a New York architect (played by the Hollywood heavyweight Warren Beatty) was shot and reshot over the course of two years, with many of its stars leaving to work on other projects. The movie's protracted production schedule was partly blamed on Beatty's alleged desire to record dozens of takes of certain scenes. When it finally arrived, critics agreed it wasn't funny. Beatty hasn't acted since.

Speed Racer (2008)

Net loss: $114.5m

After the astronomical success of the Matrix trilogy, writer-director siblings the Wachowskis turned their attention to Japanese anime series Speed Racer for a mega budget Hollywood adaptation. The fast-paced futuristic racing romp won over fans of the original, but never earned the mass-market appeal required to justify its colossal budget. Like Carter, the film's esoteric source material and lack of crowd-pulling stars (unless you count Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci) meant the numbers just never added up.

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Net loss: $114.3m

The Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino's epic Western performed so catastrophically upon its release, the film's title quickly became a byword for artistic excess and failure. Originally almost four hours in length, the tale of a dispute between Wyoming land barons (starring Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken), contributed to the sell-off of the legendary studio United Artists and led to a move away from director-driven film production in Hollywood. In recent years, it has gained a reputation as a noble failure, and even an underappreciated classic.

Stealth (2005)

Net loss: $111.7m

Pitting Top Gun-style pilots against unmanned drones, offering dog fights aplenty and even an appearance from recent Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, everything about Stealth seemed like it was on course for box-office victory. But after a critical panning and reports that the film somehow managed to be even dumber than Top Gun, audiences failed to show, leaving the aviation caper to crash and burn.


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