For our next collection of bombs from the 90s, we are going to take a look at the cyberpunk failures from the era:
1. Freejack (1992)
“It didn’t play as well as I would have liked. In fact, didn’t play well at all.”
–Morgan Creek CEO Jim Robinson
This dreadful piece of cyber schlock was funded by the recent startup distributor Morgan Creek as an effects-laden event film. Mick Jagger was given second billing and his involvement gave the project tons of free publicity and exposure.
Freejack was set to open in fall 1991 but disastrous test screenings delayed the release to the January dumping ground in 1992. Originally Freejack sported a $30 million budget, but Morgan Creek tossed an additional $3.5 million at reshoots. Director Geoff Murphy, who had helmed Young Guns II for Morgan Creek was pushed aside in post and the edit was carved up by the executives.
Freejack landed atrocious reviews but managed to open with average numbers ($6,736,243), but there were huge weekly declines in attendance and it bombed with just $17,129,026. About $9 million would be returned after theaters take their percentage of the gross. This would cover most of the P&A costs and none of the budget. A few weeks after Freejack flopped, Morgan Creek’s VP of marketing Dick Porter was fired after just six months on the job. Poor guy, trying to turn this crap into a hit was an impossible task.
2. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
These cyber shenanigans don’t get more ridiculous than Johnny Mnemonic. Ghost of a dead woman stuck in the computer network of an evil corporation for some reason? Check. The best computer hacker is a dolphin in a small tank? Check. Video artist Robert Longo had befriended author and the father of cyberpunk William Gibson and originally tried to mount Johnny Mnemonic as a small $2 million movie in black & white. Long said, “Instead I made [a movie] for $28 million. When people give you money, they think they can tell you what to do. It was fucking horrible. Johnny Mnemonic is about 65 percent of what I hoped it would be.”
When Longo was trying to fund his low-budget cyberpunk art movie, there was fleeting interest from Elektra Records and other investors, but he could not secure financing for the $2 million versions of this movie. Keanu Reeves had a lot of heat around him after Speed (1994) and signed on as Johnny and the project landed at the Canada-based Alliance. It ballooned into a $28 million production, making it the most expensive Canadian movie at the time.
Alliance formed a US distribution arrangement with Sony and numerous overseas markets and Cinévision was brought in to pre-sell additional markets — which sold very well and insulated Alliance from the high costs. This project was Longo’s first film as a director and he had no clout and the financiers began to heavily interfere and the movie is all the more ridiculous and nonsensical because of it.
Sony and the financiers had high commercial expectations for Johnny Mnemonic (did they even watch the movie they butchered?), but the picture was savaged by critics, landed a C+ Cinemascore and tanked with $19,075,720. Four years later Keanu went back into VR land in The Matrix.
3. Virtuosity (1995)
After Malcom X (1992) landed Denzel Washington a Best Actor nomination and mid-level commercial success ($48 million), he became attached to very high-profile studio projects. Before that, his few studio vehicles like Heart Condition (1990) and Ricochet (1991) were disposable films and flops. His acclaimed vehicle The Mighty Quinn (1989) had been mishandled by MGM and given little support since they considered it a movie for black audiences only. Heat around the actor began to grow considerably after The Pelican Brief (1993), Philadelphia (1993), and Crimson Tide (1995) and he landed a $7.5 million payday to star in Virtuosity.
Despite the bump in salary, Denzel was still considered untested as a bankable A-lister and much of the success of the three big-budget projects he toplined were attributed to his co-stars — Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks. Crimson Tide was a big-budget Jerry Bruckheimer production that was sold largely on concept rather than star power.
Brett Leonard was tapped to direct this Virtual Reality nonsense, who had previously made the VR cheesefest The Lawnmower Man (1992). The failure of Virtuosity ended his studio directing days.
Russell Crowe had been introduced to American audiences earlier in the year from the flop The Quick and the Dead (1995) but he received a bit more exposure from his hammy role as Sid 6.7.
Virtuosity opened two weeks after the mid-level hit The Net was released and earlier in the year the public rejected the cyber bombs Johnny Mnemonic and Hackers. Reviews were awful and the picture was quickly out of theaters with $24,047,675. Virtuosity was a disaster overseas as well, pulling in $4.6 million and most of the offshore marketing showcased Crowe over Washington. Denzel would topline the well-reviewed flop Devil in a Blue Dress in 1995 as well.
4. Strange Days (1995)
Strange Days was in development at James Cameron’s Lightstorm and after his monster-sized hit Terminator 2 (1991), FOX offered his company a massive financing and distribution deal in 1992. Lightstorm was to produce a series of films with budgets in the $40 to $60 million range and the overall deal was to be near $500 million. FOX would cover 30% of the budgets and 100% of the marketing costs. In ‘92, James Cameron went to Cannes and landed numerous arrangements with overseas distributors to handle the releases in their countries for a 12.5% contribution to the movies’ budgets.
The first two movies to be produced under this deal would be True Lies and Strange Days. Kathryn Bigelow landed a two-year first-look directing deal with 20th Century Fox, but no other movie materialized from the deal after Strange Days became a commercial disaster.
True Lies and Strange Days both unraveled the complicated financing arrangements for Lightstorm and were the only movies produced until Titanic. True Lies was originally budgeted at $60 million but Cameron went so far over budget that they could not even get a completion bond to cover the overages. That budget grew to well over $100 million, much of which was shouldered by FOX. True Lies was a huge global hit bringing in $378.8 million and the stateside numbers were a strong $146,282,411. FOX did make a profit on the domestic performance of True Lies, but the film pulled in far more money in foreign markets — which FOX saw little of, despite having the most financial risk associated with the movie. After seeing little upside to the risk of the out-of-control True Lies production, FOX then weathered the massive flop that was Strange Days.
Bigelow’s film was first announced as having a price tag closer to $30 million but the estimated final costs on Strange Days were $42 million. Commercial expectations were very high and an expensive marketing campaign was launched, but FOX had no idea how to sell this kaleidoscope of virtual reality, race relations, police brutality, and the millennium. There was some controversy as well in regards to the sexual violence in the film. Strange Days landed mixed to lukewarm reviews but it bombed with $7,959,291. The movie nearly destroyed Bigelow’s career, who five years later would direct the lower budget The Weight of Water, which was dumped into a handful of arthouse theaters. She then helmed K-19 (2002) which ended as one of the biggest flops on record and it took the indie The Hurt Locker (2008) to resuscitate her career.