High Concept / Low Result
November 29, 2009 8:14 AM   Subscribe

What are some movies with clever premises and terrible execution?

I watched Flatliners for the first time last night. It's a high-concept screenplay with an interesting premise -- med students temporarily kill themselves in order to glimpse the afterlife -- that quickly devolves into nonsense and tedium.

Can you think of other movies/books/etc. that start with a great idea and then deflate?
posted by HeroZero to Society & Culture (61 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Blindness is the first movie to pop into my head. I was so excited to see it. It had a great premise, but the execution absolutely executed it.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:20 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Artificial Intelligence. If only Kubrick had lived long enough to make his masterpiece. Instead, we got a nonsensical pile of happy horseshit from Spielberg (who generally makes decent movies but this was far outside his expertise).
posted by mrbarrett.com at 8:22 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

For some reason i kept thinking of Minority Report when i read your post.
posted by kampken at 8:25 AM on November 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Van Helsing was a major disappointment for any fan of vampire lore, the entire movie was nothing but a vehicle for special effects.
posted by patheral at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2009

They Live. Love the idea, but watching the film not so much. Too B-Movie.
posted by cazoo at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2009

There are some high-concept films that I like, while acknowledging the flaws in their execution: Stay, The Fountain, Gattaca. On the other side, the basic conceit of Adaptation never quite works for me, while The Island is, y'know, Michael Bay'd.
posted by holgate at 8:44 AM on November 29, 2009

Tropic Thunder. It's a simple but great idea and could have been a brilliant, hilarious and clever film.
posted by fire&wings at 8:45 AM on November 29, 2009

Time Code.
posted by The Whelk at 8:52 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Matrix trilogy really dropped the ball with the third film (although the decline started in The Matrix Reloaded). The premise of the series was fascinating and they could have done SO much better and gone a lot further. I think The Animatrix hints at how great it could have been.

And I was going to launch into the immense disappointment that was the Star Wars prequels, but I'll spare everyone my nerd rage.
posted by castlebravo at 8:53 AM on November 29, 2009

As a preteen, I was super excited for Balls of Fury.

It mixed ping pong and martial arts and looked epic based on the preview.

But it turned out to be the worst movie I ever saw.
posted by kylej at 8:55 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sunshine starts off as a promising science fiction film about a mission to restart the dying sun, but ends as a slasher movie.
posted by permafrost at 8:58 AM on November 29, 2009 [8 favorites]

I think Nick of Time was a great idea: a real-time movie before 24 came along to claim the genre

Pity it totally sucked. Even with Christopher Walken.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 9:09 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: Cube
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2009

This is so many movies. Recently, both District 9 and Zombieland annoyed me in that way.

(I wanted my blue pencil so much whenever the voiceovers started up again in Zombieland... argh!)
posted by rokusan at 9:26 AM on November 29, 2009

Dude Where's My Car.

Seriously, if that movie had ended five minutes before it did, in an infinite loop of inane dawdling, it may well have ranked among my favorites instead of my very least favorites.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 9:29 AM on November 29, 2009

Contact with Jodie Foster. Very disappointing.
posted by ctmf at 9:38 AM on November 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I, Robot and I Am Legend.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:38 AM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I remember feeling this way about Species, although I no longer remember what was interesting about it.
posted by carmen at 9:45 AM on November 29, 2009

Definitely Contact and definitely AI. I used to dislike Spiellberg, but now I hate him with the white hot intensity of a million million suns for what he did to AI. Also - Batman Returns - or as I call it - "Batman Drives." Dune - any if them.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:51 AM on November 29, 2009

The Land Before Time. Dinosaurs! What kid doesn't love dinosaurs! And think of the possibilities of a dinosaur villain! Like Shere Khan but a T-Rex! I was so up for this film and so disappointed by its plodding execution.
posted by SPrintF at 9:52 AM on November 29, 2009

The original Saw movie opens with a deliciously wicked and twisted premise and then proceeds to run away from it completely. Very irritating.
posted by mmascolino at 9:55 AM on November 29, 2009

Both Hancock and My Super Ex-Girlfriend fit that category for me.
posted by not that girl at 9:57 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

'Terrible execution' can be pretty subjective, but I was really disappointed by A Beautiful Mind.
posted by KatlaDragon at 10:34 AM on November 29, 2009

Oh god, CUBE is a TERRIBLE movie with a clever premise. I regret the day I sat through that.

Run Lola Run, Waking Life I think, qualify also.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:44 AM on November 29, 2009

Hang 'Em High. Great premise for a movie but incredibly tedious to watch.
posted by balls at 11:04 AM on November 29, 2009

I always felt this way about the Underworld movies. It was pre-Twilight and, hey, hot vampire chicks fighting werewolves! Not high-concept, or clever, but I still don't know how they screwed it up so badly.

Specifically, in one of the trailers there was what looked like a teaser about a fight between a vampire with two huge metal whips and a bunch of werewolves in some kind of onderground chamber. To bad the 10 second clip was the whole fight.
posted by cmoj at 11:15 AM on November 29, 2009

Seconding Timecode. My theory is that if you need to use an "OMG! Earthquake In California!" as a plot device, you have admitted your plot is in a rut. Timecode uses four earthquakes.

Gosford Park. So badly edited that we never figure out who committed the murder.

The Abyss. From what I understand, the original producers ran out of money before they finished the end. Someone else stepped in with financing, but demanded more explosions.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:15 AM on November 29, 2009

I guess it's all subjective because I loved Gosford Park.

I thought the idea behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was irresistibly clever/cool/compelling but found the movie to be terribly done--melodramatic, saccharine, cliche and way too long..
posted by Rudy Gerner at 11:25 AM on November 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Blindness is the first movie to pop into my head. I was so excited to see it. It had a great premise, but the execution absolutely executed it.

I thought the exact same thing, and even made this comment to several people after watching it.
posted by batonthefueltank at 11:31 AM on November 29, 2009

Others will disagree, but I have to submit Russian Ark. It never manages to figure out whether it wants to be a travelogue or a traditional narrative, and as a result it does neither well. And add another vote for Timecode from me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:36 AM on November 29, 2009

Another vote for Sunshine as mentioned by Permafrost. Brilliant storyline from the beginning that devolves into something else entirely.
posted by Dave. at 11:56 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding I, Robot as hard as I can. As a kid I loved that book, and there's even a really good screenplay that they didn't use.

Starship troopers.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:22 PM on November 29, 2009

Anamorph. It was still pretty good for a genre-fied thriller, but it could have been way better. One of the coolest serial killer concepts I've seen.

2012. Almost any apocalypse movie, really. I mean, what better idea for a film than the apocalypse?! Again, I still almost always love apocalypse movies for the strength of the basic concept alone.
posted by nosila at 12:36 PM on November 29, 2009

The Maiden Heist
posted by naplesyellow at 1:18 PM on November 29, 2009

Breathing Room: ruthless experiment devolves into gory nonsense.
The Nameless: you think evil worshippers are finally getting their due treatment, then are buried under silly histrionics and a final that makes zero sense.
Battle Royale: sounds like some nasty, mean fun, then becomes a boring countdown that had me "are they all dead yet?" mumbling.
posted by Iosephus at 2:12 PM on November 29, 2009

>Gosford Park. So badly edited that we never figure out who committed the murder.

>I guess it's all subjective because I loved Gosford Park.

I also thought Gosford Park was a well made film. IMO the ending makes it quite clear who the murderer was.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:26 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love it too much to say it's terrible... but Intacto has one of the greatest setups of all time but just doesn't manage to turn the corner. Luck is like hard currency that can be traded, stolen, accumulated... and there's an elaborate underground gambling ring where these "lucky numbers" are tested against each other... the end goal being to challenge Max Von Sydow (the luckiest man in the world) to a game of russian roulette with five bullets and take over his glory and financial empire.

I think Sunshine is probably best grouped in the same 'great premise with tragic flaws' category (along with the epic mess that is Southland Tales), as I'd argue the execution is primarily very good.

If the premise of H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time to the 20th century is intriguing to you--it was to me but mostly for its absurdity--I'd suggest Time After Time (bad).

Synecdoche, New York proves that Charlie Kaufman scripts/concepts don't direct themselves.

I'd also group Sunshine
posted by pokermonk at 2:31 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Any movie based on an original story by Alan Moore.
posted by iviken at 2:46 PM on November 29, 2009

Oh god - Doomsday is one of the worst films I've ever watched. The plot idea in itself is really interesting and has the potential to be great so it's a total shame the filmmaker made it into such an unbelievably bad film.
posted by cryptozoology at 2:50 PM on November 29, 2009

There are so many films out there that leave me frustrated, thinking that if they'd just gone back to give the script one more edit, or had they done a bit more planning before actually committing the film to celluloid, they could have been fantastic. For me, this includes

Dark City - only ever saw the theatrical release, and it could have been a powerful meditation on nature vs. nurture, but ended up with Rufus Sewell shooting "mind bolts" at aliens.

Sunshine has been mentioned by a lot of people, but to me, it's like, well, a sunny version of Event Horizon. Event Horizon again, could have been something more (my girlfriend at the time was taking Latin classes, and so she actually understood what was said, and was horrified long before it got explained in the film), but ends up as a panicky horror film.

Alien Ressurection deserved to be a good movie. It wasn't. Was that the franchise that had promise, and the movie sucked, or could the movie have been good?

Candyman, again, could have been a powerful urban legend. Haven't seen it in years, but I remember being disappointed by the "let's go for buckets of blood" ending, when it could have been more.

Saving Private Ryan/AI/Minority Report/Almost anything Spielberg has done recently. The "Tell me I've been a good man." bit at the end of SPR is Spielberg wielding his sledgehammer of emotion, screaming, "You will cry NOW, audience!" which I feel is, aside from clumsy, a manipulative moment that had me resenting the film (even as I teared up) and filmmaker. A more subtle filmmaker would have done it differently, and been amazing. Add in the tacked on, second, happier ending to AI, and yeah, I'm pretty much done with the maker of my favorite movies from childhood.

He Got Game was bogged down by the Hooker With a Heart of Gold (or, HWAHOG, if you will) subplot and never really recovered, despite an amazing performance by nearly everyone else in the film.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:24 PM on November 29, 2009

I'll probably get some heat from Syfy fans for this but I think the original Stargate movie falls into this category. I always thought it must have be an epic movie since it spawned such a huge franchise, like Alien or something. Definitely not the case.

I want to second Saving Private Ryan. It begins with the most impressive Normandy invasion scenes ever and then devolves into a terrible story with extremely unrealistic action sequences. A sniper in a bell tower? Seriously? At least Spielberg made up for it somewhat with Band of Brothers.

The same goes for Black Hawk Down. Awesome concept and begining but dumb unrealistic tactics and ending. First you have a guy bleeding to death from a cut femoral artery, totally realistic. Then the movie ends with some sort of running gun fight with technicals, with no casualties, like they are running through a Counterstrike type game, and finishing a marathon at the same time. The end seems like something out of Forest Gump not a realistic war movie. Really disappointed in Ridley Scott for that one.
posted by Procloeon at 3:54 PM on November 29, 2009

I think it says something that most of the examples above (and most of the ones I could think of) were based on short stories or books.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:01 PM on November 29, 2009

TV not a movie but the Heroes show had a great premise, superheroes live among us, and went absolutely nowhere with it.

Renaissance was a big disappointment, great production design, neat animation and a really bad story.
posted by octothorpe at 4:54 PM on November 29, 2009

This is a fascinating topic! And I'm so glad I'm not alone in my GRAR levels on Saving Private Ryan. The first 25 minutes is some of the most affecting film I've ever seen. The rest of the movie is One. Long. Bad. Movie. Cliché. Even the group sent to Save Private Ryan was basically Spielberg's version of "Our Gang": A black guy, a Jewish guy, an Italian guy, etc., wandering the French countryside, getting into wacky hijinks dead.

I'm with Rudy Gerner on these two, though: Loved Gosford Park, wanted to kill everyone who helped make The Crappiest Case of Benjamin Boring. A great premise goes nowhere for three hours, badly. So glad I spent my Christmas movie-going on that one. Hoping my planned double feature for this year (Nine, Sherlock Holmes) makes up for it.

Anything anyone ever "adapted" from a Philip K. Dick story. Except Blade Runner, and that depends on how you feel about the ending(s).
posted by tzikeh at 4:54 PM on November 29, 2009

Blade Runner actually fits this category for me. I was excited about the premise but the movie would switch between being cheesy and boring.
posted by Nattie at 6:23 PM on November 29, 2009

I was so excited to see Flightplan with Jodie Foster based on the preview - woman brings her kid on a plane, falls asleep, and wakes up with her kid nowhere in sight and no one can remember seeing the kid so they think she's insane. Awesome! Thriller! Love it!

However, the actual movie was so riddled with plot holes and ridiculous, necessary suspensions of disbelief that it was one of the biggest letdowns ever.

Also, I refuse to see The Village because I know how the story ends and I think the idea is awesome. But I hear that the film itself is not very good and don't want to set myself up for disappointment.
posted by amicamentis at 7:07 PM on November 29, 2009

Seconding The Maiden Heist (how can a comic heist movie starring Walken, Freeman, and Macy be so dull?) and adding Max and Paycheck.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:11 PM on November 29, 2009

Oh, and although I've not seen it myself, the general consensus seems to be that The Time Traveler's Wife should also be on this list.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:18 PM on November 29, 2009

This is extremely subjective and practically any movie could be claimed by someone to fit the criteria, while others will disagree.

For instance, I think Flatliners is just a bad premise for a movie from the start. It may sound on first pass like it might be an interesting idea, but once you think about it, the group of med students "finding out what happens after death" is never going to be satisfying, because it is just a series of people doing an experiment and getting information, which will be dumb / cliche / made up information since in reality all that is likely to happen is you'd black out or possibly have weird dreams. The only thing that could possibly save it would be an awesome execution, of really intriguing dialogue, acting, relations between people as they confront death, etc - but you don't need them to flatline to get all of that to start with. The premise is empty.

Similarly, I just saw "They Live" for the first time the other day, and think the execution was great. The premise is so over the top that if they'd played it straight it would have been annoyingly preachy and simplistic; if they'd made it knowingly self-deprecating it'd have made the whole message of it seem sarcastic. Instead it's done in a naive melodramatic B-movie style, which makes it impossible not to find hilarious, but also allows the premise to be completely bluntly and without apologies put in your face.

Which is to say, I think this is just a chat thread. I remember feeling this way about Cast Away, fwiw, since I really liked the idea but wished a more interesting actor was the focus. But I'm sure others disagree since Hanks was nominated for an Oscar...
posted by mdn at 7:38 PM on November 29, 2009

Brainstorm (1983) was the first movie that I ever put into this category. (Premise: scientists build a machine to record and play back experiences.) Yeah, Natalie Wood died before filming was complete, but I think it was already well on its way to being terrible.

I think They Live's premise is definitely better than its execution, but I wouldn't say it's terrible. I wonder how the upcoming remake will be.

I'd disagree about Run Lola Run, Adaptation and Time After Time.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:59 PM on November 29, 2009

Pay It Forward.
posted by SloppyTree at 1:57 AM on November 30, 2009

District 9 was like that for me - it set up a really interesting premise in the first half, but then just dissolved into endless shooting and blowing stuff up.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:55 AM on November 30, 2009

Seconding Benjamin Button, and the last quarter of Blade Runner (although I still like both films).
posted by wolfr at 3:49 AM on November 30, 2009

I would agree with holgate and 2nd The Fountain. It was a movie that I wanted to like, especially because I think that a lot of the good aspects of Aronofsky's treatment come through the plot. It is, however obvious from the beginning that it is a flawed project. I still can take enjoyment from it because I think the eventual film falls into a heroic failure catergory - something which I feel too many directors are skirt well clear of any chance of this occurring. In my experience reaching just beyond your ability will either lead to this sort of failure or occasionally open up whole new avenues for future projects.
posted by multivalent at 5:31 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would echo many of the above posts. Sunshine is probably the most egregious example: ninety minutes of stylized sf inexplicably topped off with a reel of outtakes from Hellraiser 3.

A couple of flicks not mentioned above: The Oh in Ohio is a nominal comedy that somehow manages to get flat performances out of brilliant comic leads like Parker Posey and Paul Rudd. One review mentioned that it appeared to be made out "a comedy-like material."

I thought the little-seen Millennium took an absolutely kick-ass high concept (from John Varley's book): our distant decendents, weakened by radiation and disease, are using time travel to snatch humans from the 20th-century as healthy breeding partners. To conceal this from 20th-century types, they are only taking people who are about to die in disasters such as air crashes and are leaving behind simulacra so that there are no corpses missing. This could have been a movie as gripping and enjoyable as the book (and, previously, short story) on which it was based, but it came out pretty limp.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:48 AM on November 30, 2009

What was the William Gibson short story that they made into a movie with Keanu Reeves? Ah, right, Johnny Mnemonic . Ugh.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:53 AM on November 30, 2009

Procloeon: "The same goes for Black Hawk Down. Awesome concept and begining but dumb unrealistic tactics and ending. First you have a guy bleeding to death from a cut femoral artery, totally realistic. Then the movie ends with some sort of running gun fight with technicals, with no casualties, like they are running through a Counterstrike type game, and finishing a marathon at the same time. The end seems like something out of Forest Gump not a realistic war movie. Really disappointed in Ridley Scott for that one."

Except the end part actually happened. It became known as the Mogadishu Mile:

"Originally they were supposed to take cover by running alongside a convoy of Humvees and armored personnel carriers, however when the convoy outpaced them they were forced to run without support and with very little ammunition. No one was wounded on the Mogadishu Mile, which began at 0542 and effectively ended at 0630"

Mark Bowden's book was incredibly well researched and I believe they tried to follow it as closely as a dramatic presentation would allow.
posted by sharkfu at 12:03 PM on November 30, 2009

Point Break. The last third after Bodhi gets ucncharacterisally violent is an ordinary cops-and-robbers movie.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:32 PM on November 30, 2009

maybe the premise isn't that great to begin with if you're a real sci-fi junkie, but I thought Jumper had some cool opportunities. I really wanted to like that movie but oh boy did it suck.
posted by Chris4d at 10:37 AM on December 1, 2009

Response by poster: It's interesting, as some have noted, that an unusual number of science-fiction films are on here.

I would also like to add a play: The Crucible. The Salem Witch Trials deserve a better stage telling than this bloated, didactic beast.
posted by HeroZero at 6:59 PM on December 1, 2009

I'm gonna say "Children Of Men" the first 30 minutes (and lovely background details) flesh out the great premise, but it quickly becomes bang-bang-run-scream-dues-ex-machine cliche' fest.

(also, it didn't seem to really explore the premise well. It wanted to tell an Our-Meathook-Refugee future story, but the idea: if people suddenly stop reproducing, wouldn't the value of an individual's life go UP not DOWN cause we aren't making any new people? The hand-wavey explanation of huge world-wide depression and hysteria cause there really isn't going to be a future anymore fits ..a bit, but I kept thinking it needed more somber, less shootings. )
posted by The Whelk at 9:36 AM on December 6, 2009

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