Atlas Shrugged trilogy
Ayn Rand’s most enduring and longest work — a bloated corpse of an economics lecture dressed up as a novel — required three films to bring to the screen, each with increasingly tighter budget constraints. The films are set in a version of America where the government tightly regulates industry, redistributing wealth to unions and crippling the entrepreneurial spirit. Two titans of industry, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden, fight the regulations on their businesses and eventually join other business leaders in a strike against the government.
Critics often rake Atlas Shrugged over the coals for the worldview it espouses, but even the most fanatical free market acolyte must cringe at the meandering dialogue, none of which is improved through the medium of film. Characters in Atlas Shrugged do not engage in dialogue; they speak in polemics, ranting about the virtues of unrestrained self-interest, as their ideological opponents stutter and fall to their knees. The films are like a recording of a high-school debate scored with trite orchestral music.
The Last Airbender
M. Night Shyamalan had already squandered his reputation as a visionary director by 2010 after a string of increasingly reviled films, but the zenith point came with The Last Airbender, a live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s popular (and beloved) animated series. The Last Airbender is set in a fantasy world where people are divided into tribes that can each control (“bend”) a different element: earth, water, fire, or air. The world is peaceful until the Fire Nation starts a war of global conquest, using its industrial infrastructure to overwhelm the other nations.
The show slowly immersed viewers in the politics and culture of its fantasy world, but the movie has only so much time. The result is a film overstuffed with meandering exposition and stilted dialogue — a turducken of bad writing. The actors can do nothing to make the script come alive; even Dev Patel’s petulant villain could be better played by a plank with a scowl drawn on it.
It almost seems unfair to include The Room on this list, both because every other film writer has already taken shots at it, but also because the film is strangely charming in a way few terrible films are. The Room was the passion project of director Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious auteur who also plays the lead role of Tommy. Beloved by seemingly everyone, Tommy is nonetheless the victim of an affair between his girlfriend Lisa and best friend Mark. The Room could have simply turned out like any of a million mediocre dramas, but mediocrity was not enough. The film somehow it manages to do everything inexplicably, beautifully wrong.
The dialogue is not merely bland, but bizarre. When, discussing work at a coffee shop, Tommy breezily changes the subject, asking Mark “Anyway, how is your sex life?” One cannot help but wonder if the script was assembled through Markov chains. Why does The Room feature no less than three sex scenes in its first 20 or so minutes? Why do the characters spend so many conversations tossing a football around? Why are there numerous sequences of what appears to be stock footage of San Francisco? We may never understand what led to these decisions, but the result is a film that, by doing basically everything wrong, somehow feels so right. This is a film everybody should watch, preferably with friends and some sort of strong beverage.
Imagine a film like Toy Story, except the toys are replaced with food mascots and the themes of friendship and aging replaced with grotesque, uninhibited product placement. Now stop, because you need not imagine it — such a movie basically exists. Foodfight! peeks into the secret life of food mascots and is set in a supermarket where an idyllic community of characters, including Charlie the Tuna and Twinkie the Kid, face invasion from a host of generic products decked out in Nazi imagery. The protagonist is Dex Dogtective (Charlie Sheen), a dog dressed like Dick Tracy, who is searching for his missing girlfriend, a raisin-peddling cat-lady named Sunshine Goodness (Hilary Duff).
Foodfight! languished in development for around a decade, yet it looks like something a student would cobble together for midterms after a week of popping molly. The film is hideous, poorly animated, and shameless in its product placement.
God’s Not Dead
God’s Not Dead is painful to sit through. The central conflict of the film is that Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), an evangelical Christian, enrolls in a philosophy course at his college, only to butt heads with the professor, Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Smug and vindictive, Raddison is a militant atheist who demands that the students sign a pledge stating that “God is dead” in order to pass the class. When Josh refuses, Radisson offers him a test: prove that God is real via debate, or fail the class.
To call God’s Not Dead propaganda would make it seem more morally complex than it is; Frank Capra gave the Axis more credit than this film does atheists, or even other religions, for that matter. Every character in the film is either a Christian struggling to maintain their faith as society tries to beat it out of them, or an angry nonbeliever. Another advantage of actual propaganda: craftsmanship, which God’s Not Dead is sorely lacking. Given the staid direction and grocery-store lighting, the director seems to have had little idea of what to do beyond record the actors reading their lines.