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Box Office Bombs From The '90s That Are Actually Worth Watching

Movies, like all art, shouldn't be judged solely by their financial worth. After all, not all great art is appreciated in its time. 

With today's audiences paying close attention to weekend box office returns and rankings, it can be hard for even the most inventive movies to overcome the reputation of a big loss at the box office. "Box-office bombs" are declared quickly, and post-mortem editorials on what went wrong are sometimes penned before their opening weekend has concluded. Money talks, but some art is in it for the long haul, so that doesn't mean you should always listen. 

Watching movies multiple decades later, box office is irrelevant; if it was good then, it still has the goods today. Below are some '90s movies that bombed at the box office, but are well worth some snuggle time with your eyeballs. After all, just because viewers weren't quick enough to catch on by opening weekend, that doesn't mean multiple decades of newfound fans can't prove them wrong.

Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

The Keanu Reeves renaissance continues, largely via his "John Wick" movie franchise about a beleaguered former assassin, but he has already appeared in a whole host of great movies starring beleaguered guys named John —  from Johnny Utah to John Constantine to Don John. But easily one of the best and weirdest Johns that Reeves has played is the titular role in "Johnny Mnemonic," a much-derided movie (despite its all-star cast) that almost singlehandedly set back the cyberpunk movement while earning Reeves a Razzie nod for Worst Actor.

Reeves' Johnny is trapped by his circumstances: he's traded in his memories to be a "data courier" (his brain is "wired" to receive uploads) but wants to do one big job in order to make money and buy back the memories he's lost. But yesterday's technobabble is today's modern age. With Johnny screaming things like "I want to get out of this rat hole. I want to get online," it's a wonder that millennials haven't gravitated toward this movie. While a fairly low budget is no help, the flick's biggest flaw is perhaps that it came out about 20 years too early for your average moviegoers to relate to its cyberpunk subject matter.

The Dark Half (1993)

"The Dark Half" is based on the novel of the same name by the spooky king of horror prose, Stephen King. Definitely one of the stranger concepts, it's the story of a writer who has abandoned his nom de plume, only to find his phony persona has come to life — with murder on its mind. While the novel had a concept seemingly (or solely) perfect for the written word, the movie has one excellent attribute that makes it a standout: the late cinematic king of horror, director George Romero.

"The Dark Half" delivers some gruesome images up there with Romero's best. One scene in particular features a brain tumor "reacting" to its removal — a scene that will make you anxious the next time you get a headache. Unfortunately, the movie failed to click with audiences; it made just over $10 million. Still, the movie's worth a watch, especially with an adept Timothy Hutton (best known later for the TV series "Leverage") in a double role playing both the writer and his evil pseudonym counterpart.

Dead Alive (1992)

Speaking of horror, "Dead Alive" (also called "Braindead") was one of the most surprising horror films of the '90s. Filmed on a shoestring budget of only $3 million by Peter Jackson (a man who would get used to directing on a much larger budget with the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" movies), "Dead Alive" is a gory, inventive romp about a teenager fighting off a horde of zombies (and dealing with some nasty mother issues too). Although its low budget should have made it an easy success, the film only made $240,000 stateside, and it would be unjustly ignored by American audiences until Jackson's later success prompted a re-evaluation.

While it didn't quite connect with American audiences, across "the pond," however, the film had a profound influence on another young horror buff, Edgar Wright, who would pay homage to the film in his own movie "Shaun of the Dead." Even setting its influence on other movies aside, "Dead Alive" is an electrifying movie with some of the best practical effects you've seen in a horror movie — and a truly innovative use of a lawnmower. You might think you've seen bloody horror movies, but you've almost certainly never seen anything quite like "Dead Alive."

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Dreamworks didn't know what they had in "Galaxy Quest." Upon its release in December 1999, the sci-fi comedy about the cast of a "Star Trek"-type TV series getting whisked away on a real space adventure opened at an embarrassing #7 for its weekend at the US box office. As Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg would later admit to director Dean Parisot (via THR), the studio bungled the promotion of the quirky, whip-smart comedy as a kid-targeted adventure, and by and large failed to sell the movie to mass audiences. Nevertheless, the film picked up momentum over the course of its theatrical run, eventually recouping twice its production budget over the course of five months. Maybe it's an exaggeration to call it a "box office bomb" considering its long term success, but considering a legacy with almost no promotion, it's clear that it could have performed so much better if given the proper support.

"Galaxy Quest" is now a highly-regarded film in the sci-fi canon, boasting career-high performances from Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, and the late Alan Rickman. Aside from 1997's "Men in Black," "Galaxy Quest" might come the closest to recapturing the balance of goofy fun and high-concept geekery of the original "Ghostbusters," which isn't surprising given that "Ghostbusters" co-writer Harold Ramis was once attached to direct. In addition to being a charming work in its own right, "Galaxy Quest" also has a special place in the hearts of "Star Trek" fans, who have adopted it into their own (uneven) film canon. It's a film, in part, about fandom itself, and its devotees honored it with the retrospective documentary "Never Give Up, Never Surrender" for its 20th anniversary in 2019.

Cool World (1992)

Ralph Bakshi, the man that made the infamous Fritz The Cat — the first animated film to ever receive an X rating from the MPAA — combined sex and cartoons one more time with "Cool World." In it, a cartoonist has to resist the sexual advances of his own creation, a "doodle" named Holli Would (as in, "would do anything" and voiced by Kim Basinger), while a detective (Brad Pitt) works to prevent her from breaking down the boundaries of reality.

It can be a strange movie, with a juxtaposition of live-action and animation that looks like a bizarro porn parody of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but it's a fascinating experiment. Audiences weren't exactly drawn to the film, and it ended up only recouping half of its $30 million budget, which isn't exactly surprising. While it likely won't turn up on anyone's "Best of the '90s" list anytime soon, the film is so singular in its conception that it's worth seeing, at least once.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Whereas Captain America is box office gold today, in the early '90s, a superhero period piece about a handsome, patriotic hero in WWII could barely cover its own budget. "The Rocketeer" follows mechanic Cliff (Billy Campbell) as he becomes a hero by donning a stylish jacket and rocket pack to uncover a hidden Nazi plot in Hollywood. "The Rocketeer" has got a refreshing ease to the pacing and style — plus stylish design (Art Deco never really goes out of style) and earnest execution. 

It's easy to see why director Joe Johnston got the chance to reinvent another superhero decades later with "Captain America: The First Avenger"; his "Rocketeer" is a strong, criminally-underrated film that just didn't really connect with audiences. It may be that the film was released too early to tap into the now-current superhero zeitgeist, or maybe it was ignored in favor of other family fare. Either way, the film is absolutely worth revisiting, especially with Timothy Dalton's performance as an over-the-top, Errol Flynn-esque actor.

Event Horizon (1997)

While "Alien" might be the most well-known horror movie that takes place in space, it's far from the only one. This slow-simmering Paul W.S. Anderson film taps into that uniquely human fear of space as an endless, empty void. The movie follows a crew investigating a distress signal coming from the titular spaceship, which had disappeared seven years prior. What follows is a kaleidoscope of horrifying images, spooky Latin phrases, and the creeping realization that flying millions of miles through space doesn't put you any farther away from hell.

"Horizon" is pretty handily Anderson's best movie, combining the bloody genre thrills that pervade his other work with an able cast that is able to inject the necessary gravitas. Sam Neil in particular is absolutely terrifying as the member of the space crew most susceptible to the dark whispers of the otherworldly horror on the ship. If the "Alien" movies didn't completely turn you away from space travel, then "Event Horizon" certainly will.

The Iron Giant (1999)

The late 1990s were a time of rapid change in the animation industry. The Disney Renaissance had revived mass interest in animated films, but Disney alone seemed capable of turning one into a massive hit. After the continued success of Pixar proved that computer-driven animation was here to stay, studios across Hollywood and beyond were scrambling for a direction. It was during this time that Warner Bros. recruited animator Brad Bird to overhaul their process with an ambitious new feature called "The Iron Giant." (Brad Bird details this journey in a 2015 interview with JoBlo.com.)

"The Iron Giant" is a masterful film on both a technical and story level, showcasing the potential of blending traditional and digital animation in service of spinning a heartwarming sci-fi twist on a classic "boy and his dog" narrative. Accessible to kids but textured enough for adults, "The Iron Giant" is just about everything you could want from an all-ages animated adventure film.

Except, by the time it was finished, Warner Bros. had already given up on its feature animation department. The financial failure of their previous release, "Quest for Camelot," convinced them to get out of the business, so "The Iron Giant" was released with minimal promotion and recouped a mere $23 million from its $70 million budget. A twist ending was yet to come, however, as critical acclaim and frequent replays on cable's Cartoon Network helped the film find a cult following; today "The Iron Giant" is a recognizable pop culture touchstone — making cameos in "Ready Player One" and "Space Jam: A New Legacy" — and is considered one of the best animated movies ... perhaps even one of the best science fiction movies ... of all time.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

The Coen Brothers have made a successful career for themselves with a slew of idiosyncratic scripts. While they've found plenty of success, and cult status, that doesn't mean they're immune to failure, even for one of their best movies. "The Hudsucker Proxy" is a biting satire of big business and, although filled with characters who "talk fast and wear sharp clothes," a loving homage to classic feel-good movies like "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" and "It's A Wonderful Life." The film follows Norville Barnes as he moves to New York from Indiana and accidentally becomes head of a massive company as the unknowing patsy for a complicated scheme to depress stock prices.

As with any Coen Brothers movie, the film is packed to the brim with memorable dialogue and likable characters, but the look of "Hudsucker" was so striking that more than a few critics and audiences felt put off and confused. A more cohesive look at the Coen Brothers larger oeuvre would reveal the kinds of stories they were interested in telling, which makes "The Hudsucker Proxy" a much more fulfilling theatrical experience. If nothing else, there's never been a better explanation for why hula hoops exist.

Last Action Hero (1993)

"Last Action Hero" has the perfect recipe for a hit movie in the 2020s. It stars Hollywood's pre-eminent muscle man playing a parody of his own stock character in a marathon of cute cameos and metatextual gags about the tropes of action cinema. It even has "White Lotus" favorite F. Murray Abraham, making "Amadeus" jokes!

A movie conceived as a pastiche of the witty action comedies of screenwriter Shane Black, later rewritten by Black himself, it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, was directed by John "Die Hard" McTiernan, and arrived in theaters about 30 years too early. For modern audiences who love nothing more than when movies shamelessly riff on other, more familiar movies, it'd likely have been both a critical darling and a box office hit.

In 1993, "Last Action Hero" was seen as a career-threatening dud for all involved. It barely stood a chance to begin with, opening against the second weekend of "Jurassic Park," which would soon unseat "E.T." as the highest-grossing film in US history. Critical reception didn't do it any favors, either; Variety's review dismissed it as "a joyless, soulless machine of a movie," and they weren't its only haters. Though it would recoup its budget internationally, it seriously underperformed at the domestic box office and would be Schwarzenegger's only outright flop of the 1990s.

In hindsight, "Last Action Hero" is one of the Austrian Death Machine's better comedies. One part "Terminator 2" (Robert Patrick even has a cameo as the T-1000), one part "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", and one part Robert Altman's "The Player," it's an absolute treat for fans (or critics!) of '80s and '90s Hollywood excess. It's certainly more watchable today than his comedy "hits" like "Junior" and "Kindergarten Cop." It's joke-dense, action-packed, and littered with easter eggs for the eagle-eyed cinephile.

Tank Girl (1995)

The original "Tank Girl" comics are an energetic, frenetic, counter-culture blast to the eyeballs with a unique art style by Jamie Hewlett (of The Gorillaz fame), but it was the character of Tank Girl herself that endeared the comic to fans. She was rude, hyper-violent, and so utterly unconcerned with other people's opinions that she became a '90s embodiment of riot grrrl-adjacent "punk." Depicting a comic with such a specific visual voice and character might have been a tall order, but the film adaptation of Tank Girl does about as good a job as it's possible to do with the backing of a major film studio.

To start with, Lori Petty is a picture-perfect Tank Girl, nailing the irreverence and punk attitude of the character. The movie itself is a mishmash tonally and is almost impossible to defend or recommend — you either "get" it or walk away shaking your head. The movie is defiantly visually abrasive, but loaded with a dynamite soundtrack and a charismatic lead.

Strange Days (1995)

Today, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow is best known as the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director ("The Hurt Locker"), as well as the director of the 1991 classic "Point Break" starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. In between these two triumphs, however, Bigelow's career was nearly tanked by the colossal box office failure of her 1995 cyberpunk noir, "Strange Days." 

Written by Bigelow's ex-husband James Cameron and occasional Martin Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks, "Strange Days" is a stylish, visceral thriller set in a near-future in which memories can be recorded, relived, and exchanged on the black market. When a scummy memory dealer (Ralph Fiennes) happens across a recorded memory of a heinous crime, he teams up with a lovelorn badass (Angela Bassett) to solve a case that the police don't seem to care about.

"Strange Days" harshly divided critics upon its release and was a commercial disaster, winning back just short of $8 million on a $42 million budget. In the decades since, however, "Strange Days" has been rediscovered and reevaluated as a lost treasure of genre cinema and an example of some of Kathryn Bigelow's finest work as a director. With an unflinching eye and style to spare, "Strange Days" touches on themes of police brutality, sexual violence, and the voyeuristic spectacle of suffering, all of which are as relevant today as they were in 1995. It also features one of the great unsung heroines of science fiction in Angela Bassett's "Mace" Mason. Notoriously hard to find but occasionally reappearing on major streaming services, "Strange Days" is worth going out of your way to find.

Ravenous (1999)

"Ravenous" is a brilliant subversion of audience expectations, a horror movie as funny as it is scary. The film follows a mid-19th century war hero exiled in the Sierra Nevada, investigating stories of a Wendigo — a human given otherworldly strength after eating the flesh of another man. Guy Pearce shines as the ousted captain, struggling with survivor's guilt and the consequences of the actions which brought him into exile. The entire cast is able to tap into the film's tone, pushing for laughs in humorous scenes and giving weight to the dramatic ones.

Ultimately, the film's a biting (no pun intended) satire of American exceptionalism, capitalism, and Manifest Destiny. It's a rare film that's able to make such subject matter work within a horror movie structure — and doubly so within a film that's funny as well. Audiences likely missed out on this cannibalistic creme de la creme due mostly to a trailer that misrepresented the tone of the movie, selling it as an awkward, comedic period piece Mumblecore. Don't be fooled, though, "Ravenous" has a lot of meat on its bones.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Even thirty years after its debut, "Batman: The Animated Series" remains the gold standard for American superhero cartoons, and perhaps the definitive screen adaptation of the character. The series was an overnight critical and commercial success, leading studio Warner Bros. to order additional episodes, plus a feature film for home video release. When a WB executive got a peek at the film that directors Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm were making, he excitedly upgraded the project from direct-to-video to theatrical release. (Via SyFy Wire)

Rising to the challenge of producing a feature-quality animated movie in a mere nine months, the Batman: TAS crew delivered "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm," a deep, dramatic, suspenseful thriller that digs into the past and psyche of Bruce Wayne better than any of its live-action contemporaries. It's a showcase for Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill's beloved portrayals of Batman and the Joker, respectively, plus a terrific turn from Dana Delaney as the fascinating love interest Andrea Beaumont.

However, despite suggesting a theatrical release for "Phantasm" in the first place, Warner Bros. barely promoted the film ahead of its debut in December of 1993; it grossed a mere $5.6 million at the US box office. It wouldn't be until its release on VHS the following year that an audience beyond die-hard Batman fans would come to appreciate the film, largely due to a glowing review from tastemakers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Decades later, "Mask of the Phantasm" is a cult classic among those who grew up watching "Batman: The Animated Series."

Mystery Men (1999)

Superhero movies might not have been all that popular in the '90s, but they were at least more popular than superhero parodies. With that in mind, "Mystery Men" never really had a chance. Still, people who slept on the film missed an endearing superhero story with one of the strangest casts ever assembled (Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Tom Waits, Eddie Izzard, Paul Reubens, Hank Azaria — and a Michael Bay cameo, for Pete's sake). It's a quintessentially '90s movie, complete with a Dane Cook sighting and a music video tie-in to Smash Mouth's "All Star."

With the current glut of superhero movies, it's a delight watching the misfits of "Mystery Men" fumble around with their mostly useless superpowers. In fact, the current cultural permeation of superhero minutiae means many of the jokes in the film have actually improved with age.

Dark City (1998)

As frustrating as it must be for any artist to be years ahead of their time, it must be agony to precede their moment by mere months. Such was the case for writer/director Alex Proyas, whose 1998 film "Dark City" is a rain-soaked, leather-clad sci-fi thriller about a man who learns his reality is not what it seems and that he and everyone he knows is being manipulated by an invisible malevolent force.

If you think that sounds sort of like 1999's "The Matrix," you're not the only one — the ten people who saw "Dark City" in theaters also thought so, as did critic Roger Ebert. "Dark City" was dropped into theaters during the notoriously dumping ground month of February in 1998, debuting at #4 at the domestic box office and sliding ever downward from there, barely winning back its $27 million budget. Just a year later, "The Matrix" would become a massive pop cultural phenomenon and Hollywood action cinema would never again be the same. "Dark City" (and the similarly-themed 1999 David Cronenberg film "eXistenZ," which bombed even harder) would have to settle for status as a cult classic, albeit one that Ebert recorded a rare commentary track for its DVD.

Perhaps in no universe does "Dark City" receive the same love and attention as the Wachowski masterpiece; after all, "The Matrix" is one of the greatest films ever made. Nonetheless, "Dark City" still deserves better than languishing in obscurity. Weird, moody, and distinctively '90s, "Dark City" is like a missing tonal link between "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner," and is worth a watch for any science fiction devotee.

Ed Wood (1994)

After debuting as a feature director with five consecutive hits, Tim Burton pivoted away from his usual flights of fancy towards a quirky, black-and-white biopic saluting one of the most famously inept filmmakers of all time, Edward D. Wood, Jr.. 

Starring Johnny Depp as the titular auteur of shlock, "Ed Wood" is a terrific showbiz comedy with tremendous heart. Wood's story (or at least, this version of it) fits the Tim Burton mold perfectly, painting a portrait of a man whose quirks make him an outsider, until he seizes the opportunity to share his uniqueness with the world. Unlike the talented Edward Scissorhands, however, what makes Wood unique is a total blindness to how terrible his art really is.

"Ed Wood" is Tim Burton's most critically-celebrated film, winning Martin Landau an Academy Award for his supporting role as washed-up horror icon Béla Lugosi. However, for all its acclaim, it was a clunker at the box office, recouping only about a third of its production budget. It remains Burton's lowest-grossing film by far, and he has rarely strayed from his signature blood-and-pinstripes aesthetic since. One can only imagine what Burton's career path might have looked like if "Ed Wood" had been a success, or if he had at least received some validation on the awards circuit for his work on the film. As it stands, Burton would immediately pivot back to commercial work, pumping out increasingly soulless and unwatchable films (with apologies to "Big Fish." We love "Big Fish.") over the next three decades. 

Showgirls (1995)

In his prime, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven was such an effective satirist of American culture and cinema that American filmgoers (and even critics sometimes) had trouble knowing when he was joking. This happened most famously upon the release of his 1997 sci-fi epic "Starship Troopers," a broad, over-the-top send-up of pro-war propaganda that went over the heads of an audience to whom jingoistic violence was so ubiquitous that it became a vision worth embracing.

Such was also the case with Verhoeven's previous film, "Showgirls," a ridiculous, exploitative NC-17-rated drama about a young woman trying to make it as an exotic dancer in Las Vegas. Broadly panned upon its release for its cranked-to-eleven acting and sex scenes that overshoot "sexy" by miles, "Showgirls" was a commercial disaster, grossing about $20 million on a $45 million budget.

In the years since, however, "Showgirls" has become an iconic films of the 1990s. Some fans see it as a riotous parody and have mined it for inspiration in drag shows, stage reenactments, and other gleefully garish rituals. This legacy is explored in the loving 2019 documentary "You Don't Nomi." Still others feel that there's nothing funny about "Showgirls" at all, and that its superficial hyperbole is the only way to truly capture the cruel, misogynist meat grinder of the entertainment industry. Either way, "Showgirls" has been rescued from the dustbin of infamy, and frequently appears on cable, streaming services, and art house theaters — typically around midnight.