Even the best of us have off days every now and then. Though most of us don’t have those bad days put out to the world for millions of people to criticize. Directors do, so even when they do something great in their careers that gets them a lot of fame and adulation, their screw-ups become that much bigger as well. And no one is immune to that. Even some of the directors of your favorite films have had some embarrassing outings.
Whether these directors were just starting out in their careers, had behind the scenes problems, or just weren’t very good at what they were doing at the time, the fact is that they all turned out some bad movies. And these directors are some of the best to ever stand behind a camera, so when they turn out something terrible, it really stands out. We still think all these directors are great, but the same can't be said for these films.
Here are the 12 Worst Movies by Great Directors.
12 GHOSTS OF MARS BY JOHN CARPENTER
While John Carpenter isn’t great in the sense that his movies are Best Picture candidates every time they come out, he knows how to make entertaining films out of what could be silly ideas, and he’s superb at utilizing practical effects. The original Halloween is still one of the best horror movies out there, and cult classic Big Trouble in Little China has a remake starring The Rock coming up. Unfortunately, Carpenter doesn’t seem to have found a way to translate his style into a modern era, and Ghosts of Mars was a big sign of that.
The project was originally supposed to be another film featuring the character Snake Plissken, who debuted in Escape from New York and continued his adventures in Escape from L.A., with this film being Escape from Mars. Sadly, the first sequel in the series didn’t do great, so this got rebranded into Ghosts of Mars, and was probably the worse for it. Carpenter’s frequent leading man, Kurt Russell, had to be replaced, and Jason Statham was initially in the running for the lead role, but got demoted to a side character when the producers wanted a bigger name for the lead. So they gave it to Ice Cube instead (this was 2001, remember, before Statham had broken out).
‘80s action ideas can absolutely work in modern films, as the very fun Mad Max: Fury Road demonstrated, but Ghosts of Mars didn’t have the imagination or the dedication to pull it off. Rather than the Viking zombie ghosts of Mars feeling like silly fun, the story just winds up feeling silly.
11 NOAH BY DARREN ARONOFSKY
Darren Aronofsky is known for making some extremely sad movies. If you’ve never seen Requiem for a Dream, go watch it any day you’d like to have your soul stepped on. Aronofsky’s movies deal with tragic figures, flawed characters, and don’t have a whole lot of happiness in them. So it was pretty fitting for Aronofsky to make the film Noah, which is based on the Biblical story of Noah’s ark. The near genocide of every species on Earth is right up Aronofsky’s alley.
One of the pitfalls in Araonofky's approach was that that he had to be creative without alienating what would be its most obvious market: religious audiences. It was an ambitious film and visually impressive, but its attempt to provide realistic explanations to supernatural circumstances led to a lot of silliness. The climax came with Noah in his giant ark, loaded with animals who didn’t cause any trouble because he put every single one of them into a hibernation state, and his family became vegetarians to avoid eating God’s creatures. And yet Noah becomes so convinced that God actually wants all life wiped out that the tension of the third act comes from Noah seriously contemplating whether he should stab and kill his grandchildren when they are born so they can’t continue the species. Any guesses how that one turned out?
10 THE LOVELY BONES BY PETER JACKSON
After his handling of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson looked like the guy to go to for adapting books into movies. The problem was The Lovely Bones wasn’t a great book to begin with, and seemed more suitable to a Hallmark channel TV movie. It kicks off with a young girl being murdered and dismembered by a pedophile, looking like we’ll have an engrossing crime thriller to enjoy. Instead, the focal point is the murdered girl’s family learning to cope with her death, and accepting the need to move on rather than seek justice. While sensible, it doesn’t make for a compelling story.
This is exacerbated by Jackson’s trend towards self-indulgence, which began with his nearly four and a half hour long extended cut of The Return of the King. The Lovely Bones lingers too long in the surreal world of the young girl's "Heaven" for the sake of showing off fancy CGI rather than advancing the plot. Not that there was much plot to miss. The pedophile eventually dies from a random icicle falling on him, making him slip off a cliff and die. It’s pretty unsatisfying, but it’s how the book resolved as well, so Jackson never really had much hope of a great ending.
9 DARK SHADOWS BY TIM BURTON
While we usually enjoy Tim Burton’s team-ups with Johnny Depp, there’s absolutely such a thing as going to the well too many times. It was fun and unique in the ‘90s, but became predictable and wearisome by the time Dark Shadows rolled up in 2012. From the trailer alone it was clear we’d be getting another dose of Burton’s whimsical goth aesthetic, and attempts at quirky humor from side characters reacting to another bizarre role from Depp.
It also probably didn’t help that this was yet another vampire movie when people were feeling burnt out on the craze. Plus, while Dark Shadows the soap opera TV show from the ’60s might have a cult following, it’s not exactly the kind of show that fans were clamoring to see made into a movie. At the end of the day, a lot of the humor about an ancient vampire reacting to the modern world fell flat, and critics felt it was time for Burton and Depp to take a break from their comfort zone of working together so they could go find some more original ideas.
8 EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS BY RIDLEY SCOTT
Exodus: Gods and Kings was an understandable mistake for Ridley Scott. He had made films based on history before, and had some decent results. Kingdom of Heaven and American Gangster are both entertaining movies, while Black Hawk Down and Gladiator were both extremely popular, with the latter winning an Oscar for best picture. So it is easy to see why he thought capturing the story of Moses in Gods and Kings could be a hit.
The film stumbled before even being released once fans realized all the lead roles in a movie focusing on Hebrew and Egyptian characters were played by white actors. Many proposed boycotting the movie for having actors like Christian Bale whitewashing these Biblical figures. Compounding this problem was Ridley Scott facing the backlash from religious viewers mentioned earlier with Aronofsky, where many were put off by the director’s creative liberties to the point that Egypt and several other countries actually banned the film. The final nail in the coffin was viewers obviously being well-acquainted with the story of Moses, from the Bible as well as previous films, leaving little incentive to see how this iteration turned out.
There weren’t great turnouts for Gods and Kings in theaters, and those that did see it came away giving it a thumbs down.
7 INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL BY STEVEN SPIELBERG
Steven Spielberg is beloved for his many spectacular films like E.T., Jaws, and Jurassic Park. He makes larger-than-life movies, with some of the ones people are most fond of being the Indiana Jones franchise. No one has made archaeology look cooler than Dr. Jones, so it seemed like a great idea for Spielberg to try and rekindle the sense of adventure kids in the ‘80s had in a new generation. And then Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the result.
A new generation of moviegoers received an Indiana Jones where fridges were nuked, CGI monkeys were abundant, and Shia LaBeouf was meant to take the mantle of hero from an aging Indy. And with George Lucas as one of the story writers, a few aliens managed to sneak in by the end as well. Instead of finding the movie’s over-the-top moments reminiscent of the original films, many fans simply found it silly and resented having their nostalgia exploited. While a fifth movie is on the way and will no doubt be successful, fans are feeling a lot more skeptical of Spielberg’s return to Indy’s world this time around.
6 DUNE BY DAVID LYNCH
Dune, the film, has been redeemed somewhat in recent years by fans who find entertainment behind its flaws, but for most viewers, Dune did little to live up to the sci-fi novel of the same name. The acting was hammy, the costumes and sets were distinctively ‘80s in a bad way, and many found the film downright confusing if they lacked familiarity with the book. The film was a financial flop, and was far from being another Star Wars.
Even David Lynch has admitted the film was a mistake, and he considers it the one big failure in his career. His most noteworthy comments on the film included him saying, “I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in…It was destined to be a failure, to me.” Some home releases of the film have even had Lynch’s name replaced with a pseudonym as director, because he doesn’t want to be associated with it. Critics certainly agree with Lynch about this being a misstep, and Roger Ebert called Dune the worst movie of the year when it was released.
5 ALIENS 3 BY DAVID FINCHER
For the film debut of David Fincher, it looked like he couldn’t have landed a better project than Aliens 3. He was following in the footsteps of Ridley Scott and James Cameron, who directed the franchise’s predecessors, both of which have become sci-fi classics. And looking at the type of films Fincher would go on to make, such as Fight Club or The Social Network, no one would argue against his talent. So how is it that Aliens 3 basically ruined the future of the franchise?
Behind the scenes, the script for the movie went through many revisions, and many of the film’s crew was swapped around for various reasons. David Fincher wasn’t the first pick as a director, and shooting began before a finished script had even been settled on. It all culminated in a product without enough time to deliberate on what worked, which could potentially have attributed to the fact that Bishop, Newt, and Hicks from Aliens are all bafflingly killed off in the opening of Aliens 3. James Cameron called what happened to the characters a slap in the face, and David Fincher has since renounced the film, citing studio meddling for the outcome.
4 PIRATES BY ROMAN POLANSKI
Leaving aside whatever you might think of Roman Polanski as a person, he is undeniably a great filmmaker. He has such greats as The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown to his name, and continues to direct now even at 82 years old. A surprising misstep in his career came after a seven year hiatus from film making when he returned to cinema to create Pirates. Maybe Polanski wanted a break from serious films, but he wound up paying for that decision with a major financial and critical failure.
Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for a comedic film about pirates yet—Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was still 17 years away, after all. It’s not like Polanski was trying to cash in for what he thought would be easy money with an adventure film. A full scale ship was built for the film, and Jack Nicholson was Polanski’s desired choice for the lead, so it’s clear he was putting in some serious effort. Pirates was an attempt to branch out into something new, but the genre wasn’t right for the director, and too long away from movies evidently hurt Polanski’s vision for the next success.
3 BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES BY BRIAN DE PALMA
Comedies can be funny when we see bad things happening to bad people. But when people imagine an actor playing a bad character, Tom Hanks probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind. Hanks has cultivated a body of work where he is frequently someone to root for, so he just doesn’t do unlikeable all that well. Bonfire of the Vanities exacerbated this problem by attempting to make Hanks’ character Sherman McCoy sympathetic, unlike in the novel of the original story.
Director Brian De Palma himself acknowledged that Hanks wasn’t the best fit for the movie, and that for a dark comedy to succeed, he should have utilized someone who was more naturally arrogant. Watching Hanks be taken down by a bitter journalist played by Bruce Willis was robbed of its fun as a result. De Palma still had hits to lean on, like his adaption of Stephen King’s Carrie, and he’d go on to have more, like Mission: Impossible, but he was the only one who wound up getting burned by the Bonfire of the Vanities.
2 NORTH BY ROB REINER
North was another case where all the talent was there, but the result was just baffling. The film had Rob Reiner as director, whose last three films were The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and Misery. And the cast for the movie included names like John Ritter, Elijah Wood, Bruce Willis, and Scarlett Johansson. And yet it is remembered as one of the worst movies ever made.
Critics found the premise alone hateful, with the titular North getting a divorce from his parents for being neglectful, and traveling the world to find new parents. He encounters a variety of racial and regional stereotypes in his potential foster parents, leaving viewers wondering where the humor was meant to be in this comedy that featured such an unlikable view of its characters. North’s court ruling sets a legal precedent for children all over the world to begin leaving their parents as well, and when North changes his mind, an assassination plot is launched against him to prevent him reuniting with his birth parents. The humor was a big miss, and few things fall as hard as unfunny comedies. All the actors involved would go on to better things, but this became a big blemish on a lot of careers.
1 PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING BY JAMES CAMERON
There’s no denying the financial achievements of James Cameron. The man is responsible for two of the most successful movies ever made in Titanic, and Avatar. Both films are far from unanimously loved, but that’s to be expected of anything that becomes as big as those movies did. Plus Cameron also has movies like Aliens, Terminator, and Terminator 2 to his name, all of which have become staples of the sci-fi genre. So anyone working through James Cameron’s directing history to see what other influential films he’s made will notice an odd blip in Piranha II: The Spawning.
As you can imagine by the title, it was an awful B-level horror film. And it was also an awful experience for Cameron, who initially took the job as his first directing role, but by the end was mortified that his name was going to be attached to the finished product. Technically, he was fired as director, and the film’s producer finished assembling the movie on his own in a drastically different fashion than Cameron wanted. Cameron’s name was kept on as an American figurehead for the Italian crew behind the movie, but he’s not as accepting of the credit for the flying piranha flop. Understandably, he prefers to call The Terminator his directorial debut.
Can you think of any other great directors who have a surprising letdown on their résumé? Let us know in the discussion in the comments!