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10 Movies Too Clever For Their Own Good

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Summary

  • Ambitious films, like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” can polarize audiences due to bold decisions challenging convention.
  • “Transcendence” showcases how complex themes can overwhelm a narrative, hindering audience understanding and enjoyment.
  • “Ad Astra” presents a slow-burn, cerebral sci-fi that resonated more with critics than general viewers, leading to mixed reviews.

While many iconic movies impress thanks to a combination of intelligence and ambition, such qualities can also be detrimental. In some cases, a movie might set out to make a nuanced point through unorthodox or provocative storytelling and fail to resonate in the way that was intended. Although this often leads to poor responses from critics and audiences, sometimes it’s simply that the film is completely misinterpreted despite, on the surface at least, still managing to achieve a measure of success.

Some otherwise intelligent movies fail because their central premise becomes too convoluted to follow, or the story translates poorly to cinema. Others are frustrated because their legacy is either willfully or accidentally misunderstood, with the majority of viewers failing to recognize the deeper subtext of the story and taking its lessons at face value. Whatever the reason a clever movie fails, the end result is inevitably frustrating for the artists behind the project, whose original vision inevitably becomes lost in the misguided commentary. Here are some examples of films that, with hindsight, suffered because of their cleverness.

Related

10 Great Movies That Were Misunderstood Upon Release

These movies weren’t what audiences expected, or they were too ahead of their time, but given space, it is clear they were misunderstood gems.

10 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Rian Johnson’s Attempt At Reinvention Goes Wrong

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Release Date
December 15, 2017
Cast
Daisy Ridley , Oscar Isaac , Mark Hamill , Carrie Fisher , John Boyega , Adam Driver , Andy Serkis , Lupita Nyong’o , Anthony Daniels , Gwendoline Christie , Kelly Marie Tran , Laura Dern
Runtime
152 Minutes

By many metrics, The Last Jedi was a huge success. The movie made an impressive $1.3 billion at the global box office and achieved critical acclaim, securing a 91% positive review rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, despite these impressive statistics, The Last Jedi remains one of the most polarizing entries in the entire Star Wars canon. The reason for this is almost entirely due to its bold decision to rewrite the series status quo – challenging convention and ultimately proving too clever for its own good for many audience members.

In a transgressive step, The Last Jedi reimagined the previously heroic Luke Skywalker as a curmudgeonly and disillusioned hermit – a far cry from the hopeful figure that had defined the original trilogy. The movie also reveled in unpredictability, killing off the presumed main villain Snoke, and revealing that Rey’s parentage was insignificant. These decisions were a radical direction for the franchise. However, despite being a clever concept, the antipathy that many feel towards The Last Jedi highlights how double-edged such ambition can be.

9 Transcendence (2014)

A Highly-Regarded Script Fails To Translate To The Big Screen

transcendence johnny depp poster
Transcendence

Johnny Depp stars in the sci-fi thriller Transcendence as Dr. Will Caster, a scientist who’s working on creating an AI supercomputer that can surpass human intelligence. Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, and Cillian Murphy co-star in the 2014 movie directed by acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister.

Director
Wally Pfister
Release Date
April 18, 2014
Runtime
119minutes

Despite boasting a talented cast, a legendary visual stylist in first-time-director Wally Pfister, and one of the most sought-after scripts in Hollywood, Transcendence became a classic modern example of a movie that is too clever for its own good. The film’s story, which concerned artificial intelligence, human sentience, and where the line between humanity and machine can be drawn, has arguably only become more prescient. Yet all these elements ultimately proved too weighty to be handled in one 119-minute movie.

Transcendence was heavily criticized for failing to adequately explain its central premise of a human mind becoming uploaded to combine with technology – a key detail that required incredible generosity from the audience. Other critics highlighted problems with the dialogue and the film’s inability to make its story a more universal parable about the human condition. As the rise of AI has proved, Transcendence certainly attempted to tackle some prescient topics. The execution, however, was lacking.

8 Ad Astra (2019)

Brad Pitt’s Sci-Fi Falls Flat With Audiences

Ad Astra movie Brad Pitt poster
Ad Astra
Director
James Gray
Release Date
September 17, 2019
Cast
Anne McDaniels , Liv Tyler , Ruth Negga , John Ortiz , Loren Dean , Kimberly Elise , John Finn , Brad Pitt , Tommy Lee Jones , Jamie Kennedy , Donald Sutherland , Greg Bryk
Runtime
124 minutes

A film that highlights the often deep divide between critics and audiences, Ad Astra arguably suffered from poor expectation management. A slow-burn, cerebral sci-fi that was as much about contemplating the importance of family in the cold dark of space as it was about explosive action, the movie attempted to incorporate existential themes about the human experience alongside incredibly realistic space travel sequences. Unfortunately, this combination failed to endear it to the paying public.

…Ad Astra
was criticized by many viewers for its deliberate pacing and emphasis on impressive visuals over dynamism.

After a trailer that emphasized action, Ad Astra was criticized by many viewers for its deliberate pacing and emphasis on impressive visuals over dynamism. This disappointment is highlighted by the movie’s different critical and audience Rotten Tomatoes scores, registering 83% among critics and just 40% among general viewers. The discrepancy demonstrates how the film’s attempt at emotional depth were not necessarily what audiences wanted from a $100 million Brad Pitt blockbuster.

7 High Life (2018)

Robert Pattison’s Sci-Fi Horror Failed To Resonate

High Life - Poster
High Life
Director
Claire Denis
Release Date
September 26, 2018
Runtime
113 Minutes

Celebrated by critics and even heralded by French newspaper Le Monde as “a masterpiece“, High Life is one of the most ambitious and challenging sci-fi horrors of the past decade. As cerebral as it is visceral, the movie follows a criminal crew of a spaceship on a mission to extract energy from a black hole. However, while it owes a debt to previous genre works like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sunshine, its complex approach to the premise proved too much for some viewers.

Not only does the morally complex story follow a disarming, non-linear structure, but the movie eschews traditional horror tropes like jump scares in favor of atmospheric tension. This approach did not work for many viewers, resulting in a highly polarized Rotten Tomatoes score of 82% among critics and 42% for general audiences. Coupled with the fact that High Life failed at the box office, it’s clear that the movie fell victim to its unorthodoxy.

6 Tenet (2020)

Christopher Nolan Struggles With An Unwieldy Concept

Tenet Poster
Tenet

Armed with only one word—Tenet—and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a nameless Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.

Release Date
September 3, 2020
Runtime
150 minutes

As a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan is notorious for his thought-provoking and non-traditional narrative approach.Memento famously plays in reverse, while projects like The Prestige and Inception challenge the audience’s understanding of what is and isn’t real. While these releases are generally considered to be successes, however, Tenet‘s reputation is more mixed.

The time-traveling spy thriller pairs John David Washington’s mysterious “Protagonist” with Robert Pattinson, and follows a complex story of time manipulation The visuals are undoutedly spectacular, but many critics and viewers felt that Tenet became too bogged down in its multiple timelines, confusing characterization, and tangled narrative. Although many found it a rewarding intellectual exercise, Tenet failed to replicate the critical acclaim of Nolan’s previous releases – a testament to its misguided intelligence.

5 The Matrix (1999)

The Wachowskis’ Seminal Thriller Is Retroactively Co-Opted

The Matrix Poster
The Matrix
Director
Lilly Wachowski , Lana Wachowski
Release Date
March 30, 1999
Runtime
136 minutes

One of the most celebrated and beloved sci-fi action blockbusters of all time, The Matrix‘s problems have nothing to do with its reputation and box office success. With both critics and the paying public, the movie had a massive impact, pushing technological and storytelling boundaries and helping redefine an entire subgenre of filmmaking. In the years since its release, however, it’s clear that the film’s message about authoritarianism has not only been misunderstood, but increasingly weaponized to advocate the very causes it was arguing against.

The Matrix‘s “red pill” metaphor, in particular, has become a hot topic in modern political discourse. Right-wingers often use the image as a byword for understanding perceived system biases against their belief system, while those on the left likewise use it to describe someone who has fallen down a conspiratorial rabbit hole. In fact, both interpretations arguably miss the central point of the device, which has subsequently been confirmed as one of many subtle allusions to transgenderism in The Matrix – a thesis confirmed by none other than co-director Lily Wachowski (via The Independent).

4 Team America: World Police (2004)

Parker And Stone’s Message Is Lost Among Gross-Out Gags

Team America Movie Poster
Team America: World Police
Director
Trey Parker
Release Date
October 15, 2004
Cast
Trey Parker , Kristen Miller , Maurice LaMarche , Daran Norris , Matt Stone , Masasa
Runtime
98 minutes

Like many of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s projects, Team America: World Police is simultaneously reviled and revered for its uncompromisingly irreverent comedy. Gags in the film take aim at everyone from Hollywood liberals to Kim Jong-Il and everyone in between. Yet despite this take-no-prisoners approach, it is arguably Team America‘s liberal critique that has resonated more deeply down the years – despite the filmmakers’ intention.

As a satire that takes no prisoners from either camp, it’s interesting to see how
Team America
‘s message has been warped by both sides to suit their own agenda.

Particularly telling is that Team America was ranked highly in National Review Online‘s list of “Best Conservative Movies“. This interpretation deliberately emphasizes the movie’s excoriating take on perceived hypocritical and ineffective celebrity activism, while willfully ignoring the movie’s equally clear critique of America’s role in the War on Terror. As a satire that takes no prisoners from either camp, it’s interesting to see how Team America‘s message has been warped by both sides to suit their own agenda.

3 The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)

Viewers Struggle With The Movie’s Complex Psychological Portrait

The Wolf of Wall Street official poster
The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorcese, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the true story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), based on his memoir of the same name. It chronicles the rise of Belfort and the subsequent corruption of his firm as he engages in a wide assortment of criminal acts while amassing a staggering fortune. Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, and Kyle Chandler also star alongside DiCaprio.

Release Date
December 25, 2013
Runtime
3hours

Arguments over Martin Scorsese’s biographical epic can essentially be boiled down to a split between those who feel the film venerates its protagonist, versus those who believe it criticizes him. On one level, it’s easy to see why some would critique the film since it revels in the debauchery of its characters and their amorality and even features a cameo from the real Jordan Belfort at the end. This, however, ignores the movie’s equally unflinching portrayal of his reprehensibility.

Despite the veneer of glamor, Belfort is unquestionably the villain of The Wolf of Wall Street. Not only is his criminality and misogyny on full display throughout, but the movie culminates in a dark look at the truth of his character – showing him viciously attacking his wife and kidnapping their child. Nevertheless, the fact that this message has so clearly become lost, to the point where Belfort’s villainy is even up for debate, suggests that The Wolf of Wall Street was perhaps too subtle in its signaling.

2 Fight Club (1999)

David Fincher’s Nihilistic Masterpiece Is Still Misunderstood

Fight Club Movie Poster
Fight Club
Release Date
October 15, 1999
Runtime
139 minutes

One of the most controversial and talked-about movies of the 1990s, Fight Club is also one of the decade’s most misunderstood movie projects. The story, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, is a slyly subversive tale of civil disobedience, uncertain masculinity, and a rejection of commercial consumption. Yet despite, these wide-ranging themes, much of Fight Club‘s subtlety has become lost through surface interpretation.

Considering that the film is a metaphor for society’s struggles, rather than an explicit call to arms, (the) reaction highlights how
Fight Club
has been misinterpreted by many of its fans.

In a clear sign that many viewers failed to recognize the underlying messages at the heart of the film, one of the most shocking effects of its aftermath was the rise of real “fight clubs” across America. There were also dozens of reported copycat crimes reportedly inspired by the movie’s Project Mayhem plot, including a bomb detonated outside a Starbucks. Considering that the film is a metaphor for society’s struggles, rather than an explicit call to arms, this reaction highlights how Fight Club has been misinterpreted by many of its fans.

1 Starship Troopers (1997)

Paul Verhoeven’s Violent Sci-Fi Is An Authoritarian Satire

Starship Troopers Movie Poster
Starship Troopers
Director
Paul Verhoeven
Release Date
November 7, 1997
Cast
Jake Busey , Denise Richards , Dina Meyer , Neil Patrick Harris , Casper Van Dien , Patrick Muldoon , Michael Ironside , Clancy Brown
Runtime
129 minutes

Although the film seems to be a mindlessly violent sci-fi war movie, Starship Troopers is actually one of the most savage political satires ever made. On one level, the movie is a tongue-in-cheek critique of fascist authoritarianism, using the imagery and iconography of Nazism to explore how propaganda can be used to control a population. Beyond this surface message, however, is an even more subtle message.

Starship Troopers is not just a critique of past authoritarian regimes, but a prescient warning to modern America. The movie’s send-up of tropes like the high-school jock and unquestioning patriotism holds a mirror to many of the United States’ most easily abused characteristics. Released before the war in Iraq, Starship Troopers now seems incredibly relevant, given its themes of propaganda and xenophobia. Much of this depth was lost by audiences in the bug-on-human carnage. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that Starship Troopers is a much more intelligent movie than many gave it credit for.

Sources: Le Monde, The Independent, The National Review

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