At first glance my watching Cutthroat Island might seem a bit out of place with the purported purpose of this website. My goal was to watch lesser known films, specifically films I knew nothing about going into them, in the hopes of finding the occasional gem as well as simply taking a few risks when compared to my standard movie watching habits. I’m as guilty of being selective as anyone else and this seemed like a fun way to test the cinematic waters. And, well, watching one of the biggest financial flops in film history certainly has its own brand of appeal. How often do you get to watch a movie that killed an entire genre of film?
The pirate film, as most probably know, had a long, rich and financially successful relationship with Hollywood since Hollywood’s inception. They would have been considered the “blockbuster” films of their day, at least in comparison to modern day films. Big stars, big sets, bigger production budgets and big, big profits. While over time the popularity of pirate films, and the assured giant box office takes, fluctuated within Hollywood, their were few genres considered as sure as a thing as the pirate film.
By the time Cutthroat Island was being made the pirate film’s greatest glories had long since passed. While they were still being produced with regularity, they hadn’t dominated at the box office in years. So, as production began on Cutthroat Island, word soon began to spread that it would mark a return to Hollywood’s Golden Age, a time when people of all ages could lose themselves in the wonder of the movies. Cutthroat Island, it was promised, would mark the first step of many to a new Hollywood Golden Age.
Even years later I still remember being inundated with the marketing push for Cutthroat Island. TV spots were everywhere, and I specifically remember all the television tabloids like Inside Edition and Access Hollywood offering numerous “exclusive” behind-the-scenes looks at the film. Geena Davis, whose star had steadily risen for years, was being pushed as the next Hollywood superstar, an actress who could excel in both dramatic and action roles. Her husband, and Cutthroat Island’s director, Renny Harlin, was being touted with equal fervor. As the next “it” action director. The press simply couldn’t get enough of this husband and wife duo battling to resurrect a cherished but slightly forgotten genre. Cutthroat Island quickly became a looming juggernaut. A Christmas film that simply could not fail. Would not fail. That is, until it failed. Rather spectacularly as it turns out.
Four brothers possess a map (split into three pieces) that will lead to a legendary treasure. A treasure so vast that it would make each and every one of them and their crew’s richer then they could possibly imagine. So naturally they start killing each other for their pieces of the map. So when Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) learns that her uncle Dawg Brown (Frank Langella) is going to kill her father (Harris Yulin) for his portion of the map. So she sets off to save him, recover the map and reach the treasure before Dawg can.
We should get a few statistics out in the open so everyone knows just how big of a financial failure Cutthroat Island ended up being. Cutthroat Island had an estimated budget of $115 million to make the film and had a total box office take of just over $10 million. Making Cutthroat Island one of the largest box office failures in terms of percentage of revenue lost as well as being the biggest box office flop in terms of sheer money being lost. Of course, this doesn’t even take into account the millions of dollars that were part of the films marketing budget. Based on sheer numbers, and the Guinness Book of World Records, Cutthroat Island is the biggest bomb in the history of film. So, kudos for that!
Like seemingly most people, I had never seen Cutthroat Island before I finally had Netflix send me a copy, so I had no idea if the film was as bad as the size of its financial failure might imply. But since I had just made it through a film that had ruined its production company in Mutant, I figured why not sit through a second film that caused a production company to declare bankruptcy. Though, to be fair to Cutthroat Island, Carolco Pictures declared bankruptcy six weeks before Cutthroat Island made it to theatres. Cutthroat Island wasn’t entirely to blame though, as Last of the Dogmen and Showgirls had financially crippled the studio earlier that summer with their poor performances. Cutthroat Island was simply the final nail in the coffin for a studio that only four years earlier had been on top of the world with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
So here I was, watching my second film in a row that had taken down a studio, but from the opening moments it became clear that this film was far superior to the mess that was Mutant. Though to be perfectly honest Cutthroat Island is far from a good film in its own right. But its faults are hardly anything unique to the films of that decade. Impossibly choreographed action sequences punctuated with awful one liners being the most obvious offense. Sure, they work great when being uttered by muscle bound Austrian’s, but by Geena Davis? Not so much. But really, the terrible jokes are hardly the biggest issue with Cutthroat Island.
In reality, Cutthroat Island really doesn’t have a biggest problem, which is what makes it so fascinating. The film is by all accounts highly competent, if incredibly uneven. The acting by the leads is fine for the most part, but the majority of the secondary roles are bad caricatures at best. The dialogue can at times be witty and intriguing, and at others a mess of bad jokes and confusing references. Even the action sequences, which are performed perfectly, are hampered by the fact that they are so obviously staged. One particular sequence stands out, in which Morgan jumps from a moving stagecoach into a shop, walks through it rather haphazardly, then proceeds to somersault out the far window and land in the exact same coach that she jumped out of a few seconds earlier. The choreography and execution of the scene is fantastic, yet it is plainly obvious that it could never actually occur, thus yanking the viewer straight out of the film.
Perhaps the most head scratching of all is the strange plot point of the map being written in Latin. Because none of the pirates can read Latin, Morgan must find someone who can. In this case Shaw (Matthew Modine) a petty thief and scam artist who has been locked up by the local militia and is to be sold into slavery. He also just happens to know Latin, and so Morgan purchases his services. But in a stunningly odd twist the map isn’t actually written in Latin, it’s written backwards. Spoiler alert! That’s just fucking stupid.
But how does a competent, if uneven, film become the biggest box office failure of all time? It’s hard to say. The chemistry between Davis and Modine is non-existent, and while Davis is clearly giving everything she has in her role, she’s still badly miscast. Plus Harlin’s odd pacing choices certainly don’t help matters either. It’s easy to see why the film was such a critical failure, as the film has plenty of flaws and is easy to nit pick to death. You might even note that the film really doesn’t have any bankable stars, especially for such a huge budget. Then of course there was the fact that everyone knows that no one wants to watch pirate movies. Or perhaps it was just the release date? Action films, as everyone knows, just aren’t released on Christmas. Clearly that must be the reason. Or maybe it was all Carolco’s fault. By declaring bankruptcy weeks before the film opened they killed any chance of the film being successful. But honestly? I don’t think it was any of those. I think it might have been its PG-13 rating.
Now that might seem like an odd assertion, but here me out. At the time Cutthroat Island was released it was competing against a bevy of films, including Sabrina, Nixon, Grumpier Old Men, Waiting to Exhale, Jumanji and Heat. While the week after Cutthroat Island’s release we saw Mr Holland’s Opus, Richard III and Twelve Monkeys get released. Now of all those films, the two that Cutthroat Island was directly competing with were Jumanji and Heat which were both action films. Now I’m not much a fan of either film, but I think it is safe to say that Jumanji is a comparable film in quality while Heat is clearly superior to both. Jumanji is a sort of swashbuckling adventure story told at a breakneck pace to young kids and it held a great deal of appeal to them, while Heat is a gritty and realistic action film for adults. Both these films highlight Cutthroat Island’s weaknesses; that it is far too stuffy for younger kids, and it seems positively childish when aimed at older audiences.
So when Cutthroat Island was finally released, in retrospect it seems pretty obvious why an average film failed so miserably. It was competing against films that were at worst its equal in quality, but had greater appeal to the demographic that Cutthroat Island was trying to reach. Cutthroat Island was simply stuck in a wasteland called a PG-13 that was struggling to reach outside of a very small window of viewers. And with so many solid films being released it drowned in almost relative obscurity. Of course nowadays studios crave to grab a PG-13 rating, as the market has shifted in such a manner that that rating now has the widest range of appeal. Which makes one wonder, just how well would a film like Cutthroat Island do in today’s market? After sitting through it, I’m quite confident that it would do better then I would have originally believed.