I recently posted an article that imagined Stanley Kubrick took up the offer to direct The Exorcist (you can read it here). While a fun exercise, it never really came close to fruition. They also wanted Kubrick to direct an Exorcist sequel, which he turned down even faster than the original.
There are, however, several instances of films that could have happened or even neared production, that could have had a huge cinematic impact. That previous sentence sounds like it was ripped from a book on Terry Gilliam. Some guys just don't have much luck in the film biz…
In ascending order, I give you five films that could have changed things.
5. Paul Verhoeven's Crusade
A script reviewer on AICN called it Verhoeven's answer to Lawrence of Arabia…how can you not want to see a movie like that? Verhoeven is best remembered as the man behind big budget sci-fi actioners such as RoboCop and Total Recall. He also hung up his magnum-sized squibs and blood for steamy sleaze in Basic Instinct. What kind of film would the Dutch director have made with Arnold, religion, and bloody battles in the Holy Land? You can get an idea by reading the script review over at AICN.
To boil it down to talking points
- Arnold would've played Hagen, a serf-turned-thief-turned-crusading warrior
- In a very cool scene, Arnold would have been burned by a giant cross, leaving a blazing cross scar across his huge back
- The script didn't shy away from anti-Semitism and religious fanaticism prevalent in that period of time
- This great quote at the end of the film, while Arnold looks upon the aftermath of battle: "Take a look around. Take a deep breath and with the stench of death in your nose, go tell God you've restored his kingdom!"
- Veroeven wanted Charlton Heston as The Pope
So how would've this changed the cinematic landscape? A big budget, bloody, violent film that explicitly dealt with anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, and the blood shed in the Crusades as a direct result of the church's agenda. You're going to have some blowback and controversy there. However, this film had all the makings of a box office success (certainly in the 90s) and could have bounced Schwarzenegger back from the train wreck of Last Action Hero and even possibly saved Carolco from bankruptcy. The studio went under in the aftermath of Cutthroat Island…a film no one seems to remember. If Carolco doesn't go under, they retain their biggest property: The Terminator series and we're never subjected to the McG-directed Terminator: Salvation.
4. David Lynch's Return of the Jedi
Okay, so this one was a long shot from happening. According to Lynch himself, he had very little interest in the project, but met with George Lucas anyway. Lynch would about-face on the project in favor of Dune and a shirtless Sting. I'll admit, this one is the hardest to fathom. Luckily, some guys have put together a fan-made take on it here (warning: It's bizarre).
The truth is, I think this could have been a disaster for Lucas had Lynch went through with it. Even coming off 1981's excellent The Elephant Man, Lynch would have put his 'David Lynch Weirdness Stamp of Approval' on the film, likely alienating many (all?) of the Star Wars fan base. Lynch just isn't a commercial filmmaker and I think him trying to be one results in a mess (see Dune).
The long term effects? Children have Ewok-themed nightmares for years to come. The third installment of the Star Wars trilogy results in bitterness, anger, and alienation towards George Lucas - 16 full years before The Phantom Menace started that ball rolling. Although, it would have been awesome to see Princess Leia free Han Solo from the carbonite and have Bill Pullman fall out (thereby granting Harrison Ford's request to exit the series).
3. James Cameron's Spiderman
In the early 1990s, Carolco Pictures (see #5) commissioned a script for a Spider-Man movie from director James Cameron. Carolco was looking to bank on the recent success of Tim Burton's Batman films. Cameron would go on to turn in a 47-page "scriptment" that fleshed out the story, Peter Parker's background, and the villains Electro and Sandman. In typical James Cameron fashion, the story featured a nuclear weapon causing Sandman's condition. The scriptment also featured Parker having Kafka-esque nightmares as he transformed into Spider-Man, a final battle atop the Twin Towers, and a sex scene between Mary Jane and Parker atop the Brooklyn Bridge. Leonardo DiCaprio would be tapped for Peter Parker and Schwarzenegger (!) as Doctor Octopus.
Cameron agreed to make the film with Carolco, but a legal battle ensued over rights. The lawsuit would drag Viacom and Columbia pictures in as well over broadcast and home video rights. 20th Century Fox waded into the fray, claiming Cameron remained exclusive to their studio as he had not completed a prior contract. In 1996, Carolco and Marvel went bankrupt. Spider-Man was ultimately acquired by MGM after it bought Carolco, and would not find its way to the theater until Sam Raimi directed his adaptation in 2002.
So how would it have changed things? Cameron's Marvel movie was much darker and more adult than the studios have gotten comfortable with. But with Cameron at the helm, Leo bringing his Romeo + Juliet fans to the theater, and Schwarzenegger at the height of popularity, the box office could have been strong with this one. Not only could it have saved Carolco (again, see #5), but could have kickstarted the SuperHero film craze in the 90s instead of the early 2000s. A successful, serious take on a superhero in 1996 may also have made Joel Schumaker change his vision or step away from Batman. If Cameron's Spider-Man was a dark, brooding character in a realistic world, maybe Christopher Nolan steps away from Batman thinking his vision had already been done? We also would have been spared a whiny, crying (and it part three…dancing?) Tobey Maguire.
2. Steven Spielberg's Night Skies
The late 70s and early 80s cinema was inundated with science fiction. The success of Star Wars (more on that below) had studios scrambling for anything science fiction, leading to a golden age of sci-fi with films like Alien (1979) and TV series like Battlestar Galactica. During this period, director Steven Spielberg developed a project based on a documented encounter with paranormal creatures. Spielberg himself described the project as "Straw Dogs with aliens."
Indie auteur and gun-for-hire John Sayles was commissioned to write a script based on the idea. The result was a very dark film, too dark for Spielberg's taste, and Spielberg decided Tobe Hooper should direct (this predates their Poltergeist debacle). Practical effects wizard Rick Baker was hired to design and built the alien creatures and Spielberg left for Tunisia to shoot Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Spielberg's experiences on the violent, intense shoot in Tunisia led him to turn to a softer, friendlier story of Melissa Mathison's E.T. Spielberg would go on to pillage segments from Dark Skies and mix them with E.T.'s evolving story. The result was a total abandonment of Dark Skies and falling out with Rick Baker. E.T. would go on to conquer the box office and influence the pop culture of the early 80s.
So what if Dark Skies was released before E.T.? The absence of a cute, friendly alien who likes Reese's Pieces and just wants to go home would have left a void in the American pop culture zeitgeist. Instead, frightening extraterrestrial home invaders would have scared audiences. Spielberg's own career would likely remain strong without the box office numbers of E.T., but he would indirectly effected that of John Carpenter.
The same year E.T. was released, Carpenter released his sci-fi opus The Thing (with creatures marvelous created by Rob Bottin, protege to Night Skies' Rick Baker). Carpenter's film was a disastrous at the box office, and the film would languish for years before home video brought about a resurgence. The studio reasoning behind the poor numbers was that because of E.T., the audience wanted cute aliens…not a frightening shapeshifting monster.
Carpenter would regroup and attempt a friendly alien tale with 1984's Starman. If The Thing went up against Night Skies instead, sharing frightening aliens as antagonists, Carpenter's film would have been more successful, leading studios to back the horror icon in other ventures.
1. Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune
The biggest of what-could-have-been films, Jodorowsky's Dune would have changed the very landscape of cinema in the mid 70s. If you've seen this year's Jodorowsky's Dune, you understand the influence that the film would have had. If you have not seen it, I recommend purchasing it right this second and watching it. Even those unfamiliar or repulsed by Jodorowsky's earlier El Topo and The Holy Mountain can't help but be fascinated by the Chilean director created for Dune.
Jodorowsky built a creative team consisting of French artist Moebius, British illustrator Chris Foss, American Dan O'Bannon, and the Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Together, they put together a massive tome, literally illustrating every shot of the film (rumored to bloom upwards of 10-14 hours long). Foss designed the ships, Moebius drew storyboards and costume design, while Giger brought his nightmarish designs to the House Harkonnen.
The cast included Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Salvador Dali, and Orson Wells as the Baron Harkonnen. The film would combine elements of Eastern philosophy, martial arts, space travel, mystic rite of passage, robots, politics, all centered on a desert planet. Sound familiar? Keep in mind Star Wars was years away. Wrap it all up and have Pink Floyd and 70s euro-rock group Magma provide the score of the film. The final product would be unlike anything that had graced the silver screen.
The film would eventually collapse under its own weight. No Hollywood studio would finance the gap of several million dollars Jodorowsky and team needed to begin production. Some were terrified and overwhelmed by the scope; others intrigued, but didn't like or trust the foreign filmmaker. After faltering, Dino De Laurentiis would swoop in and take the rights out from under Jodorowsky. This led to the poor David Lynch adaptation some years later.
Had Jodorowsky got his vision to theaters, the reverberations would be felt even today. Dune is the most interesting film on this list because it would have beat Star Wars by two years and resulted in one of two outcomes:
- It's successful and the film would influence future decades of sci-fi, relegating Lucas' film to a 'knock off' or 'capitalizing on the Dune craze,' and possibly crippling Lucas' career. The likelihood of Empire and other sequels is very slim. Jodorowsky goes on to create other high budget films instead of disappearing for years.
- Or it's an utter disaster, a $15 million art house film failure that would scare the bejesus out of studios with sci-fi projects in production…including 20th Century Fox's and their production of Star Wars. The studio was already terrified that Lucas' film would tank and watching a high budget sci-fi epic (with similar elements!) blow up on the launch pad would be enough for them to pull the plug. No Star Wars. No Alien. Sci-fi would be set back decades.
What other films could have been game changers? Share your thoughts below!