Dir. Renny Harlin
Film #31 of The ‘Worst’ of Cinema
Fantasy and pulp storytelling, the kind that existed before cinema and comics in literature, is a vast ocean, not to create a pun, that I have only sunk my toes in into but has provided a vast amount of imagination and sincerity that is still effecting even to someone like me from this century. Cutthroat Island was clearly an attempt to evoke fiction from the past through pirate fantasy, and it immediately brings up this fact and reminds me how all of this entertainment fully connects together in a web. It starts with mythology, once worshiped as actual religious belief from the Greeks to the Vikings, and is now at the point of superhero films in dozens in the summer season. One has to wonder however if the mass audience is aversive to films that draw on classical storytelling for the adventure genre – not coloured by current fads, no hot celebrities, no cool new band doing the soundtrack or McDonald’s tie-ins – with only the Indiana Jones, and to an extent Pirates of the Caribbean, films being the exception. Considering what happened with John Carter [Of Mars] (2012) last year, which I did see at the cinema and quite liked, it is surprising that a film like that failed miserably at the box office. Cutthroat Island has major flaws, but to think that this died so badly at the box office as it did, ending the production company Carolco Pictures through bankruptcy*, and was critically mauled is baffling. We get successful historical dramas, but pulpy, rollicking adventures with the few exceptions seem to be financial poison.
After her father dies, the daughter of a pirate captain Morgan (Geena Davis) takes control of his ship and goes on a journey to collect together three pieces of a map that will locate Cutthroat Island and the hoardings of Spanish gold hidden there. It is an exceptionally lavish production; barring some obvious (and horrifically dated) superimpositions of actors falling from large heights, which seems an odd mistake to have in the film in hindsight, this feature stands up in terms of technical and visual quality onscreen. One wishes this sort of production still existed even, with elaborate stunts and constructed sets like pirate galleons for the actors to fight in and around. It is the kind of craftsmanship that feels lost in a lot of mainstream cinema now, and it is regrettable that this sort of production value was easily dismissed back then. Great looking films are still made now, but there are many that look poor in comparison, bland, grey and/or digitally touched up. The only film I’ve seen that used current aesthetic tools properly was John Carter and that did a swan dive theatrically. If there is a major failing with Cutthroat Island, which was clearly a passion project for Renny Harlin and his wife Davis in how hard both of them work, it’s that the adventure in the film does not have enough friction or suspense to it to fully engage. This is a more realistic take on pirates – still a romp, but it doesn’t have a giant Kraken or an undead crew – and while the heroes are elaborate in their look or personalities, Davis as a strong female lead and Matthew Modine as the potential love interest in a relationship where she carries the sword, there is little threat to them to work from. While he has played two of the most evil men in history, Skeletor and Richard Nixon, Frank Langella is not given a lot to do as the evil pirate captain also after the treasure, and neither his crew or the British colonial soldiers after Morgan are much of an opposing force. Without the supernatural tone of the Pirates of the Caribbean series or the dramatic incidents every page from a good piece of adventure literature, Cutthroat Island cannot completely sustain one’s interest in the narrative.
Nonetheless it has more virtues to it than its reputation has suggested. The sense of quality to the film is still there regardless of its imperfections. It feels sad to think that the epic yarn, rather than the historical epic that usually does well at the box office still, rarely succeeds when a new one is made or ends up being compromised to reach a wider audience. This is even more a problem as, thanks to audio books, I’m acquiring a sweet tooth for this type of storytelling but there’s few cinematic equivalents to feast on. It also feels like a perfect film to end this season on as it shows that what can qualify as the ‘worst’ can also be damned not necessarily for bad quality but because it is not in the current taste of the audience of the time, shows the follies of marketing and budget spending (I was going to cover Heaven’s Gate (1980) for this final review, but that can wait another day), and the fickleness of what succeeds and what is savaged in reviews. I am not suggesting Cutthroat Island is a great film, and I’ve yet to see a film where Renny Harlin goes beyond being a solid filmmaker and punches up into great vulgar filmmaking, but this whole season has felt more like a prodding of old pop culture to try and see what people were thinking about with cinema even in a decade (the nineties) I grew up in as a child. With Cutthroat Island it’s probably the lesser of two evils when put against some films that are far more worse, and were likely covered on this blog even outside of this season; at least Cutthroat Island has some production quality to it while I have seen some utterly unfortunate films even in my day-to-day filming habit.
*Releasing Show Girls (1995) the same year probably didn’t help either.