The 20 Most Depressing Blockbusters of All Time
Just in time for the dystopic, dysfunctional 'The Dark Knight Rises,' a rundown of the biggest, grimmest hits ever to make you weep into your popcorn for mankind.
1.Behold the Bleakbuster
Every summer, it's the same ritual: multitudes flock to air-conditioned multiplexes to happily munch popcorn while watching the latest too-big-to-fail theatrical phenomenon. We can see the "important" movies in the fall as awards season approaches — but between Memorial and Labor Days, we binge, guilt-free, on big-budget cinematic candy. Which is how Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, the Goonies, and that giant shark became as identified with summer as the scent of mosquito repellent. Last year, audiences thrilled to the X-Men fighting evil mutants and Tom Cruise fighting bad guys (and bad publicity). This year, the landscape looks a little different. DAVID FEAR
Flip through our list of the 20 Biggest Bleakbusters in movie history, and read the rest of David Fear's essay on the rise of the bleakbuster here.
2.20. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Much has been made of how director Steven Spielberg supposedly lost his nerve and tacked on a coda that reunites Haley Joel Osment's Pinocchio-ish robot boy with his foster mother, thus turning a bummer of a sci-fi fable into a happily ever after bedtime story. To which we reply: Were those naysayers not paying attention? Not only is this their tearful last goodbye, the scene is perfectly in sync with the rest of the filmmaker's fractured fairy tale — one that dares to puncture the myth of childish wonder that he's built his career upon. People expected another E.T. and instead got something far more intriguing: a $90 million F.U.
Bleakest line: "Why do you want to leave me? Why?!? I'm sorry I'm not real!" Androids need love too, you know.
3.19. Batman (1989)
Most people who weren't die-hard comic book fans still thought of the Caped Crusader as that Pop Art punch line from the '60s TV show. Tim Burton's revisionist take on the superhero permanently erased the notion of Batman as a frumpy guy doling out cartoon ka-pows: Played by Michael Keaton, this melancholy avenger was a true creature of the night, swinging around set designer Anton Furst's dark, forbidding version of Gotham City with a chip on his shoulder and a perma-scowl under his mask. He may not have been as loony as his arch-nemesis the Joker, especially since Jack Nicholson was in primo ham mode, but you believed this guy was more mentally unsound than the criminals he pounded.
Bleakest line: Batman: "He [the Joker] is psychotic." Vicki Vale: "Some people say the same thing about you." Some people would be right.
4.18. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter pulled out all the stops in his remake of the 1951 pulpy sci-fi flick, raising the gore quotient substantially and giving his shape-shifting alien ample opportunity to show what it can do to a host body it no longer needs. (Seriously, you'll never look at a disembodied head sprouting crab legs and scurrying across the floor the same way again.) But whereas the original was steeped in Cold War paranoia and anti-communist saber rattling, Carpenter's version doesn't give its dread any focus: The message is simply trust no one, period. Even the "happy" ending doesn't offer any sense of hope; the survivors are still stuck in the Arctic, left waiting to see when — not if — the other shoe is going to fall. Escape is simply not an option.
Bleakest line: "Somebody in this camp isn't what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us." That's assuming anyone is still alive by then, of course.
5.17. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Everyone remembers this slam-bang action film as the movie that introduced computer-generated imagery to mainstream movies — dig the way Robert Patrick's T-1000 morphs and melts! — and had Arnold Schwarzenegger awkwardly quoting Janet Jackson for his quips. What most folks do not remember is that, while future savior of mankind John Connor isn't "terminated" by that sleek new model sent back in time to kill him, we're still headed for the Robotapocalypse: The no-future route hasn't been altered so much as merely maintained. Humanity is still headed for a showdown with those rebellious Skynet machines, and Linda Hamilton's survivalist mom is headed for the hills as the closing credits roll. It's a bitter victory.
Bleakest line: "Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day; they lived only to face a new nightmare." On the plus side: No school, kids!
6.16. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Intended to be a modest little ghost story from a gentleman whose only previous credit had been a Rosie O'Donnell movie, this supernatural thriller ended up turning M. Night Shyamalan into a hot-to-trot director, resuscitating Bruce Willis' career for the gajillionth time and becoming part of the cultural lexicon. For a movie that ended up becoming a surprise blockbuster, however, it's uncommonly dour, from its shadowy compositions to its slow-building sense of unease; even the rare shock moments don't feel like your typical horror-flick "gotcha!" pandering. And then there's that twist ending, which, well...you wouldn't really call the revelation that a major character has only been around in spirit an upbeat finish, would you?
Bleakest line: "I see dead people." That was the tagline!
7.15. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Here's what D-Day usually looked like in the movies: soldiers gamely running up the beach, a few gunshots are fired, one or two grunts clutch their chests and fall down, then before you know it, victory is ours. Here's how Steven Spielberg presented the historic moment: a symphony of chaos, blood, guts, confusion, fear, dirt, death. This tale of sacrifice among a platoon of American troops in WWII kicks off with a re-creation of warfare that felt shockingly real; this is what dying on a battlefield really looks like, it told us, and it ain't pretty or neat. All the Greatest-Generation patriotism and Tom Hanks speechifying that follows is colored by that first sequence, hanging over the proceedings like a heavy shroud. It's a war movie and an anti-war movie all wrapped up in one.
Bleakest line: "We're not here to do the decent thing, we're here to follow fucking orders!" And those two things are almost mutually exclusive regarding life during wartime.
8.14. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Forget Team Jacob or Team Edward; the real question has always been Team Louis or Team Lestat. The original pop-lit crossover sensation about angsty bloodsuckers was destined for the big screen from the moment Anne Rice sold the first book's rights to Paramount right before its publication, but few would have thought the novel's torrid violence and tortured Victorian tone would have survived the transition. It did, in spades: Superstar Tom Cruise, ascending sex symbol Brad Pitt and future webslinger's girlfriend Kirsten Dunst spend two-plus hours giving into their baser urges and debating the spiritual void inherent in living la vida vampire. Audiences have always loved hot-bodied hunks with a taste for Type O; they just weren't used to seeing them gnash their teeth over such downer moral dilemmas.
Bleakest line: "Most of all, I longed for death...a release from the pain of living." He gets his wish. Sort of.
9.13. The Matrix (1999)
The digital age finally got the action-adventure blockbuster it deserved, complete with awesome black clothing and those supercool bullet-time special effects. Most people were so enthralled with the shiny visuals and jaw-dropping fight sequences, however, that they may have overlooked the unsettling message percolating within the movie: Not only is humankind stuck in a software program called "reality" while being used as batteries, but it's apparently a man-made technology that's sucking us all dry. It's almost enough to make you look up from your iPad or smartphone or laptop, and wonder where you left that red pill.
Bleakest line: "Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure." Spoken like a true self-aware software program run amok.
10.12. The Road Warrior (1981)
Long before he was a pain in the neck for partner Danny "I'm too old for this shit" Glover and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, Mel Gibson first gained fame for playing "Mad Max" Rockatansky, a vengeful former cop wandering through post-apocalyptic Australia. This sequel to the 1979 down-under blockbuster finds the nomadic Max protecting civilization's last hope from crazed, mohawked marauders, but let's not forget that behind the gunslinger heroics and exciting car chases is the notion that humankind has blown itself to bits in a nuclear war, and everyone has been reduced to scavenging for food and gas in a barren wasteland. Yay…?
Bleakest line: "I remember a time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land." And that's the opening voiceover!
11.11. Poltergeist (1982)
Two years before he'd traumatize a generation of kids with his Raiders sequel (see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Steven Spielberg would produce this popular, pulse-raising, and allegedly cursed take on the old haunted-house story, placing the cursed abode in an Everytown USA suburb — albeit one that had paved over an Indian burial ground. The scene in which an adorable little girl is pulled through a TV into an evil netherworld didn't just launch a thousand media-studies term papers, it exploited the kids-in-peril trope in the most disturbing way. Characters imagine maggots eating at their skin and ripping their own cheeks to shreds. That's what you get when you hire the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper, to make a summer blockbuster, we guess.
Bleakest line: "These souls, who for whatever reason, are not at rest." And are damned for eternity to snatch cute li'l moppets through old Trintrons.
12.10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 (2010/2011)
Anyone who'd read the last volume of the Harry Potter series knew that some major bad-mojo shit went down before the boy wizard and friends could ride their brooms off into the sunset. That still doesn't prepare you, however, for how director David Yates & Co. turn the two-part screen version of Harry's final stand against Voldemort into one stark, pessimistic fantasy: The first half finds our heroes on the run from evil forces as everyone frets back home, while the second half reduces Hogwarts to a ruin as the fate of a washed-out, charcoal-gray world hangs in the balance. We're a long way from the cherub-faced kids who first walked through those academy doors; YA-franchise or not, everyone here looks like death warmed over.
Bleakest line: "You've kept him alive so that he can die at the proper moment. You've been raising him like a pig for slaughter!" Expect to see "Harry Potter Pork Chops," coming soon to a grocery store near you.
13.9. Fight Club (1999)
It was one thing for David Fincher to take Chuck Palahniuk's nihilistic novel and translate it to the big screen with the satirical thrust and sturm und drang sensationalism it needed to work. It's another to think that the director of Seven took $63 million of 20th Century Fox's money, cast one of the biggest movie stars in the country, and them made a film that has the most unreliable narrator ever — one who pisses on conformity and materialism, semi-ironically praises male bonding through violence, and stops just short of advocating terrorism. The first rule of Fight Club be damned: Thirteen years later, we're still talking about what subversive flipped-bird gesture Fincher managed to pull off.
Bleakest line: "Self improvement is masturbation. Self destruction is the answer." Sorry, what was the question again?
14.8. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
How does one follow up an insanely popular, critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning blockbuster about the Mafia? Easy: You make a sequel that puts a stake through the whole idea of it being a romanticized family affair. By contrasting scenes of Michael's chilly, strictly business way of organized crime in the 1950s with flashbacks to his immigrant father just trying to build a life for his wife and kids, Francis Ford Coppola performs an autopsy on the corporatized American Dream. It also has one of the bleakest final shots of any American movie ever, in which the self-made man lords over an empire of dust.
Bleakest line: "It was an abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that's unholy and evil!" Harsh.
15.7. WALL-E (2008)
Pixar had raised the bar for sophisticated, smart animated movies, but the question remained: Could it make dystopia kid-friendly? The answer was a resounding "yes," and this age-appropriate sci-fi flick — featuring the galaxy's most adorable robot — kept the studio's winning streak alive. Still, it took some serious titanium balls to kick off a family movie with that opening: A wordless tour of our wrecked world, now a trash-covered wasteland that had been corporatized, eco-raped, and then abandoned by its ungrateful inhabitants. We repeat: This is how this kids' movie starts! It doesn't exactly scream "Happy Meal tie-in," does it?
Bleakest line: "Operation Cleanup has, well, uh, failed. Wouldn't you know, rising toxicity levels have made life unsustainable on Earth." But on the bright side…um…
16.6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Imagine that you've just made a crowd-pleasing romp that will change the way Hollywood makes movies for decades. What do you for an encore? Most people would not reply that they're going to turn the whole thing into a Greek tragedy involving a guy trying to kill his father. The original second chapter of the Star Wars saga starts off on an icy, remote planet and only gets colder from there; by the end of the movie, one hero will have lost his hand (and the last of his innocence), another will be frozen in a block of carbonite, and yet another will be sold to a galactic criminal as his gold-bikini-ed play-toy. We now know everything turns out a-ok, but at the time, the most anticipated sequel in the world made people full like the Force was most assuredly not with them.
Bleakest line: "I am your father, Luke." WTF???
17.5. Blade Runner (1982)
From its first shot of Los Angeles circa 2019 — an urban nightmare of ADD-video advertisements, random belching flamestacks and rotting metropolitan clutter — Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel immediately places viewers into a dystopic world that's a literal interpretation of the phrase "Hell-Ay." As if turning the entire City of Angels into a sooty Times Square on steroids isn't depressing enough, the movie then takes our generation's go-to good guy, Harrison Ford, and makes him hunt down robots in cold blood. Those replicants just want a fair shake and a real life. Say it ain't so, Han Solo!
Bleakest line: " ‘More human than human' is our motto." Emotionality: Androids 1, Homo Sapiens 0.
18.4. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott's haunted-house-in-space masterpiece is best known for combining sci-fi and horror elements into one nail-biting, chest-bursting thrill ride. But before it gives you the fun stuff, the film uses up its first moody half hour to explore the interiors of the dingiest spaceship in the galaxy and drops its blue-collar crew into a dark, dank world that's the perfect breeding ground for predators. A crew, we should point out, viewed as little more than creature-chum by the corporation that sent them into deep space in the first place.
Bleakest line: "I admire its purity... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." Really, it's exactly what you want in a perfect killing machine.
19.3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
It's not like Steven Spielberg's homage to '30 serials and old-fashioned Saturday matinee fun Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) didn't have its gruesome moments (you may recall that lighthearted scene where a Nazi's face melts off his skull). But this sequel notably upped the ante in terms of violence and intensity, notably when a high priest rips a still-beating heart out of man's chest. For that matter, we don't remember any plot lines about children being abducted and sacrificed (!) or people forced to eat monkey brains in those old Commander Cody cliffhangers either. The MPAA was so worried about this summer blockbuster being marketed to kids that they invented the PG-13 rating in response to it.
Bleakest line: "Kali Ma... Kali Ma... Kali Ma Shakti de!" We're not exactly sure what it means, but as the chant precedes a nonconsensual organ donation, we think it qualifies.
20.2. The Exorcist (1973)
Both figuratively and literally dark (that black shadow knocking on the front door is not the devil, but the guy sent to get rid of him), this mega-blockbuster spends a good deal of its time focusing on a priest wringing his hands over the existence or non-existence of God. (Paging Jean-Paul Sartre!) The rest of the movie is then given over to a 12-year-old girl spewing the most head-spinningly profane things you've ever heard and violently masturbating with a crucifix. If you believe the children are our future, then this religious-horror classic, which pretty much invented the idea of the crowd-pleasing summer bummer, will convince you that we're all going to hell.
Bleakest line: "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras, you faithless slime." Given his mother just died, this dig is particularly brutal as far as "your mom" snaps go.
21.1. The Dark Knight (2008)
If Tim Burton's version of Batman as a damaged goods suggested there were depths to be plumbed in this iconic character, Christopher Nolan's second outing with the Caped Crusader confirmed it: They do not call him the "Dark" Knight for nothing here. In an attempt to save Gotham City from the villainous Joker—a bravura, compellingly bat-shit performance from Heath Ledger, blessed with what appears to be John Wayne Gacy's make-up kit—Batman manages to violate his own ethical code, get a loved one killed and inadvertently turns the city's real good guy into a crazed, scarred lunatic. He ends the film fleeing from police dogs as a fugitive. Every age gets the superhero they deserve, and we apparently deserved a traumatized sacrificial lamb.
Bleakest line: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." Apparently, so did the crowds who turned this bleakbuster into one of the most successful movies of all time.