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Debate Club: The best sci-fi bombs fans turned into cult hits

Contributed by
Jul 11, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we're paying tribute to movies that weren't appreciated in their time — although some fans were smart enough to be ahead of the curve.

We live in a blockbuster-driven world, where opening-weekend box office means everything, even for smaller indie fare. As much as journalists talk about audience word-of-mouth helping to raise the visibility of certain films, the truth is a lot of stuff crashes and burns just because it doesn't instantly click with the general public or even sometimes critics. But that doesn't always mean those movies aren't great — or that people won't eventually rediscover them.

Therefore, this week's list celebrates five movies rescued by fans, who embraced them and turned them into cult classics. Now, to be sure, there are plenty of films that could be considered "cult classics," but we're looking specifically at genre movies. In other words, sorry Big Lebowski lovers: we're not factoring the Dude into this here list.

But that just makes room for some other beloved favorites...

Donnie Darko (2001)

Question: If Donnie Darko had gone straight to video, like it was initially supposed to until producer (and co-star) Drew Barrymore salvaged a theatrical run, would it have become a cult hit quicker, more slowly or not at all?

The 9/11 attacks postponed the Darko release because people weren't quite ready to watch a movie in which a plane crashes into a house, but a theatrical audience was maybe never going to be right for this weird head-trip of a film. As a result, it only made $1,478,493 in theaters. But a year after release and its explosion on DVD, it started playing midnight screenings and still is today. There was even a "spiritual sequel," S. Darko, released in 2009, with Daveigh Chase reprising her role as Donnie's little sister Samantha. Sparkle Motion forever!

Fight Club (1999)

David Fincher always wanted Fight Club to be confrontational; this does, after all, include occasional frames of human penises flashed on the screen as subliminal unsettling messages. (The late '90s were quite the time.)

So he couldn't have been surprised by the initial reaction to his Male Angst masterpiece, which got so extreme that Rosie O'Donnell went on television and implored people not to go see it, even going so far as to reveal its twist. Mission accomplished in the US, where it made just $37 million.

But its message of anti-materialism and generational confusion has continued to resonate today, even if some have maybe taken its satire of toxic masculinity perhaps not as much satirically as Fincher would have preferred. But for better or worse: It's as relevant today as it was when it came out, if not more so.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Newsweek called The Rocky Horror Picture Show "tasteless, plotless and pointless" when it was released in 1975, and honestly, that was the nicest thing anybody said about it because most people didn't notice the film upon release at all.

It wasn't until more than a year later when fans started dressing up and shouting back to the screen at midnight showings at the Waverly Theater in New York that the film grew into the phenomenon it eventually became. This forgotten, ignored movie about... well... about everything and nothing has outlasted just about every other movie released that year. It's possible that this is Susan Sarandon's most-watched movie. Maybe Tim Curry's, too. Definitely Richard O'Brien's.

Brazil (1985)

On the heels of Time Bandits, director and Monty Python co-conspirator Terry Gilliam made a movie about an Orwellian nightmare in which the common man lives in an oppressive bureaucracy. But then Gilliam did battle with his own form of overlords, the suits at Universal, who were displeased with the film's unhappy ending. That dispute has become the stuff of legend — for a while, it seemed like the studio wouldn't even release Brazil — which inspired Gilliam to start showing his film to critics privately.

As a result, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association famously named Brazil the best film of 1985, essentially forcing Universal's hand. Even then, though, Brazil was hardly a commercial sensation, but its darkly comic portrait of a society gone haywire has subsequently earned the film a cult audience and helped establish Gilliam as one of the most visionary directors of the '80s. Perhaps more importantly, Brazil cemented Gilliam's reputation as an artist proudly pursuing his passion projects, no matter what. (Maybe someday audiences will get to see his Don Quixote movie.)

Blade Runner (1982)

To be fair, Ridley Scott's dystopian sci-fi drama probably deserved initially to be unloved: the studio-imposed voiceover is really dreadful. But as Scott exerted his control over later editions of the film, Blade Runner finally emerged as the dark vision he'd always intended. Based on the Philip K. Dick story, this existential thriller starred red-hot Harrison Ford as a cop searching for rogue replicants, but it's a movie less about plot than atmosphere — the immersive experience of Blade Runner is what's given this iconic film its hold over the years. Well, that and the fact that dozens of subsequent sci-fi films have ripped off its gritty, icy aesthetic. By the way, it only seemed fitting that the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, should be a box-office disappointment: Blade Runner is still proving unfathomable to lots of viewers.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.