There are many things one can say about Geostorm, the new Dean Devlin-directed unnatural disaster flick that opened on Friday. Some are better left for critics, others for chroniclers of cinematic disasters — Geostorm had three release dates, two directors, and underwent extensive, expensive reshoots on the way to its $13.3 million opening weekend. But the thing that came to mind when I saw the first trailer was: What happened to Gerard Butler?
Because, let’s face it, he has somehow managed to squander movie stardom like it was his plan all along. Looking back at his career is like looking at a road map of bad decisions — so much so that even the good decisions barely register.
Butler’s career was simmering along just fine after his 1997 debut in Mrs. Brown, opposite Judi Dench and Billy Connolly. He had a bit part in a Bond film (1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies), a teensy role in 1998’s Tale of the Mummy, and the title role in the incredibly forgettable Dracula 2000. He took what came down the pike, did his job well, and kept pushing.
And then things started to heat up for Butler. Reign of Fire came in 2002. He wasn’t the lead, and it’s hard to grab the spotlight from Christian Bale and a NUTSAPALOOZA Matthew McConaughey, but it was a big movie. So was Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life the following year. Yes, he was playing the somewhat thankless role of “British actor who has to attempt to compete with Angelina Jolie doing a British accent” (previously assayed by Daniel Craig in the first Tomb Raider), but, hey, he got second billing.
Then came Phantom of the Opera, Michael Crichton’s Timeline and … 300.
No one expected 300 to be the hit that it was, least of all Warner Bros., which dumped it in March, two months before summer blockbuster season began. But when it made $70 million in its opening weekend and $456 million worldwide, it made director Zack Snyder Warners’ favorite son and offered a solid foundation to launch Butler into movie stardom.
So what happened?
Here are the live-action films he appeared in in the wake of 300:
P.S. I Love You (2007)
Nim's Island (2008)
The Ugly Truth (2009)
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
The Bounty Hunter (2010)
Machine Gun Preacher (2011)
Chasing Mavericks (2012)
Playing for Keeps (2012)
Movie 43 (2013)
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Gods of Egypt (2016)
London Has Fallen (2016)
A Family Man (2016)
Some of these are decent films (Chasing Mavericks is a down-the-middle sports film, the Olympus/London twofer are nimble Die Hard-esque thrillers, Butler’s very good in Coriolanus), but too many are either bad or just totally forgettable. Or, as in the case of Gods of Egypt, the kind of bad everyone involved would likely just rather forget.
Five thrillers, four romances/romantic comedies, two based-on-true-story dramas, one Shakespeare adaptation … and, not counting Geostorm, two genre films. Out of 18 movies, he only made two in the genre that broke him big, and neither of them, judging by the critical reception and box office, are any good.
Now, not to sell Butler overly short, his 27 movies have made $3.4 billion worldwide — though, also to be fair, a full third of that, $1.1 billion give or take, comes from the animated How to Train Your Dragon franchise. Not too shabby.
But this isn’t the resume of a movie star, not one who is trying to cultivate for himself a career. It’s not the resume of an actor who has a master plan, for whom every role is a step toward a goal.
There is an oft-told story of Will Smith and how he moneyball’d his career. Coming off of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Six Degrees of Separation, Smith and his manager studied the then-top 10 movies of all time. They found the patterns, and in those patterns they found a road map. “We realized that 10 out of 10 had special effects,” Smith told Time magazine back in 2007. “Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story.”
Independence Day, Men in Black, and then you’re off to the races.
Or you could be a movie star the way Russell Crowe — another beefy white guy with an accent — was a movie star. Do some genre crap (Virtuosity, The Quick and the Dead), segue into critically acclaimed flicks with top-flight directors (L.A. Confidential, The Insider), get your giant swords-and-sandals blockbuster (Gladiator), and then work with directors you like on the movies they want to make for as long as you can (Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man; Ridley Scott for A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, and Robin Hood; Peter Weir for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).
Sure, it didn’t last forever for Crowe, but for a solid decade, the name Russell Crowe could get you a green light for almost anything — even a Les Miz where someone decided to let him sing.
But Butler seemed either uninterested or unable to do that. Instead, he seemed to want the career of Mel Gibson, one of Hollywood’s greatest movie stars. Problem was, Gibson came up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when Hollywood wasn’t nearly as reliant on worldwide grosses and audiences were more than willing to leave the house for romantic comedies, adult thrillers, and movies that didn’t need to be based on previously existing superheroic IP. Today, that wisdom just doesn’t hold.
So today we have Gerard Butler. It’s tempting to call him an Icarus who flew too close to the Sun. But, in reality, he’s more like Wile E. Coyote, holding on to a rocket for dear life, with no apparent idea what to do once he’s up there.
All of that said, it’s not too late for Butler to find his way. He wouldn’t be the first actor who was once all the rage to be rescued from a downward career spiral by a director looking for some of the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Shane Black (who gave new life to Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the aforementioned Crowe in The Nice Guys) is fond of doing so, and no one loves it more than Quentin Tarantino, whose films are like a who’s who of has-beens giving it their best.
But Butler has to want it. He has to say no as much as he says yes. And he needs to be willing to step out of the movie-star spotlight if he ever wants to find his way back into it.