The Paradox of the Unwatchable Films List

Every so often mathematics or philosophy collides with culture. I was thinking a while ago about the few truly unwatchable movies I have seen, and yes, compiling a list. Then it struck me that such a list is in fact a Russell paradox, since if it only contains truly unwatchable films, noone would have ever watched said films to know whether they were in fact really unwatchable or not… you get the idea.

Now, I hear the astute among you saying, ah, but if films were really really truly unwatchable, noone would have ever gotten through them, and only those films should go on the list. Sorry. Not good enough. I want to know that there is not some hidden redemption buried in the end of the film, even if only 30 seconds long, that just saves the film. Someone needs to watch films all the way through to be sure of their genuine claim to unwatchability.

Criteria for unwatchability

Now, there are lots of ‘bad’ / ‘unwatchable’ etc films lists out there. But most of them concentrate on badness rather than true unwatchability.The first part of my quest here is: criteria for unwatchability. My ideas so far, below (I await your input):

  • you feel like you really want to be somewhere else for at least 50% of the film. E.g. in bed and/or doing your tax return (if it’s both, you are watching a world class brain deadener, and you should seriously consider either hospital or a pub crawl after leaving the cinema.)
  • by the half way mark you know that there is no hope whatever of the film redeeming itself in any way by the end. You just know it. It’s the feeling not just of being on death row, but of already having the noose around your neck while teetering on the edge of a chair to which is tied a juicy steak, and watching a large, hungry dog racing toward you…
  • there is no substance which you can think of taking that would make any difference. Pick anything you like, from £1000/bottle cognac to LSD to crack cocaine. In one of these films, you know there is no point, and that if you had your tumbler / wine glass / joint / line in your pocket, you would not reach for it because it would be a waste.

There are also two additional requirements:

  • Destroyed Expectations: the film has the pretension to be a ‘real’ film. The unwatchableness has to come out of left field: we have to feel beforehand that there was some merit in the film, some slight promise, some expectation of quality, however tiny, for someone, if not you. The truly unwatchable film wll destroy those expectations with the force of an aircraft carrier full of black plague grounding itself on a family beach during a 5 year old’s birthday barbecue with everyone there…
  • No Appeal to Technical Incompetence: obviously there are various B and C and Z grade films made by semi-professionals and amateurs that are simply unwatchable due to being incompetently made by people who have no clue of the language of cinema (not even Arnie action films). Here we are only interested in films made by technically competent people, with real budgets, that are still unwatchable, because that’s got to be art.

A View from an Industry Veteran

Brendal McCaul, friend & family, and also a veteran with 51 years in movie distribution in Ireland/UK has a story of awfulness that just goes to show unwatchability ain’t new:

After 51 years in movie distribution my stand-out unforgetably bad movie was called “The Angel and the Trumpet” a black and white costume piece circa late forties/early 50’s – British of course. And why you might ask did I think it so bad – well, it was slow and boring to the point of tedium and the audience stood up on at least two occasions thinking it was over but wasn’t – they booed on the 2nd occasion with disappointment. When it eventually finished they clapped – Gods truth.  The bad unwatchable films nominated [below] are classics compared to this.

This gives us a new unwatchability criterion:

  • the audience gets up to leave at least once, thinking (hoping?) the film is already over…. but it’s not.

Examples of Unwatchable Films

I don’t actually have a lot of experience in the unwatchable film business. But two films do come to mind. First, George Lucas’s 4th Star Wars instalment, i.e. Episode 1: the Phantom Menace (Ep1PM). Obviously this satisfies the ‘technical competence’ requirement, and arguably the ‘destroyed expectations’ one as well (although looking back at Lucas’s output over the years… hmmm). Anyway, Ep1PM I found mawkish, syrupy in a way that would engender envy in a soft drink factory, and worst of all, its many great actors seemed to have been instructed (a la comedy theatre) to deliver their lines ‘in the manner of an elevator voice synthesiser’. I felt particularly bad for Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson. I did actually stop watching this film (DVD or TV I think) about 50% of the way through, so it definitely gets on my unwatchable list. (I had to interrogate others to be sure there were no good bits lurking after the points where I gave up. There aren’t.)

The other example is more recent: any of the ‘Twilight’ series films. I was … let’s say convinced (while under the influence) by very close friends to watch one instalment. It may have even been more than one, because I do remember my incredulity that there might be another film equally or more awful than the first one, and I think I may have lasted some 30 minutes into number 2, with the sort of expression on my face one researves for a train wreck performance on a teen talent show. These films are so repulsive in every aspect – a real achievement given all their sexy young teenager stars – it is hard to know where to start. So I won’t, other than to say: nothing actually happens. At all. I did actually find myself drifting to thoughts of doing a tax return during these films, which obviously nails it.

These are my two. Part two of my quest is for you to help me build a list of veritable neuron-destroying, anaesthetising films.

Unwatchable versus Bad

Unwatchable is not the same as bad. I thought Thor was pretty bad, (see here for the reasons), but I have to admit I didn’t get to the point of walking out, and on the redeemability criterion, I was hoping for some final acting flourishes from Hopkins et al by the end which did not go completely unaddressed. Even the worst of the Rambo genre is not completely and utterly unwatchable. I know it’s hard to find much redeeming in such films, but the unintended comedy button is usually pressed pretty hard, and with enough wine under the belt, and NO OTHER DVDs available, they might be ok. Alright, for me, personally, that’s not true, I would just play my guitar in the dark or listen to a mediaeval chorale. But if I could not do those things, and wasn’t in the mood to contemplate life, and I had had a terrible day working at the NHS, then just maybe…

There are other bad films, almost without exception from the US, in what I would call the Police Academy #7 genre. They don’t make the list, because there can be no expectations for them at the outset. You know you are going into the cinema to see a putrid waste of celluloid (disk space, these days), and you actually get some satisfaction when it delivers the truckload of wet dung on your lawn, as expected. I don’t do this myself, obviously. And I know you don’t either. But there are people out there.

So, dear friends. I need help. Please comment below with either or both of your input to the unwatchability criteria list and the actual list of unwatchable films.

Candidates for the List

Here we go…

  • Dr T and the Women – dir. Robert Altman
  • Australia – dir. Baz Luhrman
  • Alexander – dir. Oliver Stone
  • Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – George Lucas
  • the Twilight films – dir. who cares
  • The Last Airbender ($150m) – dir. M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan

13 thoughts on “The Paradox of the Unwatchable Films List

  1. The worst kind of movies, IMO, are the ones that are supposed to be brilliant and one can’t hear the end of it and, then, when you go see it, it’s utter shit. I don’t really care about the ones that are clearly just for entertainment and making money, because you know what you are getting, but when there’s a lot of hype and all your snobby artsy friends are telling you that you must absolutely see it and when you finally see it all you can think is “What the hell?”, something is wrong. And, to make thing worse, if you mention that you hated it, you still have to hear how you just didn’t get it. Oh well.

    I think, for example, that Gus Van Sant is overrated, I can’t stand most of his movies (don’t ask me about the recent ones, I refuse to watch anything by him after Paranoid Park). Paranoid Park was not just unwatchable, it was soul-crushing. Then there is “Dr. T and The Women” by Robert Altman, I was a bit younger when I watched it, but I remember it was AWFUL, just awful. And more recently, Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold, it seemed to drag on for centuries, it was the middle of the afternoon and I had slept well, but this movie made me feel like I had taken 3 sleeping pills.


    • Somehow I missed ‘Dr T and the Women’ completely. A quick meta-review confirms to me that you are onto something here. A really bad Altman film (pret-a-porter springs to mind) seriously ticks the ‘destroyed expectations’ and ‘technical competency’ boxes. Nice one. I think this might make the list.


  2. I can tell you one film which ticks all your ‘unwatchable’ checklist and I regard as the WORST film EVER made. Big call I know. There are a lot of bad films around but my claim that this is the worst is as such –
    1) The huge amount of money pissed away (150mill);
    2) the complete lack of intelligent narrative structure;
    3) the less than wooden acting technique employed by the actors and director;
    4) the incredibly dodgy visual effects for a film of this budget;
    5) the elongated, predictable and dull storyline;
    6) the use of caricatures rather than characters of all the cast;
    7) the exploitation of a young indigenous child who was given expectations of stardom when the film came out but who was then disregarded by the filmmaker after the film’s release was over (he’s now living poverty stricken in a camp never having acted again);
    8) a cliche ridden script which mythologised ( and even made fun of in a snide way) the Outback of Australia and WW2 into a highly camp soap opera – all very bourgeoise;
    9) the complete lack of relevant, cognitive themes
    10) the excruciatingly long running time of the film for the quality of entertainment provided (3+ hours)
    11) and many, many more

    Now, as stated before, while there are a lot of other films that are actually badly made, the makers of those films didn’t have anywhere near as much money or access to ‘A-list’ talent as this film had. It is the complete waste of the massive amount of money and talent that makes this the worst film EVER made. The film?

    “AUSTRALIA” – Baz Lurman

    And I wait with baited breath for his next film “THE GREAT GATSBY” – in 3D!!!!


    • I must admit, Australia did come close for me too, although I did stick with it on the basis of possible late redemption but that never came. All in all though I think it may be a marginal entry – great cinematography in parts, after all. Its just that we Aussies feel hurt that our true horse-wrangling outback toughness was not properly portrayed. I can see however that in the lecture theatre, this film would certainly be great fodder for your students.

      This makes me think of another film though, also ticking the same boxes: Alexander – the Oliver Stone one with Colin Farrell. WTF? Rotten Tomatoes gives it 1 star. ‘Nuff said.


  3. Well, a list of ‘unwatchable films’ is a funny concept. I tend to just forget truly bad films although probably the worst one I have ever seen is the 50s classic ‘Monkey Business’ with those two very well known actors what’s-his-name and what’s-her-name. It was all about loss of childhood, time travel and…well, who the hell knows?

    But the film that comes to mind as being ‘unwatchable’ or more so ‘relly hard to watch'(I suppose that’s another genre so I’m steering the discussion away on a tangent) was ‘Requiem for a Dream’ with Jennifer Connolly. It was simply too depressing and too real and I thought sad/abusive to see my favourite actress in that role.


  4. Pingback: And now the cine-bad: the Unwatchable Films List « Woland's cat

    • Well picked – this seems to tick all the boxes nicely. Rotten tomatoes page summarises nicely. I think it’s going on the list. $150m?!?!?!


  5. Sparkes is gonna lose his bottle here, but I’m afraid David Lynch’s “Wild At Heart” completely hits it for me.

    I saw it at the Schonell. And aside from a couple moments of Nick Cage over-acting beyond all possible conception, and maybe a bit of Isabella Rosellini staggering about the place, I remember only an abiding pain, like unto a really bad toothache. I remember dialogue that was at once cliched and painful, and simultaneously absolutely irrelevant. I remember cinematography that existed purely to satisfy the director’s desire to employ a cinematographer.

    And I remember the plot. Or rather, I don’t. I remember thinking that it was an appalling, contrived, meaningless piece of excrement. And I remember wishing like hell I could have that five hours of my life back… which is all the more impressive when you realise the film is only about two hours long.

    Fuck. That. Shit.

    Lynch has done some funky, fucked-up shit in his time, but he gets a pass for vision, and for kooky atmospherics. But “Wild At Heart”? Shit. I’d rather PAY to see Star Wars Episode 1 back to back with Avatar than subject myself to that again.


  6. It isn’t just the US film industry which cranks out uninspired sequels in an effort to create a low-risk/predictable financial reward franchise. Any country with a significant movies industry, including Bollywood, Hong Kong martial arts films, Japanese monster movies from bygone eras (remember Godzilla v. Mothra/Smog Monster/ the Tea Party/etc. etc.), has fallen into this trap.

    That said, pretty good chance that any movie staring Nick Cage (excepting Raising Arizona) is worthy of consideration as un-watchable.

    Other criteria would include any movie with an animal/child co-star that is written to be smarter than the rest of the cast (Ed, Howard the Duck, Spy Kids), caveman movies, any monster movie with > 1 monster in it (Van Helsing anyone) and movies based on a game/toy (Dungeons and Dragons, Street Fighter, Transformers–all of them) all should be good sources of criteria to define the genera where you walk out of the movie and start doing shots of cheap liquor just to punish yourself for seeing it in the first place.


    • Point taken, I had not considered the sequel side of Bollywood etc. Maybe you should not know so much about it either 😉

      More seriously, Nick Cage is on my ‘automatic don’t watch this movie’ list as well… everything he is in is just appalling these days. I like some of the other criteria as well – the >1 monster one is one with promise. I recognise Van Helsing as a crap movie, but on the other hand, managed to watch it twice when totally bored on long-haul flights. But I think it does actually come close to the original rule of: you know its dead in the water by half-way. Also, there was a predator/alien movie. I did not see it, but I heard of the brain damage done to those who did…

      Re: shots of cheap liquor afterward, I prefer to think of it as more of an anaestethic to alleviate injuries sustained… lastly I would not, under any circumstances watch any Transformers movie, and I know you wouldn’t either :->


      • No way dudes. Sure Cage has done some execrable shit, but I can think of at least 4 of his films which were pretty awesome – “Vampire’s Kiss”, “Raising Arizona”, “Adaptation” and “Leaving Las Vegas”. And honourable mention – “Red Rock West”, “8mm”, “Lord of War” and “The Weather Man”. Hey, even “The Rock” was a bit of fun and “Windtalkers” had some good battle scenes. I think that maybe those make up for ghastly turds like “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, “National Treasure” and “Con Air”.

        And as for Burch, sure “Wild at Heart” is not another “Blue Velvet” – Lynch was always going to have trouble following up that film, but there are some great moments in it, like the car crash scene and the robbery scene. It loses it’s way at the end there, for sure, but the worst film? Nahhh, yo crazy!


  7. Battlefield Earth (budget 73 million): This movie is the worst of the worst (literally, its even referred as one of the worst movies of all time). The story is based on a novel from L. Ron Hubbard which is the founder of the Scientology Church.


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