It was meant to be a blockbuster adventure that would thrill audiences with its swashbuckling action and romance. But Cutthroat Island, which hit cinemas 25 years ago, turned out to be a disaster that sank without a trace and took down a Hollywood studio with it.
The 1995 film, directed by Renny Harlin and starring his then-wife Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time, with a budget of $92-98 million. But it only managed to scrape together $10 million at the box office, making it the biggest flop in history.
The film also spelled the end for Carolco Pictures, one of its production companies, which had previously churned out hits like Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct. The company went bankrupt shortly after the film’s release and was sold off to other studios. Cutthroat Island is still listed in the Guinness World Records as the biggest box-office bomb of all time.
The film tells the story of Morgan Adams, a female pirate who inherits a piece of a map to a treasure island from her father. She teams up with William Shaw, a thief and Latin scholar, to find the treasure before her evil uncle Dawg Brown does.
But the film was savaged by critics for its weak script, poor acting and lack of chemistry between Davis and Modine. Scott Mendelson, a film critic for Forbes, wrote: “It’s no masterpiece or action classic, but it’s a huge-scaled, impressively practical and unpretentious bit of over-the-top Hollywood junk food.”
He added: “The whole thing plays like a sloppy first draft for both Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and The Mummy.”
The film’s failure put off Hollywood from making pirate-themed films until 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which revived the genre and spawned a successful franchise.
Cutthroat Island also had a devastating impact on the careers of its stars and director. Davis, who had won an Oscar for The Accidental Tourist and starred in hits like Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own, saw her career decline after Cutthroat Island. She later said: “I was in huge trouble after that movie. I couldn’t get any jobs.”
Harlin, who had directed blockbusters like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, also faced difficulties in finding work. He divorced Davis in 1998 and went on to make films like Deep Blue Sea and The Legend of Hercules.
Modine, who had appeared in films like Full Metal Jacket and Birdy, said he regretted doing Cutthroat Island. He said: “It was a terrible experience. I didn’t want to do it from the beginning.”
Cutthroat Island is now streaming on Amazon Prime, where curious viewers can watch it and judge for themselves whether it deserves to be rediscovered or buried at sea.