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Book Review: Underexposed! The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made Presents Fascinating Alternate History

Joshua Hull’s Underexposed! The 50 Greatest Movies Never Made, available today, is a wonderful peek into a movie history that never actually happened, detailing productions that fell apart at various stages in the Hollywood pipeline. Some of these are well-known studies in what could have been, while others have been less discussed on Film Twitter and other corners of movie fandom. Everyone knows that Guillermo del Toro was going to adapt At the Mountains of Madness, Neill Blomkamp was attached to “Alien 5,” and that George Miller almost made his own “Justice League.” And, of course, the story of Jerry Lewis and “The Day the Clown Cried” (a movie that actually breaks the rules a bit in that it was made and then buried, but I’ll allow it) is incredibly well-known. But have you heard of John Carpenter’s “Shadow Company”? What about David Fincher’s “Ness”? Did you know Peter Jackson almost directed the fifth “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie, which would have been called “The Dream Lover,” and which sounds fascinating? 50 such films are analyzed through Hull’s witty, accessible style, and each entry includes incredible original art in the form of a poster for a movie that never was. They should sell these. I might hang a “Ness” poster on my wall just to confuse visitors into thinking there’s a David Fincher movie they never saw.

In relatively brief entries that run about 3-4 pages each, Hull speeds through the development, production, and collapse of 50 films that were never made. He sometimes spends a bit too much time on well-known background details like the history of well-known films like “Alien” and “Gladiator,” for example, but it makes for a volume that really anyone could pick up and read. It’s not too dense for casual film fans, but also has enough unknown details for the serious ones. Each entry is pretty simply structured with four kind of self-explanatory sections: ‘Fade In,’ ‘Flashback,’ ‘Action!,’ and ‘Cut!’ The first section is the aforementioned background; the second the pre-production on films like Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Unchained,” for example; the third how production went; the fourth where it all fell apart.

As you might imagine, Underexposed is rich with trivia. For example, Schumacher’s third Batman film was to include a sequence that brought back previous villains from the franchise, including Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Just imagine. Of course, that fell apart after “Batman & Robin” stunk up theaters around the world, which becomes a fascinating throughline in Underexposed in that a lot of these movies were derailed by the failure of other projects. If more people had seen “Chappie” and “Zodiac,” Blomkamp probably would have made “Alien 5” and Fincher would have been given the budget for “Ness,” an Elliott Ness project based on the graphic novel Torso that was to star Matt Damon, Rachel McAdams, and Casey Affleck. (That one is probably only second on my dream project list in this book to Carpenter’s “Shadow Company,” which would have reunited the director with Kurt Russell in a story of zombie Vietnam vets terrorizing a small town. Instead, we got “Memoirs of an Invisible Man.” I hate this timeline.)

Taken as a whole, the 50 projects in Underexposed! also reveal how a production can fall apart at any time. There are a few films in here that never really got past the dream stage, alive only in discussions and pre-production, while others were actually in front of cameras when someone pulled the plug—and, in the case of Jerry’s Holocaust Clown movie, much further. The trivia and imaginary what-ifs make Underexposed! incredibly fun (and the artwork is worth a pick-up on its own), but it’s also a reminder of how hard it is to get a movie made when even legendary names like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Peter Jackson are ending up in a book like this one. Until it's actually playing for an audience, any project could end up in a book like Underexposed!

Get a copy here.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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