We often hear that certain movies are ahead of their time because of technical or formal innovations, and manage to inspire lasting changes in the way movies are made from that point on, like Citizen Kane, Psycho, and 2001. But what about movies that are made out of time? By that, I mean movies that, while not radically different from their contemporaries in terms of style or storytelling, often feel as if they belong to a later period of filmmaking, though it's not even particularly clear that they had any kind of lasting influence, having fallen into relative obscurity over the years. They're trapped, like a certain anthropomorphic waterfowl, in a world they never made, out of memory and out of time, but seen today they seem to belong at least partially to other eras and sensibilities.

One example is the 1988 version of The Blob, directed by Chuck Russell and written by Frank Darabont. While technically a remake of the 1958 horror/SF classic starring Steve McQueen, there's nothing remotely nostalgic about it. The protagonist, played by Shawnee Smith, is a cheerleader who's forced to become an action heroine after the eponymous creature devours her clean-cut jock boyfriend, and has to join forces with its resident juvenile delinquent (Kevin Dillon) in order to save her hometown. Things get complicated when they discover that the Blob isn't an alien at all, but a government experiment gone awry that fell to Earth in a malfunctioning satellite. Once the good guys understand that the military would rather let the Blob eat the town than destroy a potential superweapon (remember, this was the tail end of the Cold War), they realize that they have to defeat both in order to survive.

So you've got a proto-Whedon heroine, plus pre-X-Files anti-government paranoia, at a time when kick-ass female leads (besides Ripley) and conspiracy narratives were at an all-time low. The influence of Stephen King is pretty strong on Darabont, as you'd expect from the future director of Shawshank Redemption and The Mist (Dillon's character is even named Flagg). But barring the occasional haircut, the movie often feels as if it could have been made around 1996 or so. Even the photography has a gloomy, grunge rock video aesthetic that feels decidedly non-'80s. (The cinematographer Mark Irwin would later shoot that most '90s of slasher films, Wes Craven's Scream.) The Blob wasn't a hit, and to the best of my knowledge it doesn't even have a substantial cult following, despite some spectacular gross-out makeup effects and a clever screenplay that spoofs the dumb slasher film cliches of the era. It feels as if it could have simply fallen backwards in time from a more paranoid, irony-soaked era. (It's hard to imagine the recently announced remake having quite the same vibe.)


Another example is 1999's Mystery Men, an adaptation of Bob Burden's comic book, itself a spinoff of his long-running Flaming Carrot series. Directed by music video vet Kinka Usher, it looks a lot like the comic book movies of the period, with cartoony CGI and a glossy/gritty production design reminiscent of Judge Dredd and the Schumacher Bat-films. But while the aesthetic is unmistakably late '90s, the story is straight out of post-Silver Age Marvel and DC comics. It's a parody of superhero team origin stories, featuring a rag-tag team of champions who join forces in order to defeat an enemy who's too powerful for any one of them to defeat on his or her own, not unlike the Avengers or the X-Men. The script, by Burden and Neil Cuthbert, riffs heavily on time-worn superhero cliches: There's Mr. Furious, a tough, short-tempered loner, (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler, an idealistic leader (William H. Macy), and The Bowler, a vigilante who's assumed the identity of her late father (Janeane Garofalo). There's even some Alan Moore-like deconstruction with the character of Captain Amazing, a beloved Superman-like figure who finances his crimefighting activities with corporate sponsors and is secretly in cahoots with Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), the supervillain who wants to take over the city.

Mystery Men flopped at the box office, despite some positive reviews and a stellar cast; to date, it's Kinka Usher's only feature-length film. The main problem was that most moviegoers had no frame of reference. Remember that in 1999, there hadn't even been any big-budget superhero team movies. X-Men was a year away, and adaptations of Fantastic Four, Watchmen, and The Avengers were even further in the future. Mystery Men was playing off on a type of comic book narrative that fans knew by heart but most audiences were completely unfamiliar with. It perfectly recreates the group dynamics of team origin stories: the tension, the bickering, and the inevitable dissolution and reunion before the showdown with the bad guys. But most moviegoers didn't understand what was being parodied, and just saw a bunch of character actors in wacky outfits yelling at each other. They wouldn't have noticed how much Stiller's Furious was reminiscent of Wolverine, or that Rush's villain was a play on bad guys like Magneto or Doctor Doom.


A similar fate happened to M. Night Shyamalan's 2000 film Unbreakable, which, like Mystery Men, is a riff on superhero origin stories. Bruce Willis's David Dunn discovers his powers, encounters a mentor figure who teaches him how to use them, realizes his hidden weaknesses, and comes face-to-face with his archnemesis for the first time. (He even has an alliterative Silver Age name, like Peter Parker.) But the movie ironizes his origins by making David a middle-aged father and husband with a dead-end career and a troubled marriage, rather than a naive teenager. The setting is a gray, wintry Philadelphia, rather than New York or a fictional city like Metropolis or Gotham. David's "costume" is a rain slicker, and his enemies are not supervillains, but thieves, skinheads, and a nasty murderer-rapist. His mentor, Elijah (Samuel Jackson) is a comic book shop owner who uses classic comics as object lessons as to how David is supposed to act and behave, though the mundane reality of life in urban America repudiates the fantasy, as does the failure of most people to recognize the artistic worth of comics. Even the climactic revelation of the identity of David's true adversary is a subversion of comic book conventions.


The movie did considerably better than Mystery Men, but the general reaction on the part of the public and critics was a collective shrug. Most of them were expecting another urban horror blockbuster along the lines of The Sixth Sense, not an updating of traditional superhero stories โ€” indeed, nothing in the advertising suggested that Willis was playing a superhero. At that point, superheroes weren't even a sure thing โ€” X-Men had done reasonably well, but wasn't a massive blockbuster. The sorts of movies with the same kinds of origin stories that Shyamalan riffed on, like Spider-Man and Batman Begins, among many others, were still in the future. Superman was already more than twenty years in the past, and Tim Burton's Batman didn't even have an origin story (neither, for that matter, did X-Men). Comic book fans loved Unbreakable โ€” Alex Ross even painted the DVD cover โ€” but everyone else felt left out. They lacked the wherewithal to understand the tropes that Shyamalan was riffing on, like the dark twist that closes the movie. In order to appreciate his artistic subversion, they had to understand what was being subverted in the first place. You can't foil expectations if the audience didn't know what to expect in the first place โ€” especially if they were expecting an entirely different genre of movie. Nowadays it might actually be ready for that sequel Shyamalan keeps hinting at.

There are some other "out of time" movies I can think of โ€” the great, underappreciated Zero Effect (1998) anticipated the "smartest man in the room" mystery subgenre by close to a decade โ€” but nothing else comes to mind right now. The clearest example is probably The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension (1984), which kind of feels like some of the MCU movies (sans the universe), but it's still one of its kind, unless we get a Casanova: Luxuria adaptation that spawns a bunch of imitations. What'd I miss?