Paradise Lost in limbo as bid to bring Milton to the big screen descends into hell

It should have been the ultimate "hell-on-earth" blockbuster, starring the "sexiest man alive" and including the most spectacular battle scenes ever seen on screen.

But a $120m adaptation of Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost has been abandoned after Hollywood belt-tightening halted the "war in heaven" before the first thunderbolt had been fired.

Bradley Cooper, People magazine's "sexiest man", signed up to play Lucifer, who battles his archangel adversary, Michael, in an "action-heavy" take on Milton's 17th-century verse. The epic would be produced by Legendary Pictures, the company behind 300, the CGI-packed fantasy film about the Battle of Thermopylae.

Casey Affleck and Rufus Sewell joined the cast of the film, directed by Alex Proyas, who took charge of the Will Smith sci-fi film I, Robot. Filmgoers were promised aerial battles the likes of which had never been seen.

However, budgetary concerns about realising Lucifer's rebellion against God and the subsequent heavenly carnage led to the announcement that shooting, due to begin at the Fox Studios in Sydney last month, had been delayed indefinitely.

Proyas is believed to have sought a 15 per cent increase on the $120m budget but was knocked back. Legendary called for script cuts to reduce the cost. Yesterday, the company announced that the plug had been pulled altogether on the ambitious project, because the intricate special effects technology was too expensive at a time when budgets are being restricted.

The actors were to have performed wearing motion-capture suits in front of "green screens" for the almost-entirely CGI film, with weapons added in post-production.

According to The Hollywood Reporter: "Legendary realised that to effectively bring to life Milton's war between heaven and hell, it was going to need Avatar-like special effects. But Avatar-like effects call for an Avatar-like budget ($237m), and execs realised the technology wasn't there to make the movie in the budget range in which they were working."

Paradise Lost now goes into Hollywood limbo, appropriately known as "development hell", where abandoned productions await a lifeline.

Warner Bros has dropped Arthur & Lancelot, a $130m "reimagining" of the Camelot myth, amid nervousness about budget increases and the pulling power of its relatively unknown leads, Kit Harington and Joel Kinnaman. Disney shut down a remake of The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp, after a dispute with producer Jerry Bruckheimer over its budget. The "tentpole film" – a film intended to generate large earnings to compensate for less profitable movies – has been rescheduled for next year after Bruckheimer trimmed $45m from the $265m total cost and, alongside Depp, agreed to defer his fees.

Over Budget: Films that ran out of funds

Divine Rapture

Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp descended on the Cork village of Ballycotton in 1995 to film a tale of miracles. Production ceased after 24 minutes when the film company's account was found to be non-existent.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Depp was also signed up for Terry Gilliam's doomed Cervantes adaptation in 2000. Floods washed away equipment and filming halted when lead, Jean Rochefort, was injured.

The Dark Tower

Ron Howard was to direct Javier Bardem in this adaptation of Stephen King's fantasy western. But Universal abandoned the project last year after its scale made it "more expensive than made sense for us to spend".

Napoleon

Stanley Kubrick's follow-up to 2001 had Jack Nicholson lined up for the lead and 50,000 soldiers from the Yugoslav and Romanian armies on call. MGM pulled the plug.

Heart of Darkness

Orson Welles seized upon Joseph Conrad's novel for his first film. He abandoned it and made Citizen Kane.

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