When I’m skimming through my Tweets to see which lead to articles worth reading, some titles jump out at me. Such as: “Why Disney Is Fighting with Redbox and Netflix Over A Film No One Wanted To See.” Yeah, you guessed it, it’s another John Carter post.
Now, I realize that it’s important for media to choose headlines that attract attention; seeing “Redbox and Netflix Jumping Disney’s 28-Day Rental Ban” is not going to snag the kind of viewership/readers that the article needs. But it’s irritating to see the film continually denigrated because, no, it wasn’t that bad. Not as bad as Prometheus, the end result of putting a cerebral horror-thriller and a psychological discourse on science in a blender: a thick paste that’s not what either side expected. No, it wasn’t Avengers good, either; it didn’t have the same marketing hype, four lead-in movies, years of viewer expectations, decades of comic fan history, and thus didn’t generate the same level of income. Small wonder.
I guess my problem is that reviewers and critics demonize the film, to an unwarranted degree. Did people call the Star Wars prequels movies that nobody wanted to see; I don’t remember. Though, while they might not be films “nobody wanted to see”—what kind of cultural reprobate wouldn’t want to see more Star Wars?—the actual real-world executions were things every good nerd wanted to un-see. (The second two films at least had some pretty action sequences; the first one had Jar Jar Binks, Ethnic Stereotype, doing slapstick in a poorly-rendered CGI battle. Meesa wanna forgetta thata, Annie.) Rather than stand up for a passable film, the film’s now a given target, something you can freely bag on without fear of another critic calling you on your decisions.
Of course, looking at the comments section, which is near-unanimous support for the film, does make me feel a bit better. (Until you see the old armchair general grognards complaining that Dejah Thoris had too much clothes on; for all the female empowerment the film tried, that kind of antiquated casual misogyny makes me weep.) I guess that’s what matters: the people who saw it are ravenous in their support. When a film “nobody saw” made $282,584,435 worldwide, despite the worst marketing campaign since the Edsel was a no-go, it becomes clear: it’s less about how many people saw it, and less about the percent of viewers who liked it, and more the fact that the hyper-inflated $250m budget and total lack of support killed the movie. And I’m not sure how that correlates to the film being “bad.”
Though, seriously, where the hell was it all: John Carter the kids meal, John Carter the action figure, John Carter the nerf gun, John Carter the bedsheets, John Carter the flamethrower… You know damn well that those awesome Barsoomian fliers in 12″ plastic form would sell like hotcakes, and who wouldn’t want a stuffed Woola?
Other than that, the article’s point—movie companies have a 28-day (4-week) delay period before their media can be uploaded to Redbox and Netflix rental centers, and both of those companies jumped the gun, allowing people to rent John Carter well in advance, irking Disney—was enlightening. (Related to the above: nobody wanted to see it, yet two companies jumped the waiting list to rent it?) Given the options for cloud streaming and easy DVD rentals, it’s obvious why DVD sales are going down; on top of which, Blu-Ray has split the market segment. I’m in the group who’d rather just stream/cloud everything instead of buying a third hard-copy media edition of, say, Jurassic Park or Independence Day. (And just think, there are people who bought into the HD-DVD thing, or Laserdiscs (which I admit I still think are kinda cool), or those little movie discs for your PSP: no matter how many media players you own, how many copies of Full Metal Jacket do you really need?)
To be honest, I think the smart, future-thinking companies would come up with deals with someone like Netflix to get their product out before it’s even in the stores, the way some record labels get albums streaming on Spotify on the same day they release as CDs. Why fight the losing battle of DVD sales when you can give Netflix the option buy expensive but exclusive streaming rights to your product for a limited time (4-6 months), saving your warehousing and distribution and other hard media costs, and do so before anyone else can get their hands on said product (be it Redbox or Best Buy)?
I’m not really sure if I should bother reviewing the film, considering everyone seems to have made up their minds before it even hit theaters.
John Carter’s fared poorly with critics, even though most of them gave mixed but somewhat positive reviews. Leonard Maltin gave a very balanced review before encouraging anyone interested to see it. Richard Corliss at Time ended with “I’m glad Stanton made John Carter; I just don’t know why he did,” after dishing out both praise and complaints (also stealing my “transcend or subvert the genre” line). There’s a legion of uninspired and unimpressed reviews, though, and a bunch of negative ones—the most critical being the one at Slant magazine, which was half review and half lengthy ad-hominum, calling the movie “a dollop of oatmealy, sick person’s poop.” (For balancing reasons, I’ll put Mark Holcomb’s glowing review for the Village Voice here.)
No, the film is not Casablanca, nor Citizen Kane. Nor is it on par with SF greats like 2001 or Blade Runner, or Avatar, a movie relative to John Carter in aesthetics, theme, and time. But oatmealy, watery poop? That’s the kind of derision I’d heap on a Star Wars prequel, or a direct-to-DVD release from some shithouse production company like Asylum—who happened to release Princess of Mars a few years ago, with the production values of the most insipid of SyFy TV movies and porn star/Juno Reactor eye-candy Traci Lords as Princess Dejah.
John Carter’s apparent sin is that its overinflated budget—$250 million, or more—only resulted in an above average, retroactively derivative, but most of all fun, blockbuster that’s failing to bust blocks. While it looks good, it doesn’t look as good as Avatar. And it’s got a long, long history of defying filmmakers, from Loony Tunes producer Bob Clampett, to Ray Harryhausen, to Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau and a half-dozen others, as a bad legacy to overcome. Add in that director Andrew Stanton worked magic on Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Wall-E, which translates to high expectations on behalf of viewers.
But the film feels like it was destined to fail. Disney’s lead-up marketing was half-hearted, starting with the decision to cut “of Mars” from the title, leaving us with the listless “John Carter” which tells the viewer nothing. Some too-little, too-late ads couldn’t make up for the lack of hype, the best of which being the ones for a Comedy Central special preview, proclaiming “John Carter / The Original Badass.” Plus, it was released well in advance of summer blockbuster season. And with its hyperinflated budget, the film needed to open to $100 million in order to spawn the franchise Disney was hoping for—a longshot given how badly the film was mis-marketed. Most of these relate back to the film’s director being brand new to live-action, and its executives being new on the job. The numbers are back in, and it broke $30.6 million in the US, charting second after The Lorax, plus $77 million overseas, leaving it the bomb critics proclaimed it as well before its release.
On the flipside. It’s been tracking very well with viewers, what few actually went to see it, and it has 70% user approval ratings at every site I’ve glanced at (Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, a B+ on CinemaScore, et al.). And that vocal minority is getting active, not just on the review aggregates but in the Blogosphere and on Twitter. With very few exceptions, the changes to the novel’s plot, and addition of elements from the second book, Gods of Mars, went over well with fans—good, because for the most part, the movie needed most of them. They leave John Carter capable but not superhuman enough to plow through each challenge undeterred (as he does a little too often in the first book), with Dejah Thoris more of a competent individual and not a lost romantic macguffin.
As for the movie itself? It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s nowhere near an outhouse joke. But it’s not the cure for cancer that its price-tag might indicate. (Of course, this is Disney; they can afford to banter around with budgets in the triple-digit millions. Why should the film’s budget matter?) The effects are fantastic, with some amazing computer wizardry powering the machine-city of Zodanga and a variety of flying contraptions, plus all sorts of motion-capture Barsoom natives. The set and equipment design is spot-on amazing, giving a strong feel of the alien world, yet staying accurate to its source material (in essence when not in literal presence). I do wish there’d been more details to differentiate the Tharks, since there’s less feeling of individualization among them compared to Avatar’s Na’vi; the motion-capture work is good, but they’re like carbon copies. It’s easier to tell the humans—err, Red Martians—apart, even under their intricate costumes, henna-like tattoos, and British accents.
Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, does an admirable job, but it’s Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris who really pulls things off. A strong supporting cast, including William Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, Dominic West, and Mark Strong, round things out: all told, there’s no complaints about the acting. Kitsch isn’t my first choice for Carter, and I’m not sure he’s the perfect actor for the job, but he gave a good show of things. His chemistry with Collins is lacking, but passable; I think her performance was strong enough to make it work.
My big complaints would be that the movie has a surfeit of introductions, some of which should have been tossed to get Carter on Mars faster—the Arizona sequences are somewhat true to the book, but more a failed attempt to generate early-film action than a useful intro; they add nothing, except a woefully underused Bryan Cranston. Second, many of the action scenes are just too short: one of the longer ones is the vaunted gladiatorial sequence shown in the trailers, which tops out around 12-15 minutes. Including some setup. That gives the film a very disjointed feel, with lengthy sections of exposition that lead to overly terse action scenes. And as a PG-13 blockbuster, it needs those action scenes long and involved for the male teen audience. Third, see my aforementioned complaints about the generalized CGI Tharks. I can also see how the film would be confusing, throwing plenty of Martian terminology and history at the viewer; it made me giddy as a fanboy, but not everyone’s familiar with the source.
I did really like the film; it’s accurate to its source material, it’s entertaining, it’s got a good sense of humor and solid enough characters backing up cool visuals and an eclectic, action-filled plot. But it just didn’t give me that mind-blown sense of wonder that I got from seeing Star Wars as a kid, or Avatar just a few years ago. (To be fair, I went into both of those with no set expectations at all, knowing nothing about them, while I’ve read Burroughs’ first novel two or three times in the past fifteen years, most recently just before the film released.) This is the kind of slightly-campy, fun adventure movie I’d shelve next to The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean.
What we’re left with is an entertaining, fun film that doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema: it’s an enjoyable SF romp that isn’t as memorable or spectacular as it should be, but isn’t the motion picture equivalent of having your teeth pulled like everyone says it is. It’s less Howard the Duck and more Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or whatever your preferential fan-favorite box-office-flop is. (I also thought John Carter was a stronger film, and truer to its source, than Disney’s previous franchise-killing flop, Prince of Persia.) It’s a niche genre film that cost too much and has a hard time appealing to those outside the SF nerd demograph. If you like no-nonsense, pulpy SF adventure, suspending your disbelief for some implausible thrills, go see it while you still can: it is worth seeing as a SF fan.
All told, this should be made of win. It’s Pixar’s first live-action movie. It’s bankrolled by the Disney Vault. It’s directed by Andrew Stanton, the mastermind behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E, who also happens to be a big damn dork and Barsoom fan. It’s one of the oldest and long-lasting works in the science fiction genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the third—and first successful—attempt to bring the novel to the big screen, a hundred years from its magazine serialization. And it’s following in the footsteps of Avatar, itself a Burroughs clone (from Cameron’s own mouth), which proved that Star Wars-style space opera isn’t dead but, in fact, technologically elite. Plus, it’s got a rockin’ orchestral version of Kashmir, and the visuals are beautiful.
And outside of science fiction nerddom—proclaimed SF geeks, turn in your piece and shield if you don’t recognize the term Barsoom—nobody’s paying attention to John Carter. Which bodes very poorly for what should be a guaranteed cash-cow. Even the extended superbowl trailer didn’t fix any of the branding problems; the lack of hype and branding is still there.
If you look at the YouTube comments section for any of the trailers, about ninety-five percent of the comments are from people wondering why Disney’s ripping off Avatar and the gladiatorial scenes from Attack of the Clones. (This echoes other news sources.) The other five percent are a handful of dedicated fanboys trying, futilely, to point out that the movie is based on a venerable cycle of pulp adventures, and that in reality John Carter‘s trying to take back the tropes it devised a century ago. Though, to be fair, having established the tropes in-print means little when the main grounds for visual comparison are films both new and similar.
I’ll admit, when I first saw “John Carter” in a list of upcoming movies, I breezed past it. About thirty seconds later the little lightbulb popped on, and digging around on IMDB I discovered, yes, it was that John Carter. Losing the Of Mars in his title, despite the reference “John Carter of Earth” in the Superbowl trailer, doesn’t help; it’s a lame, uninspired name that tells you jack shit about the movie. (What were they thinking; irking core fanboys just so little Timmy doesn’t believe Mars is populated by insect-men, red chicks, and monsters? The idea that a guy wouldn’t see that movie, with a trailer full of action and violence, just because it has “Princess” in the name is laughable.)
Even the nod to “Mister Burroughs” in the first trailer was nice, but weak; most people aren’t going to make the connection to the writer. Especially when you’re dealing with a hundred-year-old pulp hero. And given its placement in time, you can see the executive reasoning behind it: we need another science fantasy hot on the heels of Avatar, and here’s a ready-made property that has all the same awesome stuff built into it. (Not that it stopped them from adding Avatar-esque flying fight scenes in TRON:Legacy, but y’know.)
At this point, it’s getting too late to turn the ship around; I can’t imagine they’ll pump out another trailer this month which will manage to explain both the point of the movie and that it originates a large number of the genre conventions the trailers showcase. Given the film’s affluent budget, estimated in the $400-500Mn range, it’s got to set fires under critics and woo non-fanboys in order to make bank. Otherwise, it could easily become this generation’s Waterworld; given that Waterworld was actually an entertaining Mad Max-on-jetskis action romp, and was mostly despised because it cost so much, took so long, and was nothing more than Mad Max on jetskis, I think the comparison (and fear) is grounded. (Waterworld : Mad Max :: John Carter : Avatar?)
Besides, we’ll never get to Warlord of Mars if the first movie tanks it.