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.