Log in

No account? Create an account
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2012-03-25 08:12
Subject: [movies] John Carter
Security: Public
Tags:books, culture, movies, publishing
Last night, [info]bravado111 went out and saw John Carterimdb ]. In 3D, no less.

We both liked it a lot.

This movie has a lot to love. Epic grandeur in the scenery. Planetary romance. Four-armed tharks and giant white apes. Weirdo magical quasi-steampunk technology. The awesome scenery, especially the CGI ruins. Entertaining story. Awesome costumes. The world's weirdest dog, ever. Action. Lots of action. And mostly, its flavor.

I had some quibbles. The framing tales added marginally at best to my experience of the film. A few scenes seemed lifted straight out of the Star Wars cycle, with some Mars paint splashed over them. (There was a fair amount of Aresian-tinted Ben Hur in there as well, but I didn't see that as a problem.) The baby tharks were just silly, especially contrasted with the barbaric dignity of the adults.

Really a heck of a lot of fun. It's been too many years since I've read the source material, so I can't comment on the fidelity to Burroughs in the original Klingon, but the movie didn't ring false to me.

Yet, as I understand things, John Carter is well on its way to being a box office disaster of Biblical proportions. Maybe not Heaven's Gateimdb ], but still a real stinker and possible career ender for some of the folks involved. The emerging consensus explanation for this is that the movie was apparently a victim of severe marketing malpractice. The marketing appears to have been conducted under the philosophy that it would somehow be a bad idea to tell viewers that a movie set on Mars was a genre film.


By my count, ten of the twenty top-grossing films of all time are either fantasy or science fiction. A few more of them are arguably on the list. And this is without yet including The Hunger Gamesimdb ], which has set opening records. Fantasy and science fiction dominates non-sports gaming, especially in the online category. It's well-represented on television. The genre is reasonably well represented among best selling books (Harry Potter, cough cough).

So why would a movie studio want to hide the fact that a movie about a guy on Mars fighting along four-armed green skinned aliens was, you know, maybe a wee bit fantastic?

I dunno. It sure as heck worked for me. But millions will sadly be giving this rocking piece of entertainment a miss.

Post A Comment | 15 Comments | | Flag | Link

User: a_cubed
Date: 2012-03-25 15:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've seen a number of anlyses already as to why this movie is set to be one of the biggest commercial failures ever (possibly the biggest)). The terms for that are the prices of making it versus the income from it. It's been interesting reading, and some of the analyses have addressed your issues.
First off, there's the fact that they gave a very successful animated movie director carte blanche to make a live action movie. These are very different creative modes. I'm not an expert film maker by any means, but I remember the voice-over on the first modern Mummy film, by the director and editor and their talking about their rigorous shooting schedule and the fact that they would pare every shot down to only those they were pretty certain would make the final cut. Having done that, they had the budget to do re-shoots on scenes that didn't work well and even to take an extra day at one point to do the reverses on one of the Rachel/Bredan dialogues because they'd run out of good light for Brendan's half. The director of JC apparently didn't get this kind of idea and kept re-shooting the way he would with animation because in computer animation re-shoots are pretty cheap compared with most of the other stuff. In live action they're still one of the most expensive elements.
Another reviewer pointed out something that directly addresses on of your comments that Burroughs, and the Mars books particularly were so influential in books, movies and TV of the twentieth century that much of the best action bits have already been used as sources for other works, hence your feeling that some of JC was Star Wars derivative. Shakespeare is full of cliches, because his work lasted so long and became such a standard to be copied. I'm also reminded of a cartoon of two fans in a book shop with one holding LoTR and the other saying "Don't buy that, it's a Terry Brooks rip-off."
The studio seems to have screwed up the marketing twice. First they gave the director control of the marketing, but then insisted on dropping the "Mars" from the title because "people know Mars is a desert".
The framing story was a standard device back when Burroughs was writing this kind of thing. Heck, even up to the 70s there were as many "people from our world cross over to a fantasy world" novels as there were "fantasy from the start". Sort of Lewis versus Tolkein styles. But you're right that lots of framing material set in a long ago past (remember, it was within living memory when written and read for the first time) is a mistake. Another critic pointed to how one of the few things that Jackson did that seriosuly deviated from the book was to give a decent introduction to the situation which didn't take too long.
$WIFE and I don't really get to the cinema these days. It's difficult with a 1 year old $DAUGHTER, so we catch things on DVD (when we can get a chance to watch which can also be difficult). I've emough of a fan of Burroughs myself to want to see this. Thanks for the positive review. I'll definitely check it out when it's available for home viewing.
Sorry for the lack of links to the reviews. Haven't kept them marked.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: mevennen
Date: 2012-03-25 18:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting article on the marketing - I haven't seen this, but probably will make the effort to do so. Sounds like a bit of a PR disaster, though.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

Chris McKitterick: Mars - Antoniadi's map
User: mckitterick
Date: 2012-03-29 05:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Mars - Antoniadi's map
Here's what I think went wrong: Disney doesn't care about the film and is treating it as already dead... even before it had a chance to do well. But of course it wouldn't, because fans of the series wouldn't be interested in the previews, and newcomers wouldn't see the good stuff in the previews. It's intentional, cynical mistreatment of what is a very good film. Shame on Disney.

Here's a good take on it.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

Larry Sanderson
User: lsanderson
Date: 2012-03-25 16:01 (UTC)
Subject: Marketing?
More like a power mad director/author from what I'm gathering. He had final say on the ad campaign, and his lack of experience resulted in little "perfect" material for the trailers. Of course, it's always easy to point to where the train jumped the track after the trainwreck, but lots saw this one coming.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: lil_shepherd
Date: 2012-03-25 16:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The criticisms from the mainstream that I've seen (and heard, because they included a trademark Mark Kermode rant) is a) the movie was too long b) it was confusing for those totally unfamiliar with the books and c) there was no reason to care about the characters, including a total lack of charisma from the leads.

None of these would normally kill a popcorn movie. In this case, it was the marketing, but not, apparently, the Marketing Department.
Reply | Thread | Link

Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-03-25 16:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have to agree that John Carter was uncharismatic, but I thought he was being played that way on purpose. (Whether he should have been played that way is a separate discussion.) I found Dejah entertaining and charismatic as all get out, however.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: lil_shepherd
Date: 2012-03-25 16:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I haven't seen the movie (will probably get a cheap DVD) but am following the discussion with interest.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: ulfhirtha
Date: 2012-03-25 21:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I heartily agree that Dejah was quite well done and a strong charaismatic heroine is a welcome sight in recent years.

I enjoyed it quite a lot too and concur that it is the marketing campaign that has doomed it: unless you had a clue who John Carter was in the first place, you wouldn't learn it from there, nor why you should be glad that after 95 years it finally gets a whole-hearted cinematic treatment. I have read that the director is a huge fan and seemed not to quite grok that John Carter isn't a household name like Tarzan or Dracula, as well as not having the cool shots ready for when the marketing teams needed them for teasers and so on.

(It is to be noted, of course, that if some parts seem like echoes of films like "Star Wars" or the like, that's because everyone has been heavily influenced by/ripping off "A Princess of Mars" for those 95 years. )
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: martianmooncrab
Date: 2012-03-25 17:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
havent seen the movie yet, but plan to this week if my sked works out.

Most of my fave films got bad ratings, but went on to become cult classics.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: swan_tower
Date: 2012-03-25 19:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I found it fairly weak on the story front. Had they broken from the source and made Carter a Union veteran, they could have played a theme about how he should fight for Martian freedom or something; instead they danced around the issue of his allegiance and never really gave any compelling reason for why he should care what happens on Mars. The story had very little feeling of forward momentum (okay, there's a bad guy; clearly the plot will be They Must Defeat Him, but for much of the movie, specifics in that direction were sadly lacking), I didn't really get any chemistry between Carter and Dejah Thoris, and they really flubbed an opportunity to make use of the (presumably non-canonical) involvement she had on the science side. I wanted to see her react to news of the political marriage by saying, Father, I understand, but we have to stall, because I think I'm on the verge of figuring out a way to defend our people. Then her dialogue in that scene and later ones would have been something other than "insert stock trope of princess surprised by notion of political marriage; runs away."

But yes, the marketing was also a disaster. When we got together for our Oscar party and a JC spot came up during an ad break, one of my friends -- a dyed-in-the-wool SF/F geek now working for NASA -- said she had no idea what the movie was about, and was deeply startled to find out it takes place on Mars.

She should have been smack in the middle of their target audience. Instead, they missed her entirely.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: cathshaffer
Date: 2012-03-25 22:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The article reflects my impressions of the marketing failure exactly. I saw the trailer, and was like, "Who the heck is John Carter?" I did not have a fire lit under me to see it. I didn't even recognize it as science fiction, necessarily.

Then, I got to the movie, and was about 45 minutes into it before I realized, "OH. This is A Princess of Mars. Why didn't they say so?"

However, I also agree it fell down hard on the story side, and I think that may be in large part Burroughs' fault. It's been a while since I've read the book, but I think the concept in itself may be too racist and sexist to be rehabilitated. Or, if so, not by three white male screenwriters.

I am more sensitive to the sexism, and my reaction was that although I was glad Dejah was a more active character, I was very annoyed that she abandoned her science plan just because they short-circuited her device. What kind of person gives up on something that important because of an electrical short? Instead, she decides that this strange guy is going to save the world because he can jump really high, and then all of her efforts go into tricking and manipulating him into doing that.

Burroughs' screwed up A Princess of Mars by making the title character a passive piece of stereotyped cardboard. But this new iteration doesn't actually FIX that.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: swan_tower
Date: 2012-03-26 00:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't think it's impossible for three male screenwriters to fix the -isms (my impression is they went some distance in that direction already), but to really rehabilitate the story for twenty-first century audiences, they would need to be more willing to break the original shape open and change things. Stanton does not sound like the right guy to do that, in this case.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: cathshaffer
Date: 2012-03-26 00:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, he was trying hard to stay faithful to the original.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: voidampersand
Date: 2012-03-26 03:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Much as I liked it, the movie needs more focus. It cleverly explains things that just didn't need to be explained. How did John Carter get to Mars? Who cares? The wonder of Barsoom is its inexplicable weirdness. Explaining kills it. It makes me want to put a "Keep Barsoom Weird" bumper sticker on my pickup truck (if I had a pickup truck).

As someone said, "focus is about saying no." They could have saved a ton of money by saying "no, we're not going to spend time and money and film minutes explaining that." Sadly that someone is no longer around to tell them to keep trying until they get it fucking right.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2012-03-26 13:04 (UTC)
Subject: JC
The studio heads who were involved and approved the project apparently did not survive a shakeup at Disney, leaving the film orphaned and Stanton in the position of having to fight (probably) for what had originally been agreed to and supported by higher ups.

Overall, the film came across to me much like Zombieland did; three themes competing for attention with the result that none was properly focused on.

The great thing about the novel is precisely the fact that JC was cardboard; no remembered history, doesn't even know his own age - but he does know that he has always been a fighting man, trying to do the right and honorable thing - always. The lack of definition of the lead is, I believe, the very thing that let so many (young) readers fall for Barsoom. YOU, the reader, were John Carter.

By attaching a hokey back story to the character in the movie, we do begin to ask ourselves questions like "why does he care?"; he's been trying to kill himself slowly on Earth, no reason he shouldn't continue the same on Mars.

The Holy Thern stuff (why they thought it necessary to interject interplanetary boojums is beyond me) completely confused the story line and wasted screen time that could have been better spent showing us more Barsoomian wonders.

It also seemed, to me, as if the film came across as all taking place within a single day.

Yes, I agree with another here who felt that the character of Dejah was at odds with her actions and dialogue. If she's so smart and influential, and female superhero stand-in, there is no way she'd have even contemplated the forced marriage, let alone been in a position to have to 'run away' to avoid it. (How does running away solve the Zodangan-Helium civil war problem? Seems to me it would guarantee a continuation.)

I'll also note that a lot of folks who enjoyed the film (which I obviously did not - honestly had trouble keeping my eyes open from about halfway through) point to the 'bad marketing' as the reason for the film's box office failure. I don't think that's the case.

IF JC was, in fact, the phenom blockbuster it was intended to be, word of mouth would have largely corrected the marketing and critical pans. As it is, attendance fell off by more than 55% after the opening weekend. The overseas showing is a bit skewed as well, as the film was released into a relatively large number of screens initially. But if you look at the individual screen take, the overseas average is less than half of what the US average was - $3500 versus $8500.

Far be it for me to tell someone what they should and shouldn't like in the theater, but I do think that it is pretty clear that, for whatever reason, JC did not come across as a worthwhile movie for the vast majority of film watchers. Genrephiles and fanboys - and even lovers of cinematic spectacle - aside, it was doomed from the beginning given the choice of directors, the number of rewrites and reshoots and yes, a lack of marketing support from the studio.

Which might have actually been a good move on their part, not being willing to throw good money after bad.
Reply | Thread | Link

my journal
January 2014
2012 appearances