Well, it’s official.
The Disney movie, John Carter, is a bomb.
Maybe the biggest bomb in Hollywood history. The pundits are cheerfully proclaiming it a bigger flop than the infamous Waterworld (which is a bit ironic, given that Waterworld was not, in fact, an actual flop). At the moment the movie is $200 million in the hole and unlikely to ever make back a significant fraction of that colossal loss from theater sales – though I suspect that like the aforementioned Waterworld it may eventually recoup quite a bit with the video and overseas releases and maybe even turn a profit.
And that, my fuzzy electronic friends, is a damned shame because John Carter is a terrific movie.
It’s a shame because John Carter is the kind of movie Disney should be making more of.
It’s the kind of movie old Walt himself would have loved.
Carter is a blast, it’s got everything: action, adventure, handsome heroes, evil bad guys, beautiful girls who are neither helpless nor stupid and who don’t spend the entire movie shrieking hysterically, fantastical creatures, a rollicking story, fast pacing, death ray battles and sword fights. It doesn’t lecture, it doesn’t proselytize, and it never takes itself too seriously. There’s no bad language, there’s no blood, there’s plenty of skin but no nudity, there’s the tiniest bid of smooching but there’s more sexuality in a GAP commercial. It’s a decent family movie, in the old fashioned escapism sense, a Saturday afternoon popcorn flick that you can take either your date or your kids to with equal ease – and that’s a damned rare thing nowadays.
Carter is exactly the kind of movie I go to the theater for. Hell, if it wasn’t for movies like this one, I wouldn’t go to the theater – I ‘d stay home and wait for it to come out on cable.
The movie is based on a series of stories publish in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is probably more famous among the mundanes for his better known creation, Tarzan. Carter is visually stunning, like a Frank Frazetta illustration come to life (no coincidence, since Frazetta was involved in the movie at one time). It’s utterly beautiful to watch, gorgeous even, especially on an IMAX screen in 3D – movies like this are why IMAX and 3D exist in the first place and why I cheerfully pay extra to see them. The director, Andrew Stanton, did a wonderful job bringing Burroughs’s Barsoom to life, it was exactly as I imagined it when reading The Princess of Mars all those years ago. I could have sat and watched it over and over again just for the visuals – and somewhere inside me a teenage boy was wishing for glossy full color movie posters, like the kind they used to publish in Starlog Magazine when I was a kid, to hang on my bedroom wall and dream of a Mars that never was but should have been – if only the universe had a bit of poetry and a twist of whimsy in its construction.
It’s easy to see why the movie cost so much to make, because so much of it is CGI. Now, it can certainly be argued that too much CGI can detract or even ruin a movie. CGI can become jarringly annoying and cartoonishly distracting the way it was in the widely hated Star Wars prequels. But done well, CGI can create new worlds and fantastical creatures and movies that are simply impossible to make any other way. The CGI of John Carter is incredibly well done, seamless and nearly perfect.
The story itself is simple, reluctant hero meets girl, loses girl (sort of), fights battles, defeats the baddies, saves the world, and ends up with the girl (maybe). The acting is decent and the actors themselves are likable and interesting – even the ones made from computer pixels instead of flesh.
More than anything, John Carter is fun.
I suppose that it was inevitable that the critics would hate it.
And it certainly didn’t help that Disney obviously really didn’t understand what they had. Promotion was lackluster at best. And in what has to be about the biggest faceplam moment of entire affair, Disney had Stanton change the title from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter in some kind of misguided attempt to appeal to a wider audience than just science fiction geeks. Wider audience? What wider audience? Geeks totally rule the movie theater. Look around, nerds run the world. The highest grossing, longest playing, most successful movies in the last four decades, from Star Wars to Avatar, have been science fiction movies. What? OK, there was one movie about a boat and an iceberg, you got me there, but that is one damned movie. One. Science Fiction and Fantasy movies are what people go to see and have since King Kong in the 1930’s. You have to wonder if anybody at Disney has ever even been to Comicon. Pull in the nerds and everybody else will follow.
And really, how could they miss?
After all, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs has captivated earthmen for more than a hundred years.
See, in 1877 Earth and Mars were about as close as their respective orbits ever allow.
As luck would have it, some of the very first large scale telescopes were just seeing first light then. Those instruments were small and primitive by today’s standards, but they would forever change the way we looked at the heavens, and in particular Mars.
During this time, called the Great Opposition, an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli made some of the first detailed observations of the red planet. Now modern astronomers rarely, if ever, look directly through their scopes. In fact most modern telescopes don’t even have anything resembling an eyepiece. Nowadays astronomers observe their targets through a variety of instruments and detectors far, far more sensitive than the primitive human eye. Before the advent of computers, charge coupled devices, and the internet, the telescopes fed their light to wetfilm photographic plates. But before that, way back in the dawn age of modern astronomy, astronomers spent their nights high up in their observatories, bleary bloodshot eyes squinting into a tiny viewfinder on the bottom of some huge optical instrument pointed up at the night’s sky – observing the stars and planets with the original Mark I, Mod 0 scientific instrument, the human eyeball. Back in 1877, Schiaparelli wasn’t looking at those crisply clear high resolution digitally-enhanced false-color scans you see nowadays in Scientific American and National Geographic or on the NASA space telescope webpage. He was observing Mars though a small telescope at the hundred year old Brera Observatory, built in Milan, Italy in 1764 by Jesuits, and sketching his observations with paper and pencil. Night after night during the Great Opposition he stared at the blurry red image in his eyepiece and attempted to map the surface features of Earth’s nearest neighbor. His scope was small and primitive, and his observations were often obscured by clouds and haze and earth’s turbulent atmosphere. And yet Schiaparelli persisted and he eventually published some of the very first maps of Mars. Those drawing were crude by today’s standards and not particularly accurate. Schiaparelli had only Earth to compare his observations with, so he labeled the dark areas on Mars “seas” and the lighter areas “continents” and the darker lines that he perceived here and there he called “canali.”
In Italian, canali means groove or channel – a naturally occurring geologic feature. But when translated into English, canali became canal with the obvious implication that those faint lines on Mars were made by alien intelligence.
Needless to say, the idea of intelligent Martians caused a bit of a sensation here on Earth.
Another astronomer, this time an American named Percival Lowell, was so taken by the idea that in the 1890’s he built an observatory on a mountain outside of Flagstaff, Arizona specifically to study Mars. Over time, Lowell began to believe that he was observing the last days of a dying world. He dreamed of a vast red desert crisscrossed by a great network of canals built by a once mighty civilization in order to carry Mars’ last drops of water from the polar icecaps to the desiccated equator. Lowell spent the next fifteen years peering at the red planet through his eyepiece and sketching elaborate maps of those supposed canals and oases.
There was just one problem, try as they might, other astronomers couldn’t see what Lowell saw.
They saw the seasonal variations as Mars moved along its orbit from summer to winter and back to summer, they saw the dark ‘seas’ and light ‘continents’, and they saw a few random lines here and there – but they never saw the elaborate network of waterways that Lowell had mapped (in 2003, a theory was put forward that what Lowell was actually seeing were the blood vessels in the back of his eye, reflected off the lens of his eye piece). Most of his colleagues thought Lowell was nuts but the public didn’t care, they loved the idea of Martians. Lowell’s speculations of a fading civilization struggling heroically against their slowly dying world had a tragic and poetic ring, and the idea of Mars and its supposed canals became deeply entrenched in the public mind and would persist right up until first probe from Earth flew past in 1965.
The Mars of Perceval Lowell influenced millions of people over decades of time and fired the imaginations of generations.
A lot of ordinary people believed in Lowell’s Martians. On Halloween night in 1938, Orson Welles and a Mercury Theater radio broadcast convinced a bunch of Americans that they were being invaded by those very same Martians, the incident remains famous almost a century later – how many other radio plays can say the same thing? Science fiction from the first half of the 20th Century, from Burroughs to Del Rey to Bradbury to Heinlein, gave Lowell’s Mars life and flesh and this is the world of John Carter. Not 2012, 1912. The movie is tale from the dawn of modern speculative fiction, from a time when technology had literally just taken flight and men were beginning to believe that they could do anything – even voyage to other worlds. The earth itself hadn’t even been fully mapped yet and writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs took inspiration not only from new scientific discoveries, but from the real life adventures of real men who voyaged to Antarctica and explored deepest Africa and pushed into the heart of the Amazon. Those were the things that inspired Burroughs to write John Carter and Tarzan.
One review I read (and I can’t find the link now to save my inky black soul) said that the movie’s main gimmick, i.e. Carter’s Superman-like strength while on Mars, ruined the movie. It was fairly obvious that the reviewer didn’t understand the story and didn’t care to. John Carter is told in a format unfamiliar to most people nowadays, but one that was common in 1912, i.e. the story is framed and told through the eyes and imagination of the protagonist’s hero-worshiping nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself (which is not only implicit in the format, but clearly spelled out at the end of the movie in a conversation between the characters of John Carter and Ned Burroughs). In other words, it’s a tall tale. One that might have grown a bit in the telling, particularly the storyteller’s self-described feats of strength and daring-do and his way with the ladies. This format was once common in fiction, from H.G. Well’s The Time Machine to Barry Sadler’s Casca: The Immortal Warrior. It’s a mechanism designed to let stodgy and serious minded Victorians suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy the damned story – something modern movie critics seem largely incapable of doing.
The movie was called variously “hammy” and “out-dated” and “campy.” Apparently not one of these reviewers were fans of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Conan the Barbarian – or have actually ever read Edgar Rice Burroughs for that matter.
My favorite negative review was Andrew O’Herir at Salon, who said, “if you’re willing to suspend not just disbelief but also all considerations of logic and intelligence and narrative coherence, it’s also a rip-roaring, fun adventure, fatefully balanced between high camp and boyish seriousness at almost every second...” No shit, Sherlock, you just described Star Wars and all four Indiana Jones Movies. Is John Carter for everybody? No, of course not. Is it deep? Does it make a profound statement? Will it change your life forever? No.
Is it entertaining? Is it fun? Hell yes.
Seriously, you’re sitting in a theater wearing a pair of 3D glasses with a box of Jujubes in your hand watching a movie based on a pulp scifi novel written in 1912 about a guy in a loincloth sword fighting four-armed green-skinned Martians in order to save a half-naked red-skinned princess who’s also the chief scientist of the Ninth-Ray, and you’re all pissy that there isn’t some fancy dialog about the nihilistic pessimism of fate and circumstance described in narrative ellipses and playful points of view that explores the similarities and differences between Gods and Men, East and West, sin and virtue, good and evil?
I think you might have wandered into the wrong theater by accident.
But you know what? Fine.
Perhaps Andrew Stanton and Disney could have done things differently. Here are ten changes to John Carter that would have netted high praise from moviegoers and critics alike and guaranteed at least two sequels and a short-lived TV series on Fox:
1) I’m going to be honest here, even if it gets me in trouble with the long suffering Mrs. Stonekettle, the stunning Lynn Collins in that Princess of Mars outfit was worth the entire price of admission, plus ridiculously overpriced refreshments. I think she’s awesome and a terrific actress and I wish her nothing but a long and happy career. But let’s face it, other than playing Wolverine’s double-crossing girlfriend in that last X-Men flop, nobody knows who she is. Swap her out for Kim Kardashian. Sure, Kardashian can’t act and a widescreen 3D IMAX shot of her backside would probably cause theaters to spontaneously implode all across America, but paint her red and put her in a Princess Leia bikini and have her jiggle around Helium Shore and you wouldn’t be able to sell tickets fast enough. Paris Hilton as the voice of Sola. Ice-T as the Eight-legged Martian Disney Dog. And, in a casting move sure to spark the free publicity of controversy and thereby fill theater seats with asses, former Confederate cavalry officer John Carter would be played by Wil Smith.
2) The most expensive and difficult scene in the movie was when Carter fights the white apes in the Thark arena. Move the scene to Hogwarts and replace the arena with a Quidditch match. Throw in a couple of wizards and a high school tween with round glasses played by an actor in his thirties.
3) Two words: Emo Vampires.
4) Disney renamed the movie from John Carter of Mars to just plain old John Carter. Big mistake. They should have called it The Hungry John Carter Games, then secretly started a rumor that the movie was an allegory for the final battle between liberalism and conservativism in the red communist wasteland of post 911-America. Carter’s magical transportation to Mars and back to Earth and then back to Mars is an obvious parallel to the Christian Resurrection. Then Disney should deny it all (honestly, these people really need to hire me to work the phones. What? No no no. It’s just a wholesome kid’s movie. Besides, it’s really about atheism, wait, I meant evolution… Seriously, I’d have the theaters packed for weeks. Packed with angry people, but hey their money is as green as any Thark).
(5) and (6) Tits.
7) Make the movie more “edgy” and “realistic.” E.g. John Carter and Dejah Thoris are renamed Fredo and Samantha. They have to take a magic ring to Olympus Mons and fight orcs. Along the way they meet wizards, trolls, talking trees, Magneto, and a giant spider who is also a Transformer. Also, Samantha is a gay guy who has a major crush on Fredo. Also, they’re midgets.
8) Mowr Matrix-style Bullet Time! Mowr!
9) The final climatic scene on earth should involve Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Tom Cruise) and the Therns in a battle on top of the Burj Al Arab using machinegun rocket pistols, kung-fu, bungie cords, and steam punk motorcycles. In fact, the whole movie should just be this scene, repeated over and over from various angles. With huge explosions. In Bullet Time.
10) Hire the Coen Brothers to turn the movie into a ultra-violent gore-fest with John Carter as a psychotic soulless hitman who slaughters the Tharks with an air powered captive-bolt gun and a portable leaf-chipper while roaming a post apocalyptic wasteland with his son who is also a one-eyed lawman for hire named The Dude. Tack on an incomprehensible non-ending and then claim the movie is based on an unpublished Cormac McCarthy manuscript called People Suck and Then They Kill You And it Sucks Even More And There Are Cannibals about the unending crapfest of human despair. Not only would the critics likely soil themselves in orgasmic joy, A History of Violent John Carter and the Cannibals would win the Oscar for Most Awesome Disney Family Film Ever Made.
Or you could just ignore the critics and go see the movie.
If you’ve seen the movie, you get mucho bonus points if you immediately recognized where Stanton got the design for John Carter’s mausoleum without having to look it up. I’ve stood in front of the original, I loved that little hat tip.