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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ten Things That Would Have Made ‘John Carter’ A Blockbuster

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?

Seriously?

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.

And finally

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.

71 comments:

  1. I was a faithful Burroughs reader as a teenager including the ten or so John Carter books. I'll want to watch this, for sure. Thanks for letting us know.

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    1. I think #11 should have been Bring in an iceberg!- we could have used it to kill off the emo vampires.

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  2. Honestly, I hadn't even heard of the movie until reading your post. I think a family trip to the movie theatre is in order for this weekend... The boy will like the action adventure and aliens, the hubby will like the gratuitous skin as well as the action adventure, and I'll be drawn in by the fact that it's a campy sci fi. That and I'm sure that John Carter is a hunky piece 'o flesh himself!

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    1. I'm sure that John Carter is a hunky piece 'o flesh himself!

      Well, I'm not an expert on that, but my wife assures me that Taylor Kitcsh is indeed "hunky."

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    2. Which, while it's not liklely to happen, her comments on Kitcsh should at least give you some reprieve for your comments in #1. After all, if she can look, so can you, right?

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    3. Taylor Kitsch is a hunky one...yes!

      I saw the movie last night with a friend, and we both loved it. I didn't even know what it was about until I read your blog. John Carter, indeed. That says absolutely nothing. I think I mentioned elsewhere in a reply here that I read Princess of Mars earlier this year. They sort of took all the facts, jiggled them around in a hat, and tossed them into the movie. It was fun, and 3-D gets better every time I see it.

      The trailer for the movie is pretty deceiving too. It's all battles and action, where there is really some pretty good humor in there.

      I wouldn't have gone if I hadn't read this blog, and I am very very glad I did. Thanks, Jim!

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  3. Too many critics, not enough watchers. If the critics want to watch theater, they can go see The Artist. I slept though it... twice. No, my wife does not let me forget that.

    And John Carter of Mars rocked. I've seen it three times. Guess what? I never fell asleep.

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  4. Seriously, this was the best movie experience I've had in years. I got lost in it, and that never happens. Visually, it was stunning. The struggles of the characters were engaging, and the bad guys were convincing. I loved it!

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  5. Glad to hear this. I was a teenage geek fan of the books, and want this to be good. I trust your opinion much more than the other reviewers. I know what I'm doing this weekend.

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  6. As usual the critical community acting like a bunch of self involved douchebags. We went and saw Mssr. Carter last weekend and enjoyed the hell out of it. As you have indicated, big sweeping, fun, old fashioned entertainment with a pretty high gee whiz factor.

    As to the pronunciation of doom and death for the film it seems like when they want to hate on a film thusly the film/financial community stick their heads up their backsides and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist. Guess what the US isn't even necessary for a film to score big in the world anymore. Domestic Box Office is by no means necessary and it doesn't seem like the rest of the world (who apparently still have functioning brain cells it seems) are writing old John off quite yet. I just hope that they keep supporting the film out there and let it claw back some of the numbers the film makers clearly threw at it. Alas that Disney appeared to be afraid of what they had and clearly were in the worst case scenario corporate panic mode when it came to marketing it trying desperately to *not* alienate some theoretical key demographic. Idiots!

    Meanwhile the number one film at the moment is a sophomoric remake of a bland late eighties (like it was dying for a film treatment) cop/soap opera famous for one reason only (Mr. Johnny Depp being it)? Clearly no justice in the world. Maybe they'll try a film version of 90210 next as we the sheeple are clearly desperately nostalgic for more inane high school douchebaggery at the cinema.

    Initiate teeth grinding now. It's OK, I'm not bitter. Furious, yes...bitter, no.

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    1. Hey! lay off of Johnny, he's going to be Barnabas in the Dark Shadows remake. I can't wait. As far as citics I don't even pay any attention to them or usually anyone else for what I like or don't like. After all my husband and I like Ischtar (?) and laugh our heads off every time we watch it. As for John Carter, we will definitely put it on our must see list. On another note I love this blog Jim and the other commenters. you all make my day, thanks.

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  7. Titanic, too, was a geek movie, or half of it was.

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  8. Yes. This. It's not even 1912. It's 187-something. It's a Western, for goodness sakes. I loved every second of it, too. The only thing that I didn't like is that there is a lot more Burroughs Mars material so you can't just wrap it up in one movie, and given the beating this thing is taking there probably won't be any of the planned sequels.

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  9. I've got a few days in Anchorage with the kid coming up shortly before heading out to the islands for our spring thaw out. Neither of us have ever seen a 3-D movie - so maybe we'll have to hit the theater and check John Carter out.

    I lived in Flagstaff for a few years. I loved going to the Lowell Observatory for the summer programs. Never did hear your version of Lowell's history on the tour though....

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  10. I had been a little worried about how Disney would treat this movie but you're the fourth respected opinion / positive review I've read (and by far the most entertaining) so as soon as the weekend arrives, I think I'll be going.

    I'll even pay the extra $3 to see it in 3D because everyone has said that this movie is an excellent example of how 3D should be utilized.

    On the topic of reviewers and exactly how much credence they are to be given, allow me to trot out an old story of mine...

    When I was younger, I attended the pre-opening night press screening of the movie "Legend" and sat two rows behind the movie critic from the local newspaper - so I know he saw the same movie that I did.

    (My apologies in advance; if you're not familiar with the movie 'Legend' my implied sense of WTH? might not make much sense.)

    The next day I read his review in which he wrote (I'm paraphrasing after all these years):

    "The world of Legend is populated by ugly little druids whose main pastime seems to be trying frighten the local unicorns..."

    Ummm... they were goblins from the depths of hell on a mission to kill the unicorns in order to bring eternal darkness to the world of man?

    "...a world where blizzards can come out of nowhere for no apparent reason in the middle of a beautiful spring day!"

    Yeeahhh... see... the goblins had just killed one of the last two unicorns on Earth and, in doing so, they'd upset the very balance of nature.

    I could go on in a similar vein but the end result was that, from a very early age, I've had very little faith in the validity of any professional movie reviewers opinion.

    Talented amateurs such as yourself though? Them I tend to listen to.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go check the listings page and start planning my Saturday afternoon.

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  11. I had not planned on seeing this movie, but after reading your review I will. I might even spring for 3D (my first)!

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  12. I hope it makes it to Homer. I need to see this on the large screen.

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  13. As my boyfriend enjoyed Princess of Mars on SciFi, I think we'll give this a go.

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  14. So glad to read your blog tonight. It wasn't all that long ago (this winter) that I read Princess of Mars, and I was enchanted by the whole thing. Great fun. I will definitely want to see the movie.

    Incidentally, at www.gutenberg.org, you can download thousands of old public domain classics on your Kindle if you have one. That's where I came across Burroughs' books and decided to delve in. Gutenberg is a gold mine of free downloads. I haven't picked up a "real" book in months.

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  15. For all the crowing about how much money it has lost it probably won't lose a penny and in fact will make Disney a handsome return. Domestically it bombed. But across the world, dubbed into forty different languages, screened to audiences very different from those in American suburban multiplexes: it will inexorably and inevitably haul in the millions upon millions. Disney knows that. If they are weeping, them's only crocodile tears.

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  16. John Carter was a really enjoyable movie. I'm not sure why they are declaring it a bomb, domestically it's only pulled in 57 million in 2 weeks but over seas it's already grossed 126 million for a world wide gross of 186 million. I'm sure over the next few weeks they can hit the 250 million mark and recoup the production costs. Granted it may not have been a block buster but they aren't going to loose money on this film.

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    1. I've wondered WHY they threw in the towel after the film had barely been in the theaters--less than 2 weeks! It's also doing well overseas (as you said). Not huge AVATAR numbers, but fairly well.

      And the majority of people who have seen it really, really like the film.

      The sad truth is that the long knives were out for the film before it hit the theaters; as one critic who defended the movie said, "the autopsy began before the body had even gone cold on the slab." It didn't help that the mainstream critics either had no damned clue about the film's origins as an influential novel or asked dumbass questions like "Why do the Tharks have tusks?"

      Seriously?

      Oh well...even if there will never be a sequel, I'm just glad that after 100 years, this tale made the jump to the big screen. I'm hoping to see it in the theaters one more time and I'm damned sure I'm buying it on DVD.

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  17. "...if only the universe had a bit of poetry and a twist of whimsy in its construction."

    The Universe does, Jim. Simply due to the fact that you are in it and writing such wonderful, poetic, twisted, whimsy.

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  18. I feel the same way about "The Wraith". Everything else that Charlie Sheen has done since has just been a shallow effort, signaling his steady decline and ultimate humiliation, forcing him to shill for Fiat and rub up against Catrinel Menghia! What a shitty footnote to what could have been a well served life.

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  19. The unending crapfest of human despair is my new favorite phrase, and in fact, describes my current professional situation. I think I should move to Mars. I expect Newt would buy me a ticket.

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    1. I was thinking The unending crapfest of human despair would make a good name for our band. Our first album will be "Optimism!"

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    2. The Unending Crapfest of Human Despair would also be a good subtitle for Game Change 2012, don't'cha think?

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    3. A band called Alice Donut did a good album titled "Pocketfuls of Sickness and Despair in an Otherwise Meaningless Life", I think.

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    4. Pocketfuls of Sickness and Despair in an Otherwise Meaningless Life would be good background music whilst reading a Cormac McCarthy novel.

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    5. Reminds me of my favorite quote "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" by Henry David Thoreau. It always made me feel less alone.

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  20. So I haven't seen it yet. I kinda want to, kinda don't. But I'm not sure how much impact critics really have in a movie's success.

    The noise seems to be putting the blame for John Carter's poor box office on the director, who had control over the marketing campaign. It's hard to tell how much of this is just the usual, ritualistic under-the-bus throwing that goes on during a disaster. But assuming there's any truth in the stories, the stories are that experienced Disney execs and marketing people made plenty of reasonable suggestions to Andrew Stanton about how he might market JC and Stanton went his own way, leaving the execs and marketing department facepalming with (allegedly) not much they could do about it. Not sure how much of that I buy, but I don't think there's any real doubt the John Carter promotions were lackluster and probably didn't give anyone who didn't already want to see a live-action John Carter Of Mars movie a reason to see this one.

    I also have to admit I'm not sure what anyone was thinking, giving an animation director with no live-action experience a quarter-of-a-billion dollar movie based on a century-old public domain franchise with little-or-no brand recognition outside the Science Fiction/Fantasy community, where (let's be honest) it has a divided reputation. Stanton apparently went waaaaay over budget, waaaaay over schedule--again, hard to tell how much of that is ritual bus-throwing, and it's worth mentioning that nobody really cares that Lucas had budget and schedule problems on Star Wars and Irvin Kershner went way over budget and schedule on Empire Strikes Back--after all, those movies were massive successes.

    I'd like to think I'm smarter and more creative than a Hollywood exec, but I have to think that if I were one, and someone came to me wanting to do a $200 million John Carter feature, I'd laugh--and I generally like JCM; a lower-budget TV movie, an animated feature, a kids' series--I might tell 'em that has promise, I hope they'll stay reasonably faithful to the source material. But I'm not sure the market is there for a big-budget, live-action, mass-culture feature.

    Something I feel obligated to point out is that among the geeks who rule the theatre, there's two broad camps when it comes to Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter: there's the younger crowd who have never heard of John Carter and there's the older crowd who have. And among the older crowd, there isn't a spectrum of opinion--there's an entire color wheel. There are people who think John Carter is harmless, good old-fashioned fun (I think that's where I am). There are people who think Burroughs is a retro embarrassment, a misogynistic and racist pulp writer who is a big part of the reason Science Fiction has struggled to get out of a cultural ghetto and be taken seriously, a good example of what outsiders mean when they label SF "puerile trash". There are those who think Burroughs was actually a great and underrated writer--the writer's first job being to know his audience, and Burroughs a professional master at turning out quick prose perfectly targeted at his readers--but divide over whether his plots and characters were racist and misogynist, no more racist and misogynist than anyone else in his era, or ironically and subversively progressive. There's something like 64,000 other opinions on that wheel. Which means that even among the geek crowd that's the "logical" audience for a John Carter movie, you actually don't have a coherent audience interested in the material. (I imagine there are quite a few SF geeks who rolled their eyes when they heard about this and wondered why nobody wants to make, oh, I dunno, Lucifer's Hammer or something by Arthur C. Clarke or where's that Foundation adaptation that's been in development hell for thirty or forty years?)

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    1. Oh--one last, tangential point about an exception that proves a rule: the film you mention as the exception to geek movies ruling the box office, the one about the boat and iceberg? Made by the guy who did Aliens, the first two Terminator movies and Avatar, using techniques and technology that would make any self-respecting nerd go nuts (CGI?! a 3/4 scale model of the ship? location shots of the actual shipwreck made from a deepwater submersible?! oh, yeah!). Sappy romance aside (though there may have been something wrong with my eyes near the end), it also made this Titanic geek happy just to see renditions of those mighty boilers in action, etc.

      I.e. Titanic was a geek film made by a geek, disguised as a Harlequin Romance as a clever box office ruse. You can clap yourself on the back, Jim--even your exception to the rule that we nerds rule the box office isn't an exception to the rule.

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    2. You will not like John Carter, Eric. Just saying.

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    3. I'm curious: what makes you think that? Obviously, we have different tastes in movies, yes, but there's a little overlap. And I am in the crowd on the ERB color wheel that thinks the Carter stories are harmless pulp fun notwithstanding some of the cultural issues they share with other pulps of the same era.

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    4. Well because you're the kind of guy who can't say, "Carter stories are harmless pulp fun" without qualifying it with "notwithstanding some of the cultural issues" for one thing. :)

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    5. And there's something wrong with that statement as opposed to any of the other around-64,000 statements you could make about the Carter stories? :D

      FWIW, I'd say something similar about H.P. Lovecraft, one of my favorite authors and one who has probably been an inordinate influence on me, except I guess I'd have to replace "notwithstanding some of the cultural issues" with "notwithstanding much of his work being infected with his appalling racism and woman issues."

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  21. I hate when they make a movie from any of my favourite old classics. So many get botched. Thanks for the review. I'll have to check it out now.

    You know, you could save me a lot of heartache and money if you'd do more reviews : )

    One of your fuzzy (and grateful) electronic friends,
    bd

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  22. Why didn't they call it 'Jimmy Carter of Mars'? Why no Nazis? Metal sabers? I hope they left in the rifles with 300 mile ranges. There has to be some element of reality, or the audience won't buy into it.

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  23. I have to agree that the biggest problem here was the marketing. I'm someone for whom the name "John Carter" triggers absolutely nothing, and had no damn idea that this was based on 1912 stories by ERB. I actually thought it was an adaptation of some recent tween sci-fi books (along the lines of Percy Jackson) for whom the target demo was very clearly Not Me.

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    1. My "John Carter" trigger is Noah Wylie's character on ER... My first thought, for a fraction of a second - just the smallest. fraction. of. a. nano. second. - was "WTF? Carter is going to Mars? Gamma won't like that. Wonder if Clooney is going, too..."

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  24. First, let me say up front that I have seen it (though not in IMAX or 3D as our tiny local theatre doesn't support it) and I LOVED IT. This came as a complete surprise to me.

    I went into the movie expecting to hate it. You see, I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard, Jules Verne, etc. I read so much, many of my teachers considered me retarded because while they were teaching "A,B,C" on the blackboard, I was in the back of the room avidly reading John Carter's attempt to fend off viscious Banths, or Conan battling Thoth'Amon, or Dia the huntress holding off determined dinosaurs in Pellucidar. I thrived on those old Sci-Fi classics and still carry much of them today. I discussed sword play with Steve Perry when he was writing his Conan book, I actually competed in sword fighting (live steel, rattan and boffer) throughout most of my adult life and today, I make a living making live steel swords and daggers.

    So you can understand my trepidation in a Disney produced remake of John Carter of Mars (it wasn't the first, ergo the use of the term remake even though the "original" was HORRIBLE). The marketing was less than understated so I really had no concept of what the movie would like.

    I was amazed. While it wasn't the sword and sorcery fest of the Borrough books, it captured the very essence of the story. The visuals were beyond amazing, and Dejah (who has been my fantasy woman since I was 6 years old...) was everything I imagined. I have seen this movie more than once and will see it again really soon.

    Disney is the reason this movie did not gross what it should have. The movie itself wasn't the failure. I agree that the movie will probably make a profit in the end but I lament that they will not be making sequals. I was so looking forward to meeting Thuvia...

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    1. Dang, Moorcat, that's cool! You make steel swords and daggers?! Send a link to photos of your work, please!

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    2. I have done hundreds of blades but I am redoing my website so I don't have any pics there. That said, I do now have a few on my facebook photo album and they are public so you can see them.

      http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.413480435332770.110494.100000124521530&type=3

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    3. Lovely work, I've been an historical reenactor for the past 25 yrs. your work is some of the most beautiful I've seen in that time.
      I came at Scifi and Fantasy the same way most of the people on here have through Burroughs, Lovecraft and Conan, but the writer who introduced them all to me was Michael Moorcock through his Martian trilogy, which once I read Burroughs Martian stories I realised the homage. If you havn't read Moorcock's stories I highly recommend them, especially the way they all collect together in a wonderful arc about "The Universal Hero". I believe he is now resident in your fine country with his American wife. He was also involved in some of the incarnations of the band Hawkwind, he also recorded an album in the early 70's, with members of Hawkwind, under the name, Mike Moorcock and the Deep Fixx.

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  25. Points 5 & 6 - ( ) ( ) - I'm with you. They make any movie better.

    Maybe they should try recutting this for an R rating. Very little additional outlay, and a whole nother movie for promoting. Plus, adults could go enjoy it without the rugrats messing everything up! You kids get off my lawn.

    You made me want to go see this. As SFish as I've always been, I never read Tarzan or the Mars adventures. But seeing someone else's impression of the inspiration for Deety in "Number of the Beast" (and cetera) would be worth it. You late-stage Heinlein haters might not think that's a good reason, but I don't mind. I still love everything up to and including "To Sail Beyond The Sunset".

    So thanks for the review. I've still never done a recent 3D flick. Maybe I should try it out...

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    1. Just got back from seeing it, based purely on your review. I was able to see it in IMAX 3D. That was fabulous! The 3-story screen just stopped being an expanse of white, and became my own window into the story. Very nice. Appreciate your helping get my boots on the ground and moving. The movie, 2 thumbs up. Your review, I think 4 thumbs up would be appropriate.

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    2. Thanks and glad you liked it.

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  26. I took my sons to see this. It is not easy to impress teen boys who spend hours playing video games and have seen way too much CGI. We all loved it. It was the perfect Saturday matinee experience I never thought to give them (mine was Raiders of the Lost Ark). They have said that they would watch it over and over again, if I agreed to let them. We have already decided to own it, even though it won't be quite as cool on the smaller screen. It's fine in 2D (my eyes don't work right with 3D), so if that's all that's playing near you, go see it anyway.

    Marketing killed this film. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it. Also, Jim, I agree that Lynn Collins alone is worth the price of admission. A badass scientist princess? Not even Wonder Woman was that cool, and I loved WW. And a half-dressed Taylor Kitsch is pretty easy on the eyes, too.

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  27. I saw this myself last week and absolutely loved it. Sure they changed the story a bit but the changes actually improved the story.

    I agree that changing the title was idiotic.

    The CGI was absolutely incredible, especially the stuff with the Tharks.

    One thing they could have done to put butts in the seats was get a fake controversy going over that scene where the Tharks kill all the hatchlings that were still unhatched. Then generate another fake controversy about making John Carter a Confederate soldier.

    ERB would have loved this movie.

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    1. "The CGI was absolutely incredible, especially the stuff with the Tharks."

      It certainly was. Honestly, I cannot think of any other way they could have done the Tharks. Best of all was that after a while, you stopped thinking about them as CGI effects and instead saw them as, well, actual characters (it also helped that actors like Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, among others, played the lead Tharks).

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  28. OT, the Conan remake really really stank. Not a fraction of the charm of the original.

    And it's spelled "MOAR".

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    1. You're actually going to correct my deliberate misspelling with a different misspelling, is that right?

      Wait, are you that Oatmeal guy? ;)

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    2. Thanks for posting this review. I'd forgotten it was in theaters, and might have missed the 3D had I not gotten this reminder. Ran quick like a little bunny to see it before it moved on. Totally enjoyed myself.

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  29. Jim, thanks for this. I've basically ground my teeth to the roots over my frustration at how this film--a damned great film--was unfairly mauled by the critics.

    You are dead-on about one thing--the critics who slammed the film didn't bother to do their research. O'Herir's review just proved to me that not only did he not "get" the film, he didn't even take the time to look up its literary roots! The same went for other critics who dismissed it as "pulp nonsense"; one critic even said that while the story inspired STAR WARS, the film ripped off SW.

    Yeah...right. And Speilberg's 2005 remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS ripped off INDEPENDENCE DAY. Got it.

    I enjoyed the film immensely, and they got so much right--there, up on the big screen, was the heart and soul of Burroughs' A PRINCESS OF MARS. And it seems that the audiences that saw the film liked it a lot--the majority of those, anyway. A friend who saw it and who had never read the books told me that it was one of the best films he'd seen in years.

    Finally, if it's any consolation, there were SF/Fantasy writers who really liked the film and gave it high praise--among them Peter David, and Michael Moorcock, whose Kane of Old Mars trilogy was written as an homage to Burroughs.

    Again, thanks for this one, Jim.

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    1. I saw Moorcock's review, didn't see the David. I also saw John Scalzi's usual limp-dicked non-committal non-review at Filmcritic.com. Way to promote your genre, oh president of the SFWA.

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  30. Professional film critics are failed artists, that's why they're making a living as critics. I always ignore them. I go by what my eyes and ears tell me, and the fan-made previews told me all I needed to know - I *had* to see John Carter of Mars.

    (See, I refuse to use the lame title Disney insists on.)

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  31. The Powers To Be are sabotaging it. They control the various media, even some of indie ones.

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    1. What powers and to what end? Disney is a major power in the media and entertainment industry and has $300M invested in this thing.

      I don't think anybody deliberately sabotaged the movie, but then I never attribute to malice what can be attributed to piss poor marketing, pompous over inflated professional critics, and the abject stupidity of studio executives.

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  32. I went to see John Carter last night, and really enjoyed it. It was a perfect balance of everything I loved about the books as a kid. The CGI was great. I remeber thinking that I would never see these as a motion picture because they'll never be abvle to do the four armed martians well enough, but it worked for me. I left the movie completely satisfied. My only question is when will they quit charging extra for 3D and let you reuse the glasses? Seems kind of wasteful to have this growing collection, but dammit, I paid for them - I'm not letting them have them back so they can rewrap them and charge someone else for them.

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  33. More than anything, John Carter is fun.

    Saw it this weekend- movies like this are the reason popcorn was invented!

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  34. lol...oh man where to begin. Boy when you get it wrong you REALLY really really get it wrong Jim.

    You know why John Carter is a bomb. Because it sucks! I mean it really really sucks. Reminded me of Dune in its level of suckiness. I found it hard to stay awake after the first 30minutes. It just sucks and there is no one thing. It is a huge sucking sound in absolutely everything it is trying to do.

    Hunger games on the other hand didn't suck. I didn't think I would like it like I didn't think (rightly so) I would like Twilight but I did. You don't have to be a Preen (pre-teen) or Teen to like Hunger games.

    Stick to politics Jim.

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    1. ...I didn't think I would like Twilight but I did.

      Well, then you're in luck, because entertainment based on books for 14-year angst ridden teenagers seems to be a big hit, I suspect we'll see a whole lot more of it.

      Stick to politics Jim

      I'll file that pithy suggestion right next to all the ones I get telling me to stay away from politics. Thanks.

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    2. Way to selectively edit. Should we call you O'Keefe the IV now?

      Twilight sucked. It's a stupid teen movie. I thought Hunger Games was the same deal. It wasn't.

      John Carter on the other hand. May as well call it Dune II. It bombed because it sucks. If you don't believe me believe all the people who didn't pay to see it.

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    3. Only problem is, Dune didn't suck. Dune was a beautiful and powerful effort that was absolutely top-shelf in visual effects for its time. Not Shakespeare, but faithful to the author's world and filled with memorable dramatic moments.

      Kinda like John Carter.

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    4. When speaking about Dune the movie, people should specify the theater version or the SciFi channel version. IMNSHO, the theater version was awful; it really butchered the book. The SciFi channel version was twice as long, had better actors, and really told the story faithfully and well.

      Oh yes, Anonymous: Your line about Twilight was very poorly written. It had no punctuation to indicate how you meant it and can reasonably be interpreted in two ways. You should not blame Jim for quoting you and taking your words at face value. You are simply not a very good writer.

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  35. This beats Heaven's Gate? Ishmar?

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  36. This is a great posting I have read. I like your article.

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  37. Library of America has issued a hard cover reprint of A Princess of Mars. Packaged with Tarzan of the Apes for $28.

    http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=364

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