I saw JOHN CARTER this weekend, though I probably could have written this column without seeing it. What I’m interested in here is why the media has written the movie off as a bomb.
You’d think a movie like JOHN CARTER might be a no-brainer blockbuster, but the marketplace has changed since the 1990s. There’s a sense that the internet and video games have fractured pop culture, that less and less people are going out to the cinema to see a movie, and that Hollywood is getting more and more clueless about what kinds of movies audiences actually want to see. I never got the impression this was a movie audiences want to see and Disney’s marketing department has done a piss-poor job of persuading them that it might be.
Your average punter isn’t going to care that A PRINCESS OF MARS was pretty much the first Planetary Romance, a term coined before anyone ever heard of “Science Fiction”. As a popular potboiler read by everyone in its day, it was the Rosetta Stone of the Science Fiction and pulp genres for the next 100 years since its publication in 1912. Without John Carter, there would have been no Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, no Flash Gordon, no Conan the Barbarian, no Superman, no Star Wars, no Avatar. Burroughs was writing at a time when there were no genre and conventions in place for this type of fiction yet, and he was in fact one of the writers to establish those images, story details and actions that would become mainstays of Science Fiction and Fantasy for the next hundred years in books, comics, movies and TV. Joe and Jane Q. Public do not give a shit about that. They just want a movie that entertains them without making them feel stupid or bad for seeing it.
Commentators like Nikki Finke and her colleagues at Deadline Hollywood have been almost gleefully declaring the movie DOA for months now, reporting how it was tracking badly with audiences, pointing out how clueless the marketing was in attracting audiences beyond geeks and fanboys, and how the movie is the product of an ego-driven director who was out of control with the budget, all without actually seeing the movie itself. Granted, I tend to think $250 million is way too much to spend on any movie, but it’s not like the studio was ever going to use the money to do anything useful like donate it to cancer research or help with world hunger anyway. Even I had a feeling the movie would bomb when I first heard about it last summer, due to the fact that the latest attempt at a movie of CONAN THE BARBARIAN bombed during that time. The vibe I got was that the movie audiences just didn’t give a toss about the fantasy genre featuring strapping men in loincloths swinging a sword. Ironically, the TV market is totally gagging for GAME OF THRONES, which takes a much darker, more pessimistic and complex view of the fantasy genre to tell a story about governance, politics and betrayal, judging by how well the boxset of the first season has been selling – in fact, it is sold out in many shops within a mile of the part of town where I live.
Now that I’ve actually seen the movie, I think the bad reviews have been unfair and biased, as if the reviewers picked up on the negative buzz from the studios, smelled blood and reached an unspoken consensus to dogpile on it when they’ve actually praised far worse movies in the past. The reviews in the British press have been particularly sniffy and patronizing while the US reviewers have merely been dismissive. I get the feeling that if JOHN CARTER had been a fully-animated CGI Pixar cartoon with the exact same script, the same reviewers would be lavishing it with praise as they have with every other Pixar movie, yet somehow being made as a live action Special Effects blockbuster enabled them to indulge in their inherent snobbery towards blockbusters, especially the British reviewers. The script is far less clunky than the majority of genre blockbusters and both the story and action choreographer are very easy to follow, despite some reviewers lazily claiming it was too choppy for them to see what was going on. Maybe they’re just as burned out on CGI-heavy movies as I am, yet I found it more thoughtful and better-made than the majority of CGI movies I’ve had to sit through in the last five years, and I went prepared to be bored and to snark as much as The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw did. Instead, I found a movie that was actually in love with telling a story in the old-fashioned, classy way, which treats its audience as intelligent no matter what age they are. For anyone who has read the original book A PRINCESS OF MARS and knows its clunky and plothole flaws, this is the best movie adaptation we’re ever going to get. Maybe the problem is too much of it consists of things we’ve already been seeing in Science Fiction and Fantasy movies and TV for the last twenty, thirty years and even longer. And frankly, it won’t break my heart if we never see a sequel.
The question for a movie like JOHN CARTER – and for anyone who wants to tell stories in pop culture – is whether to make an audience want to see a story in a genre they didn’t know they were interested in, or to tap into an audience already hungry for this type of movie, but the latter might be too small to justify spending that much money to produce one. The general mood I get is that there is no great hunger for this particularly genre at the movies now. American audiences, especially the male section, seem more interested in more literal movies like the macho military propaganda piece ACT OF VALOR or fluffy family comedy fare like THE LORAX, the latter of which they feel they can safely take their kids to.
Could the problem be that despite being the well from which nearly every famous Science Fiction and Fantasy stories and franchises sprang, the John Carter books have been wrung dry? That its true legacy was not to become a blockbuster movie but the inspiration of all the popular franchises that came after it, only appreciated by fans of the genre and, well, reading? Another influential Science Fiction book finally getting a movie adaptation over 20 years after its publication is William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER, but I wonder if a movie is going to be necessary at all, since its most influential ideas – computers, cyberspace, hacking, virtual reality imagery – have been plundered in the last 20 years by more famous movies already, the chief of them being THE MATRIX. It’s another instance where the actual movie adaptation comes too late, and has become redundant.
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