Joe’s Blog

John Carter (2012)

January 14, 2013 4:40 am


Most movie bloggers would have spent December totting up their top 10 films of the year. Because I only go to the cinema about once a month, I never feel I see enough new films to warrant such a list, so I spend December reading those top 10 lists. There are also the occasional BOTTOM 10 lists. Really, these are the ones I like to read, especially when the same names kept cropping up : That’s My Boy, Battleship, Alex Cross, all potential future entries for the House of Trash.

I was very surprised to see that John Carter didn’t feature very much though. Most famously, Mark Kermode DID include it in his ‘worst of’ list, at number 2. Yes, Mark Kermode, who sees more films in a month than I see in a year, thought John Carter was the second worst film he saw in 2012. That’s worse than Pirahna 3DD? Worse than W.E.? Worse than Jack and Jill even!?

Kermode clearly has an issue here that goes deeper than the quality of the movie (others have postulated what that might be) but sadly a critic as influential as Kermode has the power to perpetuate the myth that John Carter is dreadful, and probably put people off giving it a go. Don’t forget this is a man who constantly tells the public that they were wrong about Howard the Duck and Heaven’s Gate. Well, Mr Kermode, you are wrong about John Carter.

john carter 1

Get your ass to Mars!

Let’s be straight here, John Carter is no masterpiece. Far from it.

I’m no scholar on the original stories, but I’m aware that last year was the centenary of he first printed appearance of the Confederate soldier transported to Barsoom (that’s Mars to me and you). The film has been in development, on and off,  since 1931, when Warner Brothers’ Bob Clampett attempted to make it as the first full length animated film. In the intervening years, not only was that ambition thwarted by a certain Mr Disney, but the continuing adventures of Carter have been systematically strip-mined by authors and film-makers for everything from Flash Gordon, through Star Wars to Avatar, and everything inbetween.

Sadly, this rather left John Carter on a hiding to nothing. It’s a highly regarded piece of literature that sci-fi fans have been lobbying to be filmed for decades. It’s also such a highly regarded piece of literature that if filmed sympathetically (as the fans would demand) it would result in a film that looked like an Asylum rip-off of every sci-fi film of the past 30 years, but with a bigger budget. Somehow Andrew Stanton (Pixar whizz working on his first live-action film) manages to avoid this, but ultimately makes a film which is enjoyable, but was clearly never going to have the wide appeal needed to justify its budget.

When it’s good, it’s very good. The advantage of having an animation director like Stanton working on a piece like this, is that he knows how to work with CGI. It’s easy to forget how much of a live action film is now added in post-production, so having someone as comfortable behind a desk as bossing 1000 extras is vital these days. For once, a CGI heavy fantasy movie doesn’t feel like your watching someone else play a computer game. The cast are all game, and clearly having fun. My one exception is Carter himself. Taylor Kitsch certainly looks the part, but there was something about his voice that grated, coming over far too much like a Californian beach bum, than a Southern Civil War veteran (a fact not helped by some distinctly 21st century action hero dialogue “Easy. Nice monster dog.”)

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 I used to bullseye womprats with my T16 back home. They’re not much bigger than two meters.

What hinders the piece is an almost impenetrable plot. It could be argued that that is a fault of the source, which may be the case, I don’t know. But is it really any more impenetrable than Star Wars or Flash Gordon? Yes, every character has a made-up name, there are made-up races, beings, planet names… oh god, how confusing to our poor youth audiences. The best thing to do is to keep it simple. There’s this one race of humanoids who have a massive killer weapon, with which they intend to wipe out another race of humanoids (the last left on the planet). Caught in the middle is an independent race of 15 foot tall creatures, who really want to keep themselves to themselves and who end up capturing Mr Carter. That’s it, seen it before, will see it again, it’s really no more complicated than that.

So what else lets it down? Well, that’s pretty much it. A slightly confusing, and, for newcomers, derivative plot. You know what else has a confusing, derivative plot? Almost every big budget summer blockbuster that made more money than John Carter.

John Carter was an almighty failure, but it’s no fault of the film itself. The marketing was poor, certainly. Look at that poster at the top. If you’re a teenager with a tenner burning a hole in his pocket on a Saturday afternoon, are you going to see a film with THAT poster (and also one with a prominent Disney logo, the kiss of death for teenagers trying to look hard) or are you going to see Comic Book Heroes 3: The Re-imagining of the Reboot or Smashing Robot Battle 6: Dark of the Arse Crack?

The name change caused quite some controversy, with many passing the buck for the decision, but ultimately everyone agreeing that the change was due to the fact that John Carter of Mars doesn’t become John Carter of Mars until the end of the film. Until then, he is just John Carter. OK… but surely since it’s actually based on the book Princess of Mars, shouldn’t if have been called Princess of Mars? Oh, that would have been too confusing (and we all know how much sci-fi films with female leads bomb, right studio execs?). Rumours of Disney still smarting from Mars Needs Moms was suggested as another reason for getting Mars out of the title (stuff like this actually happens, so even if that’s not true you can believe it is). Incidentally Mars Needs Moms lost a hell of a lot more money than John Carter, but that’s been quietly swept under the carpet by the studio and film writers no doubt worried about being invited to the next Disney junket.

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Flash… ah-ah!

Let’s get some perspective here: John Carter was never going to be the biggest film of the year. It should never have been green-lit with the budget it did, which would require it to be one of the biggest 5 earners of the year to ultimately break even. Did anyone really think this would compete with Avengers, Batman, Bond, Spiderman, Hobbit, Hunger Games and the interminable Twiglet. Not a chance.

They could reasonably have expected it to do better than Wrath of the Titans, or Journey 2 The Mysterious Island, both dreadfully reviewed sequels to two of the more dreadfully reviewed films of recent years.

But then, the box office only tells half the story. We are constantly baffled by the fact that Transformers movies can make a billion dollars whilst being utterly cack, and assume the ticket buying public are, rightly, morons. So should we be surprised by the fact that a reasonably well-made film, made by people with a genuine affection for the material, rather than hacks who want to sell toys, utterly fails? We already know the audience is made up of morons because they made Transformers 1, 2 and 3 huge hits. So why, when a film flops do we blame the film, rather than the audience for not getting it?

Good films often do badly at the box office, and stinkers often hit the jackpot. No one really knows which way it’s going to go. Many have suggested John Carter could have made more money with a big name star (Tom Cruise was attached for a while in the 90s). But who? Audiences are much more fickle with their stars nowadays, so it’s particularly tricky when your film takes two and a half years to make. Your flavour-of-the-month star could taste very stale by release date: Well, Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost currently sits over $70million in the red, Halle Berry’s Catwoman is still trying to claw back around $50m, not to mention all the countless Eddie Murphy ‘comedies’ clogging up the bargain bins in Tesco. Tom Cruise is hardly the draw he once was, his biggest successes now coming from established brands (Mission Impossible, Jack Reacher) rather than his more personal projects (Valkyrie, the tedious Knight and Day).

The only thing that would have saved John Carter at the box office would have been audiences giving it a chance. But with everyone shouting in their ear about how dreadful it is, why should they?

If you’re still not sure whether you want to give it a chance, the best advice I can give is this: do you like the 1980 Flash Gordon movie? That’s ridiculously camp, over the top, overblown and with a bland central hero. John Carter is the that kind of film, and possibly the highest praise I can give it, is that, like Flash Gordon, it will find an appreciative audience in  years to come.

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