The first mega-tentpole of the year arrived on Friday, with the release of Disney‘s “John Carter,” the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ classic sci-fi pulp hero. The film was the live-action debut of the Oscar-winning director Andrew Stanton, the Pixar veteran who brought the world “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” which are among the top rank of Pixar’s accomplishments both creatively and financially. But in the weeks and months leading up to release, the talks wasn’t of a sure-fire hit, it was of a hugely expensive film that wasn’t connecting with prospective audiences. The vultures circled, and as expected, “John Carter” opened to hugely disappointing numbers at the North American box office this weekend — $30 million in three days, less than the $1 million budgeted “The Devil Inside” managed back in January. Overseas, the numbers were a bit sunnier with $70 million coming in, but all told, the studio is far cry from the widely reported $600 million break even point for the film.
But numbers aside, for us, this is a story of creative disappointment. Stanton is an enormously talented filmmaker, and he had a top-notch creative team, including Pulitzer Prize-winning literary darling Michael Chabon as screenwriter, and, according to most sources, total creative freedom. And the film isn’t a disaster — it’s rather likeable, has some neat moments, and unlike the majority of blockbusters, feels like a true work of passion. But it’s also a mess. Which is curious, as Stanton comes from Pixar, a studio which has gained fame, and billions of dollars, by placing story first. Indeed, Stanton gave a TED talk on the importance of storytelling, waxing lyrical on how the form should lead towards a singular goal, a truth, with the ultimate aim of making an audience member care. However, none of that is easily evident in the final product of “John Carter.” It’s as though when he went into the live-action world, Stanton forgot most of what he’d learned about telling a story on screen.
Perhaps it was closeness to the material — according to some, Stanton had dreamed of making the film for thirty years, and had a skewed perspective of the character’s value, convinced that kids would come flocking at the mere mention of a “Princess of Mars” movie. Or perhaps it’s simply that making a good movie is really, really fucking hard. But if you think this piece is bad, damn, you need to read this Brooke Barnes post-mortem/anatomy of a failure on “John Carter” that ran this Sunday in the New York Times when the corpse was barely cold (called tellingly “Ishtar Lands On Mars”). It’s a pretty brutal and damning article that spends a good deal of time throwing Stanton under the bus for being recalcitrant, not listening to Disney execs and generally dismissing any creative feedback/constructive criticism from anyone other than Pixar folks. It’s a fascinating read.
The exact details of what exactly went down between Stanton and Disney we may not ever completely know, but here’s 10 things we felt went completely wrong with “John Carter.” SPOILERS AHEAD.
1. It’s A Charisma-Free Zone
This is what we call The Law of “The Adventures of Tintin“: When your faithful animal sidekick — in this case dog/frog thing Woola — is the most compelling character in the film, you might have a problem. It’s not like Stanton didn’t assemble a strong cast, at least in places. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins can act, clearly. But they’re not exactly scintillating screen presences — they’re fairly bland, and Kitsch seems too contemporary for the post-Civil War setting: Tim Riggins in a hat and beard. And the rest of the cast aren’t given much to play with either. Mark Strong, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, are all wonderful scene-stealing actors, all of whom never really get any material worth sinking their teeth into. Strong, for instance, has played bad-guys far more compelling than this one. Perhaps the only actor to truly make an impression is (of all people) James Purefoy, who is charismatic and funny in his couple of scenes. However, he is the rare exception because for the most part, the characters of “John Carter” are largely indistinguishable with little to set them apart. Instead, the only joy and true entertainment one really finds in “John Carter” is the charming and cuddly Woola acting like a silly old dog that just wants to play and be around his master. That’s great and all, but not so hot when we’re missing that level of energy and engagement from the hero of the movie.
2. The Characters Don’t Have Much Backstory, Or Much Depth
In part, the problem with not caring about the characters comes down to not knowing an awful lot about them, or indeed the world. Despite the gratuitous (but frequently necessary) expository dialogue, almost no one is fleshed out in any consistent or compelling way. It’s a reasonable expectation for the film to provide, if not backstory, then at least some insight into the behavior of major characters, but all we get are scraps, and often in the wrong places: Samantha Morton’s Sola, for instance, a side-character of little significance, gets a whole arc to herself, whereas we never really learn why Dominic West’s bent on conquering Barsoom, or why Mark Strong is manipulating him, beyond them both being dicks. Any motivation they’re given you could plug them into any film and the shadowy alliance of evil at the heart of it could justify their means. With Carter himself, it’s not like the writers had a lot to work with — Rice Burroughs deliberately keeps Carter’s background oblique. But in a way, that would have been preferable to the thin, and generic, backstory we get: a dead wife and child, something that essentially turns the character into Jonah Hex.
3. It’s Woefully Over-Complicated
That we don’t get much to care about in terms of the characters is mainly due to there being so much damn plot to get through. Stanton, Andrews and Chabon combined aspects of the first two Burroughs novels, “The Princess of Mars” and “The Gods Of Mars,” but the plot is essentially their own invention, and it’s curiously uninvolving from the very first scene of Mark Strong appearing to Dominic West. Why are the red Martians fighting the other red Martians? What’s the relationship between the red Martians and the Tharks? What’s the geography of the planet? (Look at “Game of Thrones” for a way to demonstrate this stuff relatively easily?) Where do that second band of Tharks, that Carter slaughters single-handedly, figure in? And for newcomers to the property, there’s an intimidating amount of terminology: we know we thought that half of the characters were called “Jeddark” before we worked out that it meant “king.” Assuming that’s what it means. Say what you like about George Lucas, but at least the early “Star Wars” films had a relatively simple good vs. evil tale, and managed to drip-feed the weird terms and concepts, rather than throwing it all at you in the first five minutes.
4) The Cutting, Particularly In Action Sequences, Is Confounding
Think of the sequence where John Carter comes up with against a race of bloodthirsty Thark monsters (even though this same race was his ally – as we said, we’re still a little confused on this). We see Carter hack and slash his way through piles of multi-limbed alien beasts and at one point Stanton makes the decision to drop the sound effects, pump up Michael Giacchino‘s appropriately overwrought score, and cuts in between the Martian slaughter to a flashback sequence of Carter finding his wife and child dead. This is one of the only let-loose action sequences in the film, and we’re already cutting away. Unlike his former Pixar colleague Brad Bird in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” Stanton seems incapable of building action sequences that build on top of one another, compounding tension and stakes. Instead, John Carter jumps around a lot. So to have this moment, which actually has the possibility of soaring aloft holy-shit-this-is-cool action, to be threaded with such morose material, well, it ends up being something of a buzz kill. Imagine a triumphant scene in “Avatar” undercut by the tragic back story of how Worthington lost the use of his legs, and you’ll get the idea. Plus, you have no idea what is going on in this melee. You would think, coming from animation, Stanton would place an emphasis on geographic and motivational transparency. We need to know what he’s doing and what he’s up against. Instead, Stanton cuts around the action, either to the flashback or to slow motion shots of Carter swinging a sword around or howling wildly. It may seem cool, but it doesn’t do anything for the audience. We can’t be let in if we can’t make out what’s happening. And it’s true of most of the other action sequences as well, which tend to be both brief and confusing.
5. The Framing Sequences Are Entirely Redundant
Speaking of editing, what in god’s name was up with the framing structure? Stanton was doggedly opposed, from the beginning, to simplifying or streamlining the source material, up to the point of paying homage to Rice Burroughs’ appearances in his own novels, but what do these scenes actually lend to the finished movie? The integrity of the structure is undermined by starting things off on Barsoom anyway, but soon we’re treated to scenes of a miscast Spy Kid reading things. In his TED talk, Stanton points to this scene “as making a promise to you that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time.” In other words, it’s there to pay off the ending, where Carter turns out to have faked his death, in order to throw off the Therns, and to return to Mars. But all this stuff is only loosely connected to the events on Barsoom, and that ending is hugely frustrating anyway: Carter’s returned to Earth, goes through a half-assed fake-out, and then goes back to Mars. Either leave him victorious on Barsoom with Dejah, or have him tragically plucked from triumph and separated from his lady-love, stranded far from her (as “Thor” did with some success, and by Odin’s raven, we never thought we’d be holding that movie up as a paridigm of successful storytelling). Don’t try and do both in the last ten minutes of the film.
6. The Film, And Its Villain, Is One Big Setup For A Sequel
But then, much of that ending is setting up for a sequel, something that’s plagued Hollywood tentpoles of late — think of “Robin Hood” or “Iron Man 2,” films that seem to exist only in order to set up future installments. And “John Carter” suffers from the same problem, particularly when it comes to its villain. For all the many antagonists thrown at him in the first 90 minutes, John Carter finds out in the last third of the movie, it’s actually Matai Shang (played by Mark Strong) who’s the villain. Pulling the strings behind Sab Than’s quest for power, he spends most of the movie keeping an eye on John Carter before they finally meet head to head late in the game, although he doesn’t simply kill Carter, because he’s a cliched movie bad guy. So with this stakes-raising element now in play, what do the screenwriters do? They let Matai Shang escape, and even worse, he pops up in the film’s coda to ensure that a setup to a sequel is in place. In the context of a movie, it’s a suckerpunch to the audience. Allowing Matai Shang to survive for the sequel that will probably never get made allows for two things: 1) it essentially reduces “John Carter” to the status of a prologue, rendering much of what happens in the movie as meaningless 2) it fundamentally changes what “John Carter” is actually about. Is this about a Civil War hero turned Martian hero? Nope. It’s essentially “Wedding Crashers: Mars Edition” turning John Carter not into someone who changed the course of Barsoom’s history forever by removing the man behind the curtain, but as a guy who momentarily brings peace by stopping a wedding and breaking a goblet full of water. Enthralling.
7. The Tone Is All Over The Place
Just as defences of the “Star Wars” prequels of “It’s a kid movie!” were nullified by plot elements involving senatorial elections and trade embargoes, “John Carter” can’t really be excused by its Disney label and tween-targeting. That first twenty minutes or so are aggressively humorless, with little of the playfulness of Stanton’s earlier work (the escape jump-cuts as Bryan Cranston interrogates Carter are a nice idea, but only half-work in execution). From then on, we get some humor aimed at the kids (Woola for instance), but the palace politics of the Barsoomians is dry and dull. The broad adventuring is the stuff of pulp fiction, but the violence is surprisingly brutal — from that grim action sequence against the Tharks, intersposed with flashbacks of the murder of Carter’s family, to decapitations and Carter cutting his way through the body of a white ape, emerging covered in blue blood. We’re not saying that it’s inappropriate (if you think kids don’t like seeing gore, you don’t know kids), or that genre-hopping can’t work. But Stanton needed to pick a side.
8. It’s Not About Anything
Here’s the most surprising thing about the film, given the emotional resonance of Stanton’s previous work, and the presence of a Pulitzer Prize winning author among the screenwriters; it’s not actually about anything. Frankly, it’s about too much stuff. But thematically, what was going on? “Finding Nemo” was about a father learning not to be over-protective; “Wall-E” was about caring for the planet and in Stanton’s words “Irrational love defeats life’s programming.” “John Carter” seems to be about a man who accidentally goes to another planet and gets to bang a woman he never seemed to like that much. You can sense the script straining to find something else; we suspect they were aiming at making Carter a broken man who finds a cause worth caring about. But with his background glossed over (Confederate soldiers being less than popular as movie heroes), his dead family token and the Martian plot confusing, he never really gets there. And what’s worse is that the writers try to pin the thing on the rotten old Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey template (we’d recommend Film Crit Hulk‘s piece on this for more). The idea of the hero refusing the call to adventure is a common one, but as in last summer’s “Green Lantern,” trying to avoid his responsibilities makes the protagonist seem passive, and even unlikeable.
9. The Visuals Are Surprisingly Bland
Most of the teaser posters for “John Carter” featured our hero against a blood red backdrop, but the movie itself (as the footage started to slowly reveal itself) is draped in a color palette defined by hues of drab light yellow or pale-brown. It’s enough to the point where, when he wakes up on Mars (or Barsoom as it’s known to the natives) and he feel so confounded by his alien surroundings, you don’t know quite why. It still looks like Montana or Utah. (It’s not until the aliens show up that things seem genuinely out of place.) The Martians – giant, multi-limbed beings – are even robbed of their visual vibrancy; they’re supposed to be green but look muddy and tired enough to be festival-goers finishing up a weekend at Burning Man. We understand by now that the film was based on a story that predates “Star Wars,” “Avatar,” and the rest, but does that give the film an excuse to have such anonymous vehicles and beasts that look recycled and weak? The airships of the warring tribes even look exactly the same, until about halfway through the movie when a character suggests us to “look at the color of the flag.” Even the costumes are derivative – the Princess Leia-like bikini number, the “Gladiator” underoos – Mars could have been wild and unpredictable; one of the reasons “Avatar,” for its many problems, wowed is that its creatures and world felt genuinely alien. Here “John Carter” felt like the designers picked and chose from earlier sci-fi flicks.
10. Yes, The Marketing Sucked
Ultimately, none of the above point to reasons why the film didn’t perform well at the domestic box office over the weekend. Sure, the reviews didn’t help, and word of mouth may not have been great, but the damage was done long before that. It’s possible that audiences just didn’t want to see the movie, but the decent performance internationally, and success of other sci-fi pictures, suggests otherwise. So really, the blame has to be laid at Disney’s marketing of the picture. It was clear from the off that the studio, whether from a lack of confidence in the final product or not, didn’t know how to market the disparate elements. And they were running scared. They changed the title after “Mars Needs Moms” tanked, believing that people didn’t want to see something with ‘Mars’ in the title, leading to a final effect equivalent to changing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Henry Jones.” They downplayed the Western elements after “Cowboys & Aliens” flopped. But truly, there were many baffling decisions here. Why sell the film with posters almost solely featuring the face of Taylor Kitsch, a man whose own family would struggle to pick from a line-up at this point in his career? Why spend millions on a Super Bowl spot, only to use a full third of the one minute ad on an elaborate title sequence? Why put ten minutes of the movie online the week of release, only to pick the ten minutes of the movie entirely ignored the science-fiction aspects? Then again, if sources like Vulture are to be believed, it’s Stanton who commandeered the marketing campaign too, which could be studio spin, or could be the truth.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Kevin Jagernauth, Mark Zhuravsky, RP