Thursday, March 15, 2012

John Carter... of Mars

Nowhere is the gulf between filmmaking and the film industry more vast than in Hollywood, a place where big business, high-tech and artistic talent come together to create big spectacle unlike anything made anywhere else in the world. Science fiction author Bruce Sterling speaking in 2005 summed up modern Hollywood fantasy filmmaking thusly: "I'm a technie and a tech journalist so I'm just really interested in how they get those pixel on the screen, and I think that is the most important thing in modern science fiction filmmaking". This acerbic but possibly accurate point of view offers a crucial insight into the critical reaction towards Disney's latest tentpole release John Carter, formerly John Carter of Mars.

Almost the least interesting aspect of the John Carter project seems to be the film itself; the Blockbuster economics are interesting - look at all those zeros! - the technology is interesting - look at all those CGI creatures and environments! - the choice of casting is interesting - no big star? - the film's long and fraught development is interesting - there have been dozens of mooted versions stretching all the way back to the 1930s when Looney Toons director Bob Clampett convinced Edgar Rice Burroughs it would be feasible to bring his strange vision to the silver screen in the form of a feature length cartoon (had it been made, John Carter of Mars would have beaten Snow White & the Seven Dwarves to become the World's First Feature Length Animated Film - how about that for an interesting alternative reality?) Not to mention numerous subsequent live-action attempts by the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau. Presently, it seems like the Andrew Stanton film is near the bottom of a large pile of interesting things about John Carter

This is, of course, a shame.

Stanton himself is an interesting choice of director. Credited as a writer on all three Toy Story films, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, Stanton is one of the highest ranking people at Pixar, probably the most successful movie studio in the world right now. The fact that Disney was willing to hand over US$250-plus to a first-time live-action director is as strong an endorsement as anyone could hope to recieve in recognition of their talents, not to mention a thrillingly bold move on the part of Disney, especially on a project as complicated as John Carter, where so many disparate elements need to be brought together. Not least amongst them is that fact that the film has reconcile the competing ideologies of a pulpy science fiction source with elements of Dune, elements of Superman (both of which it preceded, the first novel in the series having been published 100 years ago this year) and a spiky late-Victorian sensibility, with the demands of a special effects spectacular produced under the Disney brand and intended to appeal to the widest possible audience. Does one stick closely to the source and risk alienating a modern audience or does one 'modernise' the text, filling it with one-liners, hero arcs and genre cliches?

James Cameron achieved a not entirely dissimilar alchemy with Avatar, creating a film that appealed to both hard-core science fiction fans and general movie goers alike, at least enough to get into the theatre. The bottom line is: Avatar did the numbers. John Carter (so far) has not. The crucial difference is that Avatar was not based on a pre-existing source; it was the product of James Cameron's imagination and at least 10 years of hard work by concept artists, production designers and computer animators. Also, from what I have read, James Cameron is a pretty belligerent character (to put it mildly); he certainly comes across in interviews and press conferences as superconfident and forthright in his decision making - and with Avatar, Titanic, True Lies, Terminator 2, and Aliens under his belt, he has earned an almost complete autonomy in Hollywood.

Andrew Stanton has had commercial successes - big ones - but he is not James Cameron. Oddly for a major studio, Disney took a chance on him anyway, granting him an almost unprecedented level of creative control to develop a passion project based on a character that is not well known (outside a very small group of passionate fans), that does not have a major star and that is not based on a theme park ride, a computer game, a toy range or a well known comic book - and how do the critics and commentators who decry Hollywood's 'cookie-cutter' mode of filmmaking which churns out sequel after sequel, how do these guardians of the common wheel reward this boldness? They do everything in their power to denigrate and ridicule and belittle a simple fantasy adventure.

The expectation of a mega-flop was being reported on even before the box office numbers were in, and so entrenched was the common mass media position, even when the film opened with a respectable (though not great in the context of mega-budget movies) US$100 million worldwide, the narrative was still that John Cater was a flop akin to Heaven's Gate or Ishtar, which it patently is not.

Before I get into describing the peculiar vindictiveness of the backlash against the film, I would first like to express a point of solidarity with the critics. The film's marketing campaign was bodged and bungled from the outset to the point that the studio could not even decided on what the film should be called. Initially changed from the Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars, so as to avoid alienating young boys - wrong-headed, but I can see a certain logic - the name of the film was then changed again to John Carter under the ludicrous pretext that the filmmakers wanted to avoid 'accidentally' labeling the movie as sci-fi and closing it to wider audience. This is nonsensical for at least two reasons. Firstly, almost all of the highest grossing films of all time could be labelled as 'sci-fi' or at least fantasy: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean. The only exception is Titanic. Secondly, because the name John Carter doesn't mean anything to most people. Call a film Tarzan (Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous creation) and most people will know what it is. 'Oh, there's a new Tarzan movie coming out. Do I want to see it? Yes/No.' John Carter on the other hand has no cultural cache what so ever and the inability of the marketing folks to explain the legacy of the books and of the character to a wider audience (a tricky task, I know) is in no small part to blame for the film's lackluster opening weekend, in America in particular. Calling the film John Cater of Mars would have got people half way there.

But wait, here is the bizarro-world Hollywood explanation of what the film could not be called John Carter of Mars: films with Mars in the title don't make money. *raised eyebrow* Since 1995 we have had Mars Attacks!, My Favourite Martian, Mission to Mars, Red Planet, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, Martian Child and, last year, Mars Needs Moms - all of which flopped - and Disney has probably learned this 'lesson' better than any other studio because they made three out of seven.

Lackluster marketing and poor 'brand recognition' however, do not explain the level of scorn being poured on John Carter. It is not that critics seem to dislike the film (that is to be expected, isn't it?), it is that a large proportion of the press seem to be willing John Carter is to flop. In much the same way that The Industry decided that Arnie (Last Action Hero) and Costner (Waterworld) needed to be taken down a peg or two, now it seems to be Disney and Andrew Stanton's turn for a kicking. The most 
disquieting aspect of the backlash is the level of animus towards what is seemingly an old-fashioned adventure story and the condemnation of the filmmaker's 'hubris' for daring to spend so much money on something so trivial.

Now we delve into the psychology so, hold your nose and follow me. The implicit implication in all of the greatly exaggerated reports of the film's box office failure is that Disney shouldn't be spending such an obscene amount of money on its films and that the studio therefore deserves to loose its shirt - we, the public, will have performed a moral act by bringing this bloated juggernaut to its knees. If an audience can deny just one of these ravenous Hollywood beasts the vast quantities of money that a they deem to be unearned, they will have re-asserted their power over what they see as an oppressive Hollywood system, at least in a small way, and be able to feel better about themselves for their victory. The irony is that John Carter (love it or hate it) is one of the most creatively adventurous films produced by one of the Big Six Hollywood studios in many a moon. Critics claim to want originality, then when they are presented with it, they rail against it and dismiss it as not following the tried and trusted formulas that they claim to dislike. And anyone who doubts Andrew Stanton's sincerity about his love of the John Carter mythos need only watch this video. You might not like the film he made, but he really does mean it when he says he made it 'for himself'.

For those reasons, I think that the work of hundreds of creative people over a number of years is deserving of a little bit more respect, or at least understanding of the craft. Should Disney adopt a different 'tentpole' strategy and make more and cheaper movies? That is a strategic business decision for the studio, and one I am sure it will be looking at very closely following this debacle. But the idea that it would be good if John Carter fails is wrong, even if you really didn't like the film. Last year saw the release of more sequels than any previous year on record, and nine of those 10 were the highest grossing films of the year. That is a pretty sorry state of affairs. With Battleship (a film based on the board game battleships) coming out later in the year, and still more Transformers sequels in the pipeline, there are cynical exploitative cash-ins far more deserving of your vitriol and boycott (I'll say it now - when the new Transformers film comes out, don't go, you only encourage them to make more) but John Cater is not one of them. Misjudged, mismarketed, maybe it is even a bad film, but the earnest endeavour of the artists involved in bringing Barsoom to life deserve more than brazen dismissal.

Ultimately, I think the filmmakers may have been set a nigh on impossible task - to adapt what is clearly a genre piece of niche genre fiction into a mass market Blockbuster. I will find out for myself and report back soon; until that time, I reserve my judgement.


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