Life on Mars? Apparently – but not from Disney.

www.ianmfaulkner.com
carterpostJohn Carter (2012)

Directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton and produced by Walt Disney Pictures.

Ok. The plot just in case you didn’t know. It’s the late 1800’s and the movies protagonist millionaire John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former American Civil War Confederate Army captain, dies suddenly whilst conducting mysterious business at his considerable estate. Carter’s nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), is summoned to the funeral; and as the deceased Carter’s instructions are followed, his body is put in a tomb that can only be unlocked from the inside. After the funeral,  Carter estate’s lawyer hands a bemused Burroughs Carter’s personal journal that has remained unread.  The journal recounts John Carters extraordinary adventures on the Red Planet, Mars – how he got there and why his tomb can only be unlocked from the inside.

That’s the very basic plot in a nut shell. Obviously there is far more to it than that.

Now on to the juicy bits.

This was what I like to class as a ‘should have’ movie. A movie that ‘should have’ been great. I mean, c’mon for fuck’s sake, Disney!! It had all the elements that cinema goers world-wide crave. Great story based on the book series and well-loved Sci-Fi fantasy classics of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Amazing special effects. Good director. Good writing. Great cast. No expense spared budget. Yep – it ‘should have’ been great.

But it turned into a marketing fiasco that ultimately was Disney’s cinematic version of the Titanic (the sinking ship variety, and not the Cameron blockbuster) and was their costliest entertainment debacle to date.

This may give you some idea of how big a flop it was:

Disney went on record in 2012 as saying that it attributed its Studio Entertainment division $160 million swing from profit to loss in the second fiscal quarter of that year mainly to the under performance of John Carter.Given its incredibly expensive marketing and production costs, the film was by and large considered a complete and utter box office bomb.

President of Hollywood.com Paul Dergarabedian went on record as saying that this sci-fi extravaganzas  bloated budget would have required it to generate worldwide tickets sales of more than $600 million – and that’s just to break even…bear in mind that kind of box office sales numbers has only been reached by 63 films in the whole history of movie-making!

So what went wrong? Well the blame can be liberally shared around. Here’s three reasons – my oh so humble take on it all.

They fucked with the original story. Yep, I know the old argument that what’s good on paper doesn’t always necessarily translate well to film. But there’s a limit to how far this axiom can take you or the excuses for complete idiocy that it can make for bad cinematic decisions. Burroughs story really was a classic of the sci-fi fantasy. It practically redefined the genre. It had everything – pathos, thrills, strong characters – and enough alien concepts to give it a marvellous ‘otherworldly’ feel. The unnecessary changes that were made to the original story were enough to have poor old ERB spinning in his grave. If I’d written this and seen what they did with my work I’d feel violated. It was almost as if whoever put this mishmash together did it without actually reading the books but used the sparknotes instead.

They didn’t consult with the fans before diving straight in. Burroughs has a HUGE worldwide following and has had for decades. There’s a reason for this longevity of  interest and devotion. The reason is obvious really – but its like this simple fact seemed to totally escape Disney. The Mars series of books survived in their original incarnation and still sell today because they’re good. And if something isn’t broken, why spend time and money trying to fix it?

They changed the title. Yep, even a simple thing like that can make a difference I personally think. What the hell was wrong with A Princess Of Mars? All that Disney achieved by changing it was to upsetting the purists. And any other folks who were going to see this movie from cold, and didn’t know about the original literature series didn’t care what it was called. So you instantly create a situation where online movie and literature forum members who can, lets face it,  be a little vociferous and slightly puritanical in their views at times, are then trashing the film makers approach and content before they’ve even seen it. Bad news travels quickly – the name change was the kiss of death in my opinion. They said at the time, that the rationale behind the title change was to reflect that Carter would not become ‘Of Mars’ until the end of the movie. Another reported explanation for the name change was that Disney had suffered a big loss in 2011 with Mars Needs Moms. A conducted study they did noted recent movies with the word Mars in the title had not been commercially successful. Yeah – ok.

Andrew Stanton. Basically he’s the sort of guy from my research for writing this piece is its his way or the highway. He ignored criticisms of the way he was marketing the movie i.e. using Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir song recorded in 1974 in the trailer. I mean, why not use something a bit more up to date? To be fair to Stanton though, Disney’s head of marketing during the production was a guy called MT Carney. A total industry outsider who’s only claim to fame before that was that he ran a marketing boutique in New York. previously ran a marketing boutique in New York. Stanton also chose billboard imagery that simply failed to resonate with any prospective audiences, and put together a hashed preview reel shown at a Sci-Fi convention that did not get a strong reaction from the audience. Or rather it did; although probably not the one he was hoping for. Here’s what Stanton is quoted as saying at the time, ‘…My joy when I saw the first trailer for Star Wars is I saw a little bit of almost everything in the movie, and I had no idea how it connected, and I had to go see the movie. So the last thing I’m going to do is ruin that little kid’s experience.’ Erm…ok Andy…lets just ruin everyone’s experience when they have to sit through it. My friend fell asleep at the beginning. I had to wake her up because she was snoring.

So to sum it all up. A bad movie? Meh…kind of middling. The effects are inspirational, acting is generally good. James Purefoy as Kantos Kan  is a joy on-screen as always, and Taylor Kitsch was actually very good as the planet hopping hero John Carter. All in all not awful but not brilliant.

Believe it or not, there has been talk of a sequel – but I’m fairly sure the financial disaster that was headed by Andrew Stanton and co-written by himself, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon kind of rule them out – although apparently they are keen to do it as are actors Taylor Kitsch and Willem Dafoe . We shall see!

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