The end result of all these converging factors is that I rarely get too excited anymore about upcoming movies. The last one for which I remember feeling much of a build-up was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and even then my eagerness was somewhat tempered compared to other movies in years past. I guess I'm finally beyond the running-countdown-clock, have-to-see-it-on-the-first-day, standing-in-line-for-hours, midnight-screening thing.
But every once in a while, something will grab my interest enough to trigger some vestige of the old anticipation reflex, and in recent months that film has been John Carter, the long-awaited cinematic adaptation of some of the best-loved pulp-adventure fiction of the early 20th century, namely the "Barsoom" novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I dearly loved those books as a boy, and I've gone from initially dubious to cautiously optimistic that the film's director and co-writer, Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame, might have actually made a movie version that's at least somewhat faithful to the source material. Certainly the look of the film is right, based on what I've seen in the trailers, and I'm hoping that the tone will be as well.What I'd like to see is old-fashioned, swashbuckling fun and romance, the sort of thing where the hero has a twinkle in his eye, rather than the self-important Dark 'n' Angsty Very-Important-Epi
Unfortunately, my own feelings aside, John Carter is not attracting the kind of early buzz the corporate beancounters in Hollywood like to see. Last week, a much-linked article made the rounds of the nerd-o-sphere, predicting that JC is going to be a tremendous flop. The kind of flop that costs people their careers, maybe even the kind of flop that brings down studios. The first line of the article went so far as to compare it to Ishtar, the reviled 1987 Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman vehicle that became the poster-child for overblown vanity projects practically overnight.
To put it succinctly, this article pissed me off.
Look, John Carter is a risky project and it could go wrong in about a hundred different ways, artistically, commercially, and as an adaptation. I'm not naive about the chances of it working or finding a mass audience. But I find it truly infuriating when the self-appointed oracles start mouthing off about all the reasons a movie failed before it even freaking opens. As the little banner image above tells us, there are still 10 days before John Carter hits the theaters... shouldn't we wait and, you know, see how it does at the box office before we start conducting the post mortem? Oh, but I guess that would be inefficient, wouldn't it? Why waste time when you can start hammering in the coffin nails now?
I'll tell you this, though: if this movie crashes and burns like a battlefield covered with radium bullets at dawn (Barsoom fans will get that reference), the blame for the fiasco ought to go to the right people. Namely, the idiots who have been in charge of marketing this one.
First, they dropped the words "of Mars" from the original title -- which was John Carter of Mars, if you'll recall -- because the failure of Mars Needs Moms -- an entirely different kind of movie, I might point out -- spooked them and they decided that movies with the word "Mars" in the title must be box-office poison. It's not like the phrase "John Carter of Mars" has any cultural currency or geek cred or is even descriptive of the film's story. No, let's just use the protagonist's rather generic name. That'll really let audiences know what this movie is, won't it? I'd love to know how many people, on first hearing the truncated title, think it must be about Noah Wyle's character from ER.
As if the shortened title isn't obscure enough, then the geniuses compound the movie's identity crisis by failing to reference Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere in the marketing materials. The guy was one of the best-selling authors of the last hundred years. A good number of his books are still in print long after his contemporaries have been forgotten. He created the legendary Tarzan, a character probably just about everyone on the planet knows about, and penned a couple of other series which remain at least passingly familiar to the 21st century zeitgeist (the John Carter series among them), but let's not try to build on that, okay? Even if the research indicates that ERB is no longer a household name (he was once), surely the phrase "from the creator of Tarzan" would have some value on a one-sheet?
And let's talk about the movie's one-sheet, shall we? Granted, posters probably aren't all that important in the overall marketing plan anymore, and movie-poster design has been pretty lame for about 20 years now, but do you really expect me to believe that a silhouette of a dude against a red background is the best they could come up with? The John Carter books have inspired some of the most exciting fantasy illustration work ever; the paperback covers painted by Frank Frazetta in the '60s and Michael Whelan in the '70s are iconic, instantly recognizable to fans of the genre and probably to a lot of "civilians" as well. You're telling me that Disney's art department couldn't use those covers as inspiration to create something which captures the romance, mystery, wonder, and action of this story? Why not just license the Frazetta/Whelan work outright? Or engage Michael Whelan to paint something new, with the faces of the actors in his familiar old style? (I know, because the studios no longer want to pay for the laborious process of actually painting artwork, but hey, I'm spitballing here...) Or, here's an idea: why not use that limited-edition poster created by the good people at Mondo as a premium to be given away at midnight IMAX screenings as the regular, mass-produced poster? That design is a lot more exciting than anything Disney came up with... but that's because the people at Mondo love movies as movies, not as pieces of a merchandising campaign.
Finally, whose bright idea was it to build all the trailers and TV spots around an arena-fight scene that looks a hell of a lot like the Geonosis arena scene from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones? As I recall, there are many scenes in the original Barsoom stories involving our heroes facing off with huge monsters in an arena, and I'm willing to bet George Lucas also read those stories as a boy, the same way I did, and either consciously or unconsciously borrowed from them when he wrote AOTC. But of course a whole lot of people -- especially the all-important younger people upon whom Hollywood depends for its box-office receipts -- aren't going to know that. They'll think John Carter is ripping off Clones, and the snobbish (and completely ignorant) derision will begin.
The sad truth is that movies live and die based more on their marketing campaigns than their actual, inherent quality (or lack thereof). And in my opinion, the marketing of this film has just flat-out sucked. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that article from last week is wrong, and that this movie is a huge smash and leads to an ongoing franchise and maybe even more adaptations from ERB properties. (How about At the Earth's Core or The Land Time Forgot, both of which were previously filmed as low-budget Saturday-afternoon fare that I've always enjoyed, but which even I admit could be benefit from a modern treatment? How about -- at last -- a faithful adaptation of Tarzan?)
Either way, whether John Carter flies or crashes, I'll be seeing it in the theater. How can I not? I've been waiting for it since I was about 12 years old...