The Lessons of John Carter?

The box-office misfire/disaster of John Carter would seem to have put an abrupt halt to what may have been a great series of movies the likes of which we haven’t seen since the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s a weird thing, movie Box Office; stuff like the Transformers films and the Pirates of The Carribean films seem to go from strength to strength, their popularity and box-office success almost at odds with their quality, wheras films like John Carter seem to sink without trace.  John Carter is not a bad movie. It may not be perfect, but its not as bad as some would make out. Infact, contrary to ‘popular’ opinion as it may be, I absolutely loved the movie. Its the most fun I’ve had with a fantasy adventure movie in years, and the Blu-ray is one of my best-buys of this year so far. It’s a magical movie, a throwback to the halcyon days of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I really think its that good. 

Trouble is, much of the time the perceived artistic worth or value of a film is tied to its box office.  I remember when Blade Runner bombed bigtime back in 1982; the film disappeared into a critical black hole, only to raise its head again with its release on home video. Nowadays it’s no longer the ‘cult’ film it used to be; it’s become decidedly mainstream to the extent I sometimes yearn for the good old days when it was the best-kept secret of a chosen few. I don’t expect John Carter to ever get the critical kudos that Blade Runner eventually gained, but I’m sure it’s due a reappraisal someday. Someday too late of course, for those of us who would have loved to have seen a Gods Of Mars movie.

Wiser people than me -and many of them working in Hollywood no doubt- will have examined the failure of John Carter and analysed the various theories about its crash and burn at the box office. Was it released at the wrong time? Was it simply a marketing issue? Was it the casting? The ‘unknown’ intellectual property? Was it Hollywood politics? Was it the power of the critics? Was its simply a bad movie? Well, I don’t think that last one’s an option, although many clearly seemed to have a problem with the film. It’s just such a fascinating thing to wonder about. I mean, when a film like the Conan remake fails, then yes, its hardly a surprise, its just simply a result of it being a bad movie. If the second or third Transformers film had tanked, it would have been understandable; I mean, a script would have been handy for either of them, but the public didn’t seem to mind as long as there was plenty of eye-candy fx etc.

Is John Carter really any worse than Avatar? After all, they are very similar in subject. As well as being ‘inspired’ by Dances With Wolves, there’s plenty of the Barsoom novels (and Almuric, for that matter) in James Cameron’s opus.  There is just the same over-reliance on cg effects and spectacle as John Carter has been damned for. Yet Avatar ‘clicked’ and became the biggest film of all time. Yes, the ‘new’ gimick that was 3D likely assisted with Avatar‘s success, something a little tired by the time John Carter came around (I actually have a theory that with some films now, the 3D is actually a liability, as the additional ticket price more often than not puts people off completely).

For me, perhaps the most sobering lesson regards John Carter’s dismal performance is that it puts some credence on the Studio’s preference for known intellectual properties, or ‘star billing’. It’s easier to sell a blockbuster based on a comic or tv series or a toy, than it is to sell something original or based on a fairly obscure book. It’s easier to sell a film with a star than it is a relative unknown. Maybe Hollywood is right, the way it makes movies now. I hate it. I hate that it’s acceptable to pay an actor something like $50 million dollars- I think that kind of money is frankly obscene. Particularly when the studio is paying less for actual ‘acting’ than it is some guy going through the motions as a larger than life, frankly cartoon character as Johnny Depp plays in the POTC movies.  I’d like to see more original fair than more sequels, but maybe Hollywood is right afterall?

Maybe the real lesson, if it is one, is that both views are wrong. A film can be great and still not connect with the public, and no matter how popular the intellectual property is or expensive the actor, its all something of a crapshoot in the end- nobody really knows what will succeed/connect with the main populace and what won’t. I hope the film-makers behind John Carter find some reward in the fact that some people, minority it may be, really loved the film.

One more observation, that I’ll get into further when I get around to reviewing John Carter proper, is that watching the film, it seemed obvious to me that it was everything the Star Wars prequels should have been.  Actually, perhaps more than that, it was everything the Star Wars prequels wanted to be, as so much of John Carter reminded me of stuff in those Star Wars prequels, but executed better. It felt like a really good Star Wars movie, the way they were made back in the Original Trilogy days- sort of like an Original Trilogy Star Wars with cg effects, if that makes sense?

So anyway, John Carter is a really good movie, and if you’ve been put off by all the negativity and Box Office troubles, then give it a go, you may be very surprised, as I was.  Hell, even the score is fantastic, John-Williams-in-his-pomp era stuff.  Now excuse me, I’m off to Barsoom again, time to load up the Blu-ray…

One thought on “The Lessons of John Carter?

  1. Pingback: John Carter (2012) | 100 Films in a Year

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