Monday, March 25, 2013

Barsoom and/or bust

So, in 2012, Disney released John Carter, the first big-budget movie treatment of the Edgar Rice Burroughs "Barsoom" series - coincidentally one hundred years after the first appearance of the character in A Princess of Mars. The film was met with negative reviews, didn't really earn a profit until it was paired with The Avengers in drive-in theaters, and led to the resignation of the Disney studio chief, so great was the failure perceived. Needless to say, the planned trilogy was scuttled.

I loved the movie. Since I also loved the first Fantastic Four movie, perhaps it should be no surprise that so much of the rest of the movie-going public (or at least the movie-reviewing public) had a different assessment than mine, but my wife loved it, too, so there's that. I can't really see the reason that the movie was not better received: the special effects, the performances, and  the story were all wonderful, and the potential to launch an ongoing series was excellent - in fact, I'd say it compares favorably to The Avengers in all those respects and beats Avatar (the film to which it is most often compared) in everything but the effects. Why did those potboilers receive acclaim from the critics and the hipsters but John Carter get no respect?

In some of Carter apologia I have read recently, the lack of irony or cynicism in the movie comes up as the cause of its failure. The film is an unapologetic swashbuckler of the old school, lighthearted without being campy, earnest in its adventuring and sincere in its values. Maybe that appeal is now a special interest, reserved for those few of us who still remember Bronze Age comics fondly and don't want a steady diet of grim 'n' gritty dark antiheroes. Even my few friends who did respond favorably to the movie called it "cheesy" and liked it in spite of itself and not for itself.

Perhaps an associated cause of the unpopularity was just being damned with faint praise. Not all the critics hated the film; just not enough of them loved it. For most, it inspired a resounding "meh," and for a $250 million film, I guess a meh is as good as a miss. Here are the ten most expensive movies, according to Wikipedia, and their Rotten Tomatoes critics ratings:

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (44%)                       
  • Tangled (90%)          
  • Spider-Man 3 (63%)       
  • John Carter (51%)          
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (84%)        
  • Avatar (83%)          
  • The Dark Knight Rises  (87%)         
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (67%)          
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (54%)          
  • The Avengers (92%)          
The list brings to mind Babe Ruth at bat: either homeruns or strikeouts, but not really any base hits. Maybe that's the curse of a really expensive film: that it is an all-or-nothing proposition, and even if you have made a decent, entertaining film, unless it goes over the moon, it is considered a failure.

Which is too bad, at least in the case of John Carter. It really is worth seeing.


On the other hand, sometimes movies really are just bad. Case in point: the other Barsoom movie, the 2009 Princess of Mars, re-released as John Carter of Mars, not at all with any intent of confusing Netflix audiences looking for the Disney flick, I am sure. This low-low budget version of the same story (I love the public domain!) has as its sole virtue that whoever wrote is seemed to have read the book and captured the basic through-line of the story. 

On the other hand, the film "stars" Antonio Sabato, Jr. and Traci Lords, the former porn star, and seems to have been made for about thirty bucks. There are about eight people total in the movie - backgrounds are mostly totally unpopulated, even on crashing airships, where you'd expect to see a crew scurrying about.  Four-armed Tharks have two arms (and rubber tusks); eight-legged thoats have two legs. As these cheap CGI bird-mounts tread clumsily across a landscape, we cut to a tight, backgroundless closeup on actors, clearly seated on camp chairs or stools or something and not even rocking with movement, to capture the dialogue as they "ride." Not that the dialogue is really worth listening to, as most of the acting is as wooden as the stunts are awkward.

And yet, now and again, there are flashes of actors really trying to sell the story, and for a moment or two, the viewer can actually believe in Barsoom, even in this mess. Thanks, ERB.

Last note: Lynn Collins, who played Dejah Thoris in John Carter, kicked ass.

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