UPDATE: I thought it’d be interesting to update this article with my thoughts now I’ve seen the film. In short: I loved it. John Carter is not without its flaws (it has serious pacing problems and is about 20 minutes too long), but it is by no means a disaster. Andrew Stanton has brought A Princess of Mars to screen with a huge amount of passion and while that, in part, leads to some of the problems, the good far outweighs the bad.
What struck me about John Carter is just how uncompromising it is. We, like the lead character, are thrown into an alien world with little to ease us into the transition. We are shown alien cultures who are brutal and sometimes difficult to like. We can’t immediately identify the good guys and the bad guys like we can in Star Wars; instead we have to learn as Carter learns. It makes for a strange but immersive experience, and Stanton deserves credit for bringing us into this world through his script as well as his visuals.
Why has it struggled so much commercially? There are many reasons – lack of big stars, lack of property awareness, the fact it looks more like a Western than a sci-fi adventure. Biggest of all though is that budget. Did John Carter really need $250m to get made? Couldn’t it have reached the screen on the back of $200m? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Titanic and 2012 were, and they have as many, if not more, VFX shots. So why not John Carter?
At time of writing, the film has an international total gross of $126m. It seems near-impossible that it will break even during its cinematic run, and it may even struggle to make its money back after DVD and Blu-Ray sales. I sincerely hope this doesn’t put Disney off further projects of this kind or discourage studios from giving Stanton more live action chances. John Carter has had a bad box office, but it is not a bad film. Many other sci-fi films have been in similar situations and succeeded in the long run. I hope John Carter does the same.
Before starting this, cards on the table. I have yet to see John Carter. This is not a review of the film, but a review of the reviews.
Is there life on Mars? If this weekend’s box office receipts are anything to go by, there’s barely an ameoba crawling about up there. John Carter, the Andrew Stanton-directed, Disney-produced adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian saga, badly underperformed at American cinemas this weekend, making just $30.6 million – a meagre return for a movie that’s reported to cost somewhere in the region of $250 million. The media is already hovering over the film like vultures over a rotting carcass, citing the budget, the lack of A-list stars and the very concept as reasons for the film’s struggles. Believe them and the question isn’t ‘Has John Carter bombed’ but ‘Why John Carter has bombed’.
But why believe the media? As Den of Geek point out, Carter‘s not down for the count just yet. The film has performed respectably in international markets, pulling in $70.6 million overseas, which makes for a much more healthy overall gross of $101.3 million. That’s still a massive loss for Disney, but it’s hardly the disaster that’s been suggested. Indeed, with The Lorax (which was one of John Carter‘s main box office competitors this weekend) scoring nearly $40 million in what was its second week, and home video proving as important to overall returns as actual box office these days, John Carter is far from dead.
So why all the doom and gloom? It’s a typical story really: cynicism and money. Since its inception, John Carter has been one of Hollywood’s most troublesome projects, traversing the decades (the first rumblings of a cinematic adaptation date back to the 30s) and changing directors constantly (from Robert Rodriquez to Kerry Conran to Jon Favreau) before finally landing in the hands of Disney and Stanton. The criticism only increased when rumours of an escalating budget and title changes (from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter) hit the headlines. Mixed early buzz gave way to a wave of negative reviews and combined with the disappointing domestic return, John Carter is now in a bit of a pickle.
There’s something decidedly insidious happening here though. We’re not being told all there is about this ‘monumental disaster’. Dig deep enough and you’ll find out that the film is not the universally panned shambles it’s been painted as. In fact, it’s proving popular with many and is, at very worst, a Marmite movie that’s splitting opinion. The film’s box office actually increased by 25% on Saturday and for every negative review, there have been plenty of good ones, primarily from Starburst Magazine, Ain’t It Cool News and SFX. Notably, of course, these are genre outlets, and while there have been a few positive write-ups from the mainstream media, the overwhelming opinion has been negative. Not just negative in fact, positively vitriolic, and this has not gone unnoticed.
Writing on Twitter, Neil Gaiman pointed out the sense of jubilation that many critics have taken in witnessing John Carter‘s struggles. Replying to writer and film critic Anne Bilson (a fan of the film), Gaiman wrote: “I’ve missed all the reviews. Just noticed the glee with which DISNEY ARE GOING TO LOSE MONEY ON THIS! stories are going up.” Another man who has seen the reviews (though probably wishes he hadn’t) has also commented on the trend. Andrew Stanton used Twitter to thank those who have seen and enjoyed John Carter and noted the “schadenfreude” with which its struggles have been reported. Shameful joy? Sounds about right.
John Carter wouldn’t be the first Disney film to receive such treatment. When the animation side of the studio experienced its most recent lull (running roughly from Fantasia 2000 to 2007′s Meet The Robinsons) there was much delighted hand-wringing from certain sections of the media, who seemed happy to see the trap spring on the Mouse House. Similar reactions have greeted the stuttering performances of their live action films too, with Prince of Persia and TRON: Legacy both being classed as box-office failures after slow starts. By the end of their runs, Prince of Persia had taken over $335m (budget $200m) and TRON: Legacy over $400m (budget $170m). Oh for failures like that…
Success has always encouraged such criticism – just look at the hyperbolic hatred George Lucas still attracts 13 years after The Phantom Menace. This is (sadly) a natural thing for the media, but there’s something about Disney that inspires critics to sharpen their knives and dig them deeper than with any other film studio, director or actor. It’s always been there (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was famously dismissed as “Disney’s folly” before its release) and it’s only got worse, with each film scrutinized and dissected long before release. Disney, it seems, will just never be able to do right by some critics.
None of this is to say that Disney should be beyond criticism or that they don’t deserve criticism for John Carter, only that such criticism should always be tempered with acknowledgement of the studio’s immense (and continued) achievements. Snow White remains one of cinema’s greatest risks and in Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast, Disney have shown that they are willing to push cinematic technology forward without sacrificing story in the face of spectacle. Their two most recent animated films (the computer-animated, 3D Tangled and the hand-drawn, 2D Winnie the Pooh) have show a determination to continue such experiments. Both were very different, but equally impressive, pieces of work.
Sadly the media isn’t known for its ability to grasp such subtleties and ‘MOVIE STUDIO THAT HAS CONTRIBUTED SIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS RELEASES FILM THAT UNDERWHELMS A BIT’ isn’t as good a headline as ‘GIANT CORPORATION RELEASES DUD’. So it has been and so shall it ever be. John Carter is just the latest film to fall into the trap and expect Disney’s upcoming releases, which include big-name intriguing offerings like Wreck-It Ralph and Oz: The Great and Powerful (both already subjected to media tittle-tattle), to get similar treatment. Let’s hope Disney’s response is similarly consistent, and that they continue making bold and interesting films that fly in the face of critics and maintain the amazing history of a studio whose excellence is there for all to see, but all too often forgotten.