Here's the most surprising thing about the film, given the emotional resonance of Stanton's previous work, and the presence of a Pulitzer Prize winning author among the screenwriters; it's not actually about anything. Frankly, it's about too much stuff. But thematically, what was going on? "Finding Nemo" was about a father learning not to be over-protective; "Wall-E" was about caring for the planet and in Stanton's words "Irrational love defeats life's programming." "John Carter" seems to be about a man who accidentally goes to another planet and gets to bang a woman he never seemed to like that much. You can sense the script straining to find something else; we suspect they were aiming at making Carter a broken man who finds a cause worth caring about. But with his background glossed over (Confederate soldiers being less than popular as movie heroes), his dead family token and the Martian plot confusing, he never really gets there. And what's worse is that the writers try to pin the thing on the rotten old Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey template (we'd recommend Film Crit Hulk's piece on this for more). The idea of the hero refusing the call to adventure is a common one, but as in last summer's "Green Lantern," trying to avoid his responsibilities makes the protagonist seem passive, and even unlikeable.
Most of the teaser posters for "John Carter" featured our hero against a blood red backdrop, but the movie itself (as the footage started to slowly reveal itself) is draped in a color palette defined by hues of drab light yellow or pale-brown. It's enough to the point where, when he wakes up on Mars (or Barsoom as it's known to the natives) and he feel so confounded by his alien surroundings, you don't know quite why. It still looks like Montana or Utah. (It's not until the aliens show up that things seem genuinely out of place.) The Martians – giant, multi-limbed beings – are even robbed of their visual vibrancy; they're supposed to be green but look muddy and tired enough to be festival-goers finishing up a weekend at Burning Man. We understand by now that the film was based on a story that predates "Star Wars," "Avatar," and the rest, but does that give the film an excuse to have such anonymous vehicles and beasts that look recycled and weak? The airships of the warring tribes even look exactly the same, until about halfway through the movie when a character suggests us to "look at the color of the flag." Even the costumes are derivative – the Princess Leia-like bikini number, the "Gladiator" underoos – Mars could have been wild and unpredictable; one of the reasons "Avatar," for its many problems, wowed is that its creatures and world felt genuinely alien. Here "John Carter" felt like the designers picked and chose from earlier sci-fi flicks.
Ultimately, none of the above point to reasons why the film didn't perform well at the domestic box office over the weekend. Sure, the reviews didn't help, and word of mouth may not have been great, but the damage was done long before that. It's possible that audiences just didn't want to see the movie, but the decent performance internationally, and success of other sci-fi pictures, suggests otherwise. So really, the blame has to be laid at Disney's marketing of the picture. It was clear from the off that the studio, whether from a lack of confidence in the final product or not, didn't know how to market the disparate elements. And they were running scared. They changed the title after "Mars Needs Moms" tanked, believing that people didn't want to see something with 'Mars' in the title, leading to a final effect equivalent to changing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to "Henry Jones." They downplayed the Western elements after "Cowboys & Aliens" flopped. But truly, there were many baffling decisions here. Why sell the film with posters almost solely featuring the face of Taylor Kitsch, a man whose own family would struggle to pick from a line-up at this point in his career? Why spend millions on a Super Bowl spot, only to use a full third of the one minute ad on an elaborate title sequence? Why put ten minutes of the movie online the week of release, only to pick the ten minutes of the movie entirely ignored the science-fiction aspects? Then again, if sources like Vulture are to be believed, it's Stanton who commandeered the marketing campaign too, which could be studio spin, or could be the truth.
-- Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Kevin Jagernauth, Mark Zhuravsky, RP