Why 'John Carter' Is a Fascinating Disaster, Early Reviews (Video)

Features
by Anne Thompson
March 6, 2012 1:42 PM
26 Comments
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You could see Disney's "John Carter" (March 9) shaping up as a misfire from a long way off. No studio has projected "disaster" so loudly since Sony's misbegotten remake of "Godzilla" in 1998. For a $250 million movie to be tracking near a $25 million opening is shocking.

It was always going to be a challenge to pull audiences into Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian fantasy world on the red planet Barsoom. As a kid I read and reread Burroughs' "Tarzan" and Martian novels (he published his first book, "Princess of Mars," almost a century ago, in 1917). I loved escaping into this exotic universe of warriors, princesses and six-limbed Tharks. But bringing that world to the screen was impossible until James Cameron's "Avatar" successfully brought to a new level live-action mixed with digital environments and multiple performance-capture characters.

Disney optioned the rights to "A Princess of Mars" for director John McTiernan ("The Hunt for Red October"); then producer James Jacks gave it a whirl at Paramount with Guillermo del Toro and digital techno-whizes Robert Rodriguez ("Spy Kids"), Kerry Conran ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") and finally, Jon Favreau. When Paramount let go of the rights, Favreau went on to direct "Iron Man."

Watching like a hawk the entire time was Pixar writer-director Andrew Stanton, now 45, who grew up on the Marvel Comics Martian novels, and waited 36 years to grab the rights. Disney's then-chairman Dick Cook scooped them up and green-lit a $250 million feature to be adapted and directed by Stanton. (He eventually brought in writers Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews.)

“When you’re 10 or 11 years old, and you’ve discovered girls, but they haven’t discovered you yet," Stanton said at a recent Q & A, "and you’re reading about this ordinary guy that’s suddenly extraordinary on another planet, he’s got the coolest best friend, the coolest pet, and he’s winning the heart of the most beautiful girl in the universe, that’s like a checklist of everything you’ve ever wanted."

But as great a writer/director/animator as Stanton has been at Team Pixar, he's unproven in live action and he's no Spielberg, whose brand name pulls audiences to a movie. And "X-Men: Wolverine" co-stars Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, with underused "Rome" supporting players Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy, aren't marquee movie stars who put butts in seats like Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie.

Giving Stanton, despite the credit he's due for his crucial participation in Pixar's unprecedented run of 12  blockbusters--Oscar-winning "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E" earned $1.3 billion worldwide-- a live-action movie of this magnitude to supervise was a huge gamble. At Pixar he was a vital part of a team who were reliant on rewrites and animatics and constant changing of the story until each film played perfectly. Animation is the last part of the Pixar process.

Live action is a whole other universe. When I saw "John Carter" at its LA Live premiere, I could see so many things that might have been fixed by an experienced studio production team. For the most part, Disney let Stanton do his thing until he showed them a rough cut. The frustration is that the main story elements--gravity-enhanced jaded ex-soldier Carter (Kitsch), who can leap across the barren Barsoom landscape (Utah), his romance with spoiled Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Collins), alliance with honorable Thark chief Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and various battles with Martian creatures and armies--work well. The best thing in the movie is his toothy pet Woola--animated, natch (see clip below). But so much also goes wrong.

For starters, the film (which gains nothing from retrofitted 3-D) opens badly in the middle of a Martian air battle, and takes far too long to bring Civil War vet Carter to red planet Barsoom. The crucial design of the green nine-foot-tall, tusked and four-armed green Tharks is misguided (too close to Jar Jar Binks), many of the large-scale air battles are murky and over-pixelated, and Collins as the Princess of Mars boasts a clearly fake Brit accent. These are fixable mistakes among many, many more.

At the after-party, Stanton explained his deep passion for the material, and said that the film couldn't have been done any sooner with pre-existing technology, or any cheaper either. He also says he relied on pre-planned reshoots (no way Disney had eighteen days in mind). He pays no heed to news reports or critics, he just tunes into his own drummer. So much so that he has already written the second installment of his planned trilogy. Only if the first film delivers a near-impossible $700 million will that happen.

Jacks argues that Conran could have done the film for half as much. Check Conran's pitch video below, which captures just the right feel for Barsoom. While cinephiles may know that George Lucas and James Cameron raided these novels as inspiration for "Star Wars" and "Avatar," the fact remains that audiences are clueless about this world. (Here's Stanton's profile in The New Yorker and more recent interviews with the LAT's Geoff Boucher and Harry Knowles; video of his recent TED Talk, "My Life in Story, Backwards" is below. )

In October 2009, incoming Disney chairman Rich Ross faced a project that was well under way, with millions already spent. And under boss Robert Iger's directives, Ross let go of many of Disney's experienced production, distribution and marketing professionals. When the studio tested the movie's "materials" --characters, title, designs--they did not play well with audiences. Burroughs' Martian novels are not as well-known as his "Tarzan" series, which fueled countless film iterations over the decades. 

An inexperienced chairman like Ross--relying on a new marketing team run by industry outsider MT Carney-- didn't know how to place the movie inside the proper genre context, the male sci-fi fantasy universe. Instead the studio, with so much investment on the line, took the mass-audience "appeal-to-everyone" approach. Disastrously, in an effort to draw women, they got rid of the most commercial element of the project. By trimming "John Carter of Mars" to "John Carter," they lost Mars. (More details at Thedailybeast.)

Whatever the pluses and minues of outgoing studio chief Dick Cook, he was an ace marketer who would never have so mishandled this campaign. "John Carter" was generic: its standalone JC logo meant nothing. And as terrific as Canadian hunk Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights") is in this movie--and he's going to be a star from here, with tentpole actioner "Battleship" and Oliver Stone's drug cartel thriller "Savages" coming up--he's hardly a marquee draw at this point. 

Disney then made another crucial error, opting not to promote the movie to its prime demo at Comic-Con in July, but keeping it with the Disney line-up at D 23, where the presentation bombed. You could sense the chill in the room. It just didn't feel like your cookie-cutter Disney movie.

Hollywood insider Ricky Strauss, Disney's more experienced new marketing head, came into a tough situation and started to right the ship by admitting that yes, the core target audience was male--young males, the ones who tune into the fanboy demo, who should have been targeted at Comic-Con last summer. That was a start, and sure enough, Knowles, who had been a producer on the Jacks "John Carter of Mars" at Paramount, gave the film a rave.

But the damage had been done. Iger may have wanted to break his studio away from its hidebound traditions and practices. But he did so at a cost. The write-off on this movie will be one of the biggest in Hollywood history.

A sampling of reviews, clips and trailers below:

THR: "This Disney extravaganza is a rather charming pastiche, if perhaps not one with sufficient excitement and razzle-dazzle to justify the reported $250 million production budget. Neither classic nor fiasco, the film will likely delight sci-fi geeks most of all, but there's enough here for general Disney audiences as well to generate solid box office worldwide,..If 'Avatar' had never existed, it's possible that 'John Carter' would have seemed like more of a genre breakthrough,..Although the result is quite a mishmash, dramatic coherence prevails over visual flair; the colors, skin tones, image sharpness and cohesion of diverse pictorial elements are less than stellar, although the 3D is effective, with comparatively little brightness sacrificed by donning glasses."

Empire: "Stanton has built a fantastic world, but the action is unmemorable. Still, just about every sci-fi/fantasy/superhero adventure you ever loved is in here somewhere."

CinemaBlend: "What shocks me most is Stanton’s apparent lack of command over a story that sprawls in various directions without saying much. This is a Pixar veteran whose credits include the 'Toy Story' franchise, 'Finding Nemo' and the flawless 'WALL-E.' Could he not see that he lacked a firm grip on his film’s narrative?"

TotalFilm: "If history has taught filmmakers one lesson, it’s that if you’re going to make a movie about Mars, it had better star Arnold Schwarzenegger and a lady with three boobies. Otherwise? Forget it. So, maybe the smartest thing 'WALL.E' director Andrew Stanton has ever done was chopping the words 'Of Mars' off the title of his first live action movie,..The problem for Andrew Stanton’s blockbuster adap is that, a century later, we do have 'Star Wars,' 'Star Trek' and 'Avatar.' Sadly, John Carter has come a little too late to his own party and all the other boys and girls have eaten his cake and popped his balloons,..A handsome new sci-fi adventure that feels rather familiar. Enjoyable enough while it lasts, 'John Carter' is big on ambition and disappointingly short on action."

HitFix: "I think they've fumbled the sales pitch completely, but if you're willing to look past that and go the theater, 'John Carter' is transporting in exactly the way I want my escapism to be.  Richly imagined, robustly performed, and directed with the evident enthusiasm of someone who's been dreaming about Barsoom his whole life, 'John Carter' is a gem."

The Playlist: "Rarely do films meet this kind of scrutiny on the way to the theater, but given the years in development this project has been through, and the new do-or-die, go big or go home ethos that Disney currently embraces, it was perhaps inevitable. But when the lights go down, the 3D glasses go on and the movie starts, it's all about what's on the screen and unfortunately for the studio and director Andrew Stanton, "John Carter" is a mess. Strangely uninvolving and needlessly convoluted, "John Carter" spends over two hours making the case for being a franchise, without ever really becoming a movie.

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26 Comments

  • Glides | December 18, 2012 10:07 AMReply

    The comment about "Battleship" and "Savages" made me remember when people thought those movies would go anywhere.
    Kitsch is not a terrible actor at all, and I'm actually convinced that he should be the next Batman if JGL won't do it. But he just has awful luck with movies. First "X-Men Origins" and then these three stinkers in a row. Hopefully one day he's in a good movie.

  • Anne Thompson | November 16, 2012 7:10 PMReply

    I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian and Tarzan novels, read them over and over. I suspect that Andrew Stanton--who is a gifted writer--was given too much unsupervised oversight over a monstrously ambitious project way outside his experience and skill set. He did not get the support he needed, either. There was a better movie in there.

  • steve davidson | November 16, 2012 6:56 PMReply

    the Conran pitch clip is SO very much better than the full Stanton POS it almost made me cry. I'm glad that Anne mentioned that Stanton's experience of ERB/Carter came through the comic books rather than the novels - his presentation in the (hardly an adequate word for it) awful JC film is totally cartoonish. If he'd read the books he might have had a chance to realize that his rewrite of JC destroyed the whole pulp/science fantasy ethos of the story. Conran's clip starts where it should have - with Carter's narration, the same cipher background that Burroughs introduced in A Princess of Mars - not some weepy moany gravelly voiced ne'er do well who - boo hoo - lost his family in the war. I'm so angry that they didn't greenlight that version - maybe if I watch the clip ten or so thousand times it will wipe the vomit-tinged memory of JC out of my head (but I seriously doubt it).

  • Sam | March 18, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    You wouldn't know a great movie if it got you pregnant out behind the Jr. High.

  • Mark | March 12, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    Like Wall-E and unlike other aspiring blockbusters, this film has a heart and a soul. For me, that's more than enough to compensate for its relatively trivial deficiencies.

  • Gsmarten | March 12, 2012 1:50 AMReply

    Good film. Could have been better, not a huge kitsch fan. Hes o.k and will only get better. I would have liked Matthew McConaughey, I know everyone hates Matt, but he really was perfect for the part. Southern well built, and a solid actor. Yes he's fallen into being the American Hugh grant, but he's who I pictured when I read the book. I hope the film can pick up steam and make enough money for a sequel. I enjoyed the world they created and feel like they did a great job. A few tempo issues and a casting problem here and there hurt the film, but I had a great time. The added on 3d sucked. But go see it . So we can get another one.

  • Kurshiah | March 10, 2012 12:40 AMReply

    I found the movie an interesting adventure. I went with my family and it captured us right from the start! We did not equal it to anything and just watched it with an open heart & mind. We enjoyed the movie tremendously...and mind you we are all Star Trek & Star Wars fans!!
    Stop comparing and just enjoy the show.

  • milehigh | March 10, 2012 8:29 PM

    I agree, I was entertained. I wasn't expecting anything. Just enjoy the movie!

  • Joe | March 8, 2012 1:06 PMReply

    Taylor Kitsch is a crap actor and he most assuredly isn't going to be a star after this film and Battleship are ravaged by critics and bomb at the box office. As for Stone's Savages, since when has Oliver Stone's films created stars? Ask Colin Farrell if Alexander made him a huge star. In fact, when is the last good film that Stone has made? Don't even dare say W. Stone is not a creator of stars. He's not even a good director anymore.

  • JoJo | March 7, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    Edward said:

    "What happened? Stanton had his own marketing team, but likely they were steamrolled by Disney."

    Nope. It was actually the exact opposite.

  • Gsmarten | March 12, 2012 1:42 AM

    Alexander was flawed , all three versions of it. But still more interesting than anything micheal bay has ever maid. Wall street 2$ was a good film. World trade center was a great film. W. was a good film just not hard hitting enough. Should have ripped bush a new a** hole. I think stone still remains one of the best Filmakers alive, and he will return to greatness. As far as your rip on Collin Farrell, he has worked with Spielberg,Micheal Mann,Terrence Malick ,Woody Allen,Terry Gilliam,Robert Towne,Martin McDonagh,Neil Jordan,Joel Schumacher,Roger Donaldson,Tim Roth,& Peter Weir.
    I don't think he cares if he's a big movie star o not. He works with great directors and for the most part makes good to great films. Not I mention he's a very talented actor.

  • Edward | March 7, 2012 6:08 PM

    If that's the case, then it's sad indeed.

  • Edward | March 7, 2012 2:01 PMReply

    I'm coming down on the positive side -- firmly. I was enchanted by "John Carter," flaws and all. It was what the "Star Wars" prequels should have been, and the film is going to be unfairly compared with the awful Episode II visually. I found Lynn Collins enormously appealing (and her accent workable enough -- who knows what Martians would sound like -- to elicit favorable comparisons in my mind to Carrie Fisher), and thought the Tharks were engaging and charming in a way Jar-Jar never was. The biggest flaw was that too much happens in the movie, and that's a flaw I wish more movies had. I went in expecting a bomb of epic proportions ... and instead found myself loving an epic adventure.

    From an industry standpoint, "John Carter" shows the absolute worst of Disney -- the marketing campaign, if it's possible, exudes the studio's innate arrogance. There is no creativity to it. What happened? Stanton had his own marketing team, but likely they were steamrolled by Disney. Is it that hard to sell an outer-space movie about a civil war that happens to have an appealing love story with a sexy princess?

    It's NOT a mess of a movie. It's a terrific film. In the best possible sense of the word, it's a throwback to the time when movie directors tried to tell an exciting story. And in the worst possible sense of the term, it's a cautionary tale about how inexperienced, arrogant marketers get in and muck things up.

    I'm hoping audiences will give it a chance, but at this point, "John Carter" the film has been so overwhelmed by "John Carter" the business story that I'm afraid it has ended up with stink all over it. A shame, really. Many reviewers have been quite passionate in their defense of the movie, and I'd stand among them.

  • Jon | March 13, 2012 10:26 AM

    Sorry JOE but the Star Wars prequels were in fact a steaming pile of CRAP. John Carter was a damn good movie that suffered from bad marketing- period. Star Wars, Avatar and Star Gate stole there source matierial from Burroughs and are hardly the original phenomenon they are hyped up to be. Kitsh out acted half the Star Wars prequel cast with ease. Portman, Christiansen and McGregors performances were atrocious. This film deserves way more credit than it deserves. Nice to see that outside the States that John Carter is doing really well. This film is FAR FROM A BOMB. A really fun movie. Blade Runner was panned upon its release by the way. Now its hailed as an innovative Sci-Fi classic. I suspect John Carter will get his respect in time.

  • Joe | March 8, 2012 1:09 PM

    "It was what the "Star Wars" prequels should have been"

    Oh please! The Star Wars prequels should have been 10 times better than this worthless tripe, and in a number of ways they're already better than John Carter.

    John Carter is garbage, and yes I've seen it. Disney deserves to lose every penny of that money, because they were idiotic to bet 250 million dollars on Taylor Kitsch, a complete unknown and a talentless actor.

  • Anne Thompson | March 7, 2012 1:47 PMReply

    That's easy. Ahead of "Avatar"'s release, James Cameron and Fox were trying to sell something original--and the blue Pandora creatures looked weird in clips and stills outside the context of the movie. Even the early previews of footage didn't play that well. Luckily, in that case, the movie delivered and then some. It didn't play just to the sci-fi fantasy adventure community, it played to men, women, teens, kids, grandparents all over the world. It opened to a record $77.3 million in December 2009 (boosted by 3-D) to rave reviews (83% on rotten tomatoes), and played and played and played in multiple formats to repeat viewers--reaching $2.7 billion worldwide.

    "John Carter" will play to the male demo as a genre film; it will not get rave reviews (it's tracking at 63% on RT); and if it does open at $20 to $30 million, will barely make back its marketing costs. It's just a mess of a movie. What's frustrating is that there is so much good in it that one can't help but wonder if with the right production supervision and marketing, it couldn't have come out much better.

  • Jon | March 13, 2012 10:30 AM

    Well it tracked better than predicted. Internationally it is doing very well. Disney will recoup I suspect and fire that lousy marketing team. They made a good film and Stanton should be proud. Just need a better team pushing this film.

  • cadavra | March 7, 2012 1:26 PMReply

    Anne, with all due respect, you keep saying that one reason the film is doomed is because the audience is "clueless" about the source material. Then how do you explain the enormous success of AVATAR, which was a putatively original story?

  • Joe | March 8, 2012 1:11 PM

    You're right. It's doomed because it has an unknown cast that isn't worth a crap. It's marketing, what little there has been, was atrocious. The film looks like crap, and it is.

  • Amy D. | March 7, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    Really good analysis. Should also mention those murky billboards with the blob-like gray monsters. From the car, at least, you can't tell what you're looking at. And it is completely baffling that they dropped "of Mars" from the title to appeal to girls (as if they have no imagination or appetite for adventure - how silly), but then those same billboards do not promote the presence of Taylor Kitsch in any visible way.

  • R.G. Miller | March 6, 2012 3:55 PMReply

    cost way to much...I could have done the same film with better story for 3.5million
    I needed a buget of at least 100,000 and I could have made my internet art film into a Major studio grade film

    http://youtu.be/Qx-lC8LNjI0 I dare you to check it out!!!!!

    buget for my internet art film sycbo The Thule Wars: under a few hundred dollars

  • Giants | March 12, 2012 1:50 PM

    If your atrocious writing and clueless arrogance is any indication of your filmmaking, I think I'll pass.

  • R.G. Miller | March 6, 2012 3:28 PMReply

    this is what happens when you wait your whole life to do ONE film....it becomes an outdated vision with harden ideas attach. pet projects never are veiw any good except to a few people and the creator of the project.

  • ag | March 6, 2012 2:13 PMReply

    reading that stanton has "already written the second installment of his planned trilogy" is a punch in the gut

    have to say, loved the 10-minute clip. plays real (within a certain scope). the protag faces danger (that he can't escape simply by jumping away), moves with good energy. reminds me of radio theater from the 30s 40s -- appropriate considering the source material. that clip is totally different from trailers and the bits that take place on mars (which i guess also reads like a punch in the gut)

  • Joe | March 8, 2012 1:12 PM

    Yeah, I hope Stanton's not holding his breath.

  • Max | March 6, 2012 2:07 PMReply

    I counted 95 reviews from every English-speaking blogger or critic I could find. There were 60 positive and 35 negative. It turns out that this really could be one of the most tragic flops of all time, given its development period.

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