Has ‘John Carter’ been a victim of the curse of the red planet?

Posted by · 10:16 am · March 13th, 2012

If there were a film titled “The Curse of the Red Planet” that took place on Mars — or had Martians as central figures — recent endeavors indicate that it would be a financial disaster. Or at the very least, it would have little chance of success. Disney became so convinced of the power the word “Mars” had to repel ticket sales (though in part due to fear of alienating a female audience) that they did a mid-campaign 180 and switched the title “John Carter of Mars” to the equally problematic “John Carter” (which left many people wondering, “Should I know who that is?”)

Indeed, film pundits have (primarily sight unseen) been predicting grand scale disaster for “John Carter” for months now. In truth, the title had a disappointing opening weekend, coming in just behind Universal”s family film “The Lorax” with a $30.6 total. Though, as Gregory Ellwood points out in today”s box office report, “John Carter” earned $70 million internationally in addition to its domestic gross, a figure that may give the financiers at Disney some measure of hope that the $250 million film will not pick up where 2011″s disastrous “Mars Needs Moms” left off (In the red. Yep).

The picture will likely be quite different for both the Dr. Suess and Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations once the Suzanne Collins adaptation, “The Hunger Games,” makes its way into theatres on March 23.

There are a wealth of theories floating around that address the source of the decided lack of interest in “John Carter”: A marketing campaign that left many potential audience members confused, a reliance on the draw of a property that, in truth, had limited and highly specified reach and a cast comprised mostly of respected actors without established “star power” have all been suggested as root causes. And we”d have to agree that each of those factors all played a role in the difficulties that “John Carter” is currently facing. Another issue was, in all likelihood, the aforementioned doomsday predictions which can become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Despite the rather mixed critical reception (one that is pretty much on par with “The Lorax”), the average “man on the street” response (as conducted in my very unscientific survey) seems to be that people are enjoying the film for what it is, and in many cases, more so than they initially believed they would. So, is it possible that the one core issue that prevented “John Carter” from enjoying “first blockbuster of the year” success was, in fact, the curse of the red planet?

“A Princess of Mars,” the first in author Edgar Rice Burroughs”s “Barsoom” (Mars) series, serves as the source material for the film. The tale of the Civil War veteran”s unlikely journey to Mars was initially published in 1917, a time when Mars still held a mythic fascination for the people of Earth. Indeed, the term “Martian” and “alien” may have been synonymous for some.

But, as The Guardian highlights, as science evolved and we learned more about the realities of the planet, said fascination withered into a somewhat flaccid…disappointment. There would be no life on Mars and certainly no mighty civilizations. Our eyes turned elsewhere for imaginative versions of alien life forms, and all that implies further reaches of space and distance in time.

Recent endeavors to reignite our affection for the red planet (particularly offerings that contain the notion of an alien species hailing from Mars) have largely been ignored or rejected by audiences, “Mars Attacks!” (1996), “Mission to Mars” (2000) and “Mars Needs Moms” (2011) to name a key few. Audiences seem to simply find the idea of “life on Mars” to be dated to a degree that not even kitsch can redeem it.

The term science-fiction implies that there is, in fact, at least some small measure of foundation in science. Just enough so that we may suspend our disbelief to the degree that we can not only give over the idea that the events are happening in a fictional world, but also open our minds to the possibility that the story could take place within the realms of our own reality. “John Carter” is far more fantasy than sci-fi. Embracing the fantasy elements and leaving the particulars of our world behind may have served the adaptation. A contemporary audience may have responded better to an “unknown” planet, somewhere well beyond the recesses of our current understanding.

Perhaps equally salient is the fact that the American Civil War, particularly in this context, likely holds very little appeal to the audience the marketing team was after: young men. It is also somewhat problematic that the central character fought on the side of the Confederacy, an issue that is primarily glossed over in the film. Carter is no fan of war and refuses to fight at the outset, and the concept of a just versus unjust battle is touched upon, but, perhaps not fully dealt with.

Director Andrew Stanton was devoted to the original series. As a lifelong fan he was committed to honoring the source material, which is to be commended, of course. But I have to wonder if a few small alterations would have honored the intent, tone and style of the original while making it palatable for a modern audience. Or, perhaps this is simply one that, as influential as it has been, was best left as a beloved volume from a time that has passed.

For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @JRothC on Twitter.

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