Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Dreadful Sort of Anticipation

There's a little over two weeks to go until John Carter hits movie theaters, and I have to say, I am both super excited and a little afraid to see it at the same time. I've been following its development for several years now, ever since Pixar dropped official word that they were moving forward with a movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic series. I am already making plans with a dear friend to go see it on opening day. Dread or not, my butt will be there in the theater to find out if Pixar managed to pull of a miracle.

Some recent analyses have people predicting that John Carter is going to tank at the box office. I can only roll my eyes at the suggestion. Not because I think it is a ridiculous assertion but because in fact I think it is kind of hopelessly optimistic to think that it will even come close to breaking even. I mean, saying that this movie is likely to tank is like saying that milk goes sour if you leave it out on your counter for too long. For the record, I am not rooting for this movie to flop at all. I'd love to be surprised and find that it does end up becoming a blockbuster after all. I just think if one is realistic, expecting that to be the case is rather silly.

There are a few reasons for this, of course. The most obvious being that the vast majority of moviegoers today have no idea whatsoever who John Carter is. Even people familiar with Burroughs' other most enduring series, Tarzan, are unlikely to be able to tell you Burroughs' name, let alone to know that he wrote tons of other works, including another series that, in its time, was even more popular than Tarzan. I have been a fan of Burroughs since I was very young, and I absolutely adore his stories, but he wrote pulp, and pulp does not endure. The only reason that Tarzan is still so prominent in the public consciousness is because it caught the eye of Hollywood early on and those original few movies (which bear very little resemblance to the books themselves) captured a wide enough audience that they became considered classics in their own right. The story has been adapted and retold for the screen )and in comics) countless times in the last few generations, and that keeps it alive. But precious few people today have read the books, and many don't even realize that there were books to begin with.

The John Carter of Mars series never had such good fortune to be so adapted from page to screen and so it sort of faded from the public consciousness. That isn't to say it was ever really forgotten. Many people stumbled across copies of A Princess of Mars in their libraries or bookstores and found themselves transported to Barsoom (the name the people of Mars have for their planet) along with Carter. Some people like myself might have enjoyed reading the Tarzan books and picked up the series to see more from the same author. I wasn't trying to insult Burroughs' writing when I called it pulp, because it is mighty tasty pulp, after all. Hollywood hasn't completely ignored the franchise either. There have been several attempts to adapt the movie to the big screen (and at least one disastrous made for television movie), but they've never really gotten very far off the ground, and none of those that did ever approached the arena of success. In fact, that is yet another reason why John Carter has the deck stacked against it. To be considered a success by the studio, it is going to have to recover all of those wasted funds from all of those previous attempts to get the story brought to the big screen. On top of the not inconsiderable costs of actually making and marketing the movie. That is a lot to expect out of such a little known franchise. It's not fair, but hey, it's Hollywood. This movie wouldn't have gotten made at all if Andrew Stanton, with all of his Pixar clout, hadn't made it a personal project because of his own love for the series.

The third real detractor here is the fact that the marketing has kind of been a mess. I mean, yes, it is clear that money has been spent in getting the word out about this movie. Ads and posters and trailers and such have been running for a while now. It's safe to say the larger movie-going community is aware that this movie is coming out. But. Good lord. First there was the whole name debacle. The movie is based on the first book in the series, originally titled A Princess of Mars but the powers that be decided that they would reach a wider audience *cough*men*cough* if they made the title of the movie something more "accessible" and so it was instead going to be called John Carter of Mars. Okay, that annoys me as a woman and as a literary buff, but whatever. Then, just after the advertising campaign had started, they changed the name of the movie again, dropping the science fiction connotations of "of Mars" for the more simple (and boring and generic) sounding John Carter. I'm not going to get into the reasons given for the why of that decision. I don't believe them, for one thing, and at best they make me roll my eyes so hard I am afraid my contacts are about to pop out.

Point is that at this juncture, the name of the movie tells you absolutely nothing regarding what this movie is actually about. People who have read the books might realize who John Carter is, but that name is pretty run of the mill if we're being honest, and it could easily be about someone today as it was about someone one hundred and fifty years ago. The trailers aren't helping, either. Again, I can watch them and I have a pretty decent idea about what is going on. But I've read the books multiple times and have been following the development of this movie. The very vast majority have not done either of those things. To those people, these previews must seem like a vast jumble of nonsense. At the best, they are very confusing and don't do much to get the basic idea of story across. They just show off skimpily dressed people, aliens, and lots and lots of fighting. I am trying to figure out how all of that, without a cultural touch point that is going to appeal to more people than "guys who like half-naked women and explosions" is going to draw very many people into the theater. I've also seen mention online in several places about confusion as to what audience exactly the studio is trying to target with these trailers. Those people have a point, the trailers seem to be geared towards everybody, hoping to draw as many people as possible in to the theater, but they have ended up being appealing to nobody because they are so darn generic and lacking in information.

Also, the story itself is about a Civil War-era soldier (with opinions and beliefs decidedly from that time frame) who is suddenly transported to a Mars based on scientific beliefs long since disproven. That doesn't make it a bad story at all, but I do suspect that it will be kind of hard to swallow for the general movie-going populace. I would love to be proven wrong on this.

So, those are the reasons why I don't suspect this movie is going to be a huge success at the box office. None of that actually has any bearing on whether or not this movie will be any good however, and that's where my sense of dread comes in. Because I really can't tell. I love these stories, I really do, but the track record of faithfulness in adapting Burroughs' work to the big screen is not good. Part of me is quite frankly terrified that we will be looking at another Eragon here: a bad adaptation that can't even be forgiven because it was also just a bad movie with no redeeming values at all. The trailers are so focused on the fighting and explosions and scenery that I can't get a good bead on how the acting or story fit in to the picture. Taylor Kitsch, for example, who plays the eponymous John Carter doesn't match any mental image I have ever held in mind for the character (although, funnily enough, I do think he would have made an excellent Tarzan, at least if we are just going by appearance). That doesn't mean I'm not prepared to be won over, but I am not familiar enough with his work to even have expectations of his acting ability. Doubly troubling since a glance at his list of roles shows that I've seen him in several things, yet I still have no idea who he is.


So yes, I am really really looking forward to this movie. Burroughs is such an amazing world builder and I can't wait to see his Barsoom brought to life on the big screen. I can't wait to see his crazy inventions and creatures realized before my eyes. Andrew Stanton loved this story too, it is clear when he talks about it in interviews. I trust him as a filmmaker, because I have seen time and time again what he is capable of through Pixar's movies. That gives me some hope. But...he's not the only person who has had his fingers in this pot. This is Hollywood, after all, and their track record isn't nearly so reassuring. The fear of being let down is great.

To be clear, I am not trying to be all elitist and say that I think only "true" fans will like this movie or that I can't believe Andrew Stanton is ruining my childhood or whatever. I hope with all of my heart that this movie does insanely well and that a whole new generation is drawn into the worlds of Burroughs' imagination. I just fear that the marketing of this film has killed any chance of that wider appeal, and I worry that the movie itself might not only not live up to the hype, but actually not be very good because, Andrew Stanton aside, it seems to me as if the people involved don't get it. Again, would love to be proven wrong here.

A fan recently cobbled together a new trailer from those released by the studio that provides a much better sense of the story than anything the studio has actually put out. It gives me a little more hope, I'll admit.

But March ninth is fast approaching, and I will be there for good or ill, my fingers and toes crossed as I wait for the room to go dark and the screen to come to life. I guess we will just have to see what we will see...

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