April 10, 2012 at 2:06 PM

Media Rare #17

R.I.P. Capt. John Carter, 1912-2012

"Only three weeks after first release on March 9, the bean-counters proclaimed the movie a box office bomb..."

By Casey St. Charnez

Media Rare

Casey St. Charnez has been video editor for Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide since 1986 and buyer for Lisa Harris' Video Library since 1981. He likes Lisa, cats, crosswords, and the Metropolitan Opera, probably in that order.

Advertisement

And now, a eulogy for a true hero who absolutely died at the box office from terminal indifference.

One of author Edgar Rice Burroughs' long-beloved fantasy characters, along with Tarzan and the denizens of Pellucidar, Confederate Army Captain John Carter first appeared a century ago in a pulp magazine serial that eventually became the novel "A Princess of Mars." The picaresque plot detailed the adventures of a 19th-century military man who finds himself inexplicably transported to the Red Planet, where he becomes the hero he never was on Earth. This fanciful tale of Barsoom-—as the Martians call their own world—led to another 10 books, the last published posthumously in 1964.

Over the years, many directors have sought to take on the project. One of the first was animator Bob Clampett ("Beany & Cecil"), who conceived of a feature cartoon as early as 1931. During the 1980s, Disney studio chief Michael Eisner hired John McTiernan ("Die Hard") to take a crack at it. In the last decade alone, film adaptations were announced, then abandoned, by Robert Rodriguez ("Sin City"), Kerry Conran ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow")), and Jon Favreau ("Iron Man"), among others.

Enter Andrew Stanton, helmer of Pixar ultra-hits "Wall-E" and "Finding Nemo," dying to shoot his first live-action feature. Given carte blanche by the honchos, Stanton was allowed, even encouraged, to run barefoot through the studio's holdings and pick whatever he wanted. Without a second thought, he grabbed the Burroughs property right off the shelf. As a Burroughs fanatic himself, he seemed the right man for the job, as he ensured and embodied the common goal of a faithful translation of the book.

Stanton's insistent vision ultimately would cost Disney some $250 million, with little hope of breaking even, much less going into profit. Only three weeks after first release on March 9, the bean-counters proclaimed the movie a box office bomb in the tradition of "Heaven's Gate" (1980), traditionally the industry definition of loss, in terms of money spent versus money earned.

Though "John Carter" opened poorly in the U.S., it made decent money overseas, though not nearly enough to offset costs. It is a mega-bomb. They say it's taking Disney to the cleaners, with about a $200 million loss, not to mention company stock spiraling dramatically downward for the first quarter. Right now, it's considered the biggest money-loser of all time.

Of course, I'd been looking forward to it for the last couple of years. About an hour after the project was announced, the SyFy Channel shot its own rip-off version, using the original "Princess of Mars" title, with Antonio Sabato Jr., as J.C., the deliverer of Mars, as well as shockingly miscast Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris, the P. of M.

I had to watch it. It was deeply, inevitably disappointing, an excrementally bad atrocity, exemplified by an inherent shoddy cheapness that could afford only two appendages for the book's six-legged banths, the preferred mode of transport on the desert world.

Critics disapproved of the new movie's casting, but I didn't. Taylor Kitsch (the troubled footballer on TV's "Friday Night Lights") made a perfectly feckless Carter, and Texas-born Lynn Collins (superb as Portia in 2004's "Merchant of Venice") was a feisty fighting royal. They were an acceptable lead couple, especially since they'd appeared together before, as Gambit and Silverfox in 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Both actors thus had considerable experience playing to the green special-effects screen. (But it did seem to me that money was wasted on name-brand people like Willem Defoe and Samantha Morton for voice-over alien roles.)

Still, since the original book was written in Utah and because the production shot its stark locations there, the dedication of the filmmakers was palpable, not to mention that the ruddy, arid landscapes were all rendered in immersive, convincing 3-D.

The production's prospects took a major wrong turn only a few months ago, when director Stanton decided that the massively promoted working title "John Carter of Mars" restricted the demographic to fanboys. He convinced the marketing department to drop "...of Mars" so as to position the picture for crossover appeal, in the same way everybody went to "Avatar," even if they weren't sci-fi fans. He was wrong.

The big bugaboo, though, was that the audience had seen all of this before, time and time again. Tell it to George Lucas: His "Banthas" in the "Star Wars" movies are a deliberate, direct homage to Burroughs. Even Stanton's sound effects ape Lucasfilm's trademark audio zings. What was fresh and imaginative decades before Spielberg and Jackson et. al. is culturally familiar to the point of cliché. "John Carter," instead of boasting its originality, unspools like a generic imitation, since it's so after the fact.

For exactly a hundred years now, the chronicles of Barsoom have remained a childhood must-read for all growing boys, myself included. Clearly, Disney saw "John Carter" as a tentpole, the beginning of a franchise that would spawn sequels for at least another decade, "Harry Potter"-style. Clearly, that's not going to happen.

So I must say "Farewell" in English, never to know the Barsoomian equivalent. Capt. Carter has left the planet.

Advertisement