It’s not always easy to spot big budget box office bombs from a long ways off. For as strange as the casting of Ryan Reynolds and his subsequent CGI suit may have been, not many could have predicted that Green Lantern would have tanked to the degree it did. It didn’t look any more offensive than a feature like Hulk or Thor, but somehow it managed to fail on a level that no one expected.
The same goes for a film like Conan the Barbarian, which yes, was a reboot, but had a recognizable name and a hulking up and coming star leading (Jason Momoa), but that film also failed to impress even its bloodthirsty target audience, and was one of the biggest failures of the year.
And now along comes a film that appears to be a cross between them. John Carter wears Conan’s skimpy leather outfits and interacts with alien species that would have been right at home with Green Lantern. With an unfamiliar story, an unproven star and a production budget reported to be close to $250M, I am confident that we are about to witness one of the most spectacular box office failures of all time.
But it’s got this…thing!
This is a risky bet to make, as it could end up being the next Avatar for all I know. That too had a cast of relative unknowns and a wacky sci-fi concept, yet it went on to be the most highest grossing film ever made. So what’s different about John Carter?
Let me say up front that this is not an article dedicated to saying that John Carter is going to suck. For those intimately familiar with the source material, it’s supposed to be a pretty good tale, and director Andrew Stanton has helmed masterful Pixar films like Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Mission Impossible 4’s Brad Bird (of The Incredibles and Rataouille) has recently proven that animation directors can jump into live-action and the result can be explosive.
But audiences don’t necessarily listen to critics, and lately, have been barely doing so at all. Taking a look at the top ten films of this past weekend is bizarre. Eight of the ten have rotten ratings, and Wanderlust, one of the only two fresh features, debuted in eighth place this weekend. The Secret World of Arriarty with a 94% is in tenth. And this isn’t an anomaly. A few weeks earlier, Haywire got rave reviews yet put up terrible numbers. Meanwhile, the much derided The Vow has been tearing up the box office. So the point is that even if John Carter earns high marks from critics, that doesn’t mean the box office receipts will match.
Every time I’ve been in a theater where a John Carter trailer plays, it’s the same audience reaction. The spot is a mashup of footage from Civil War era America, when it suddenly jumps into an alien populated Mars and Taylor Kitch wearing a leather outfit that almost looks fetishistic. Throw in a giant helping of oddly CGi-ed creatures and some stock dialogue along the lines of “we didn’t start this war, but we will finish it!” and the audience looks around them confused, not knowing what just happened.
Though it might not be bad, I would say that for nearly anyone outside of die hard Stanton, Kitsch or classic sci-fi fans, it sure as hell doesn’t look good from these trailers. The plot is incomprehensible, and I still don’t understand it after watching six different trailer variants, and the CGI is more Star Wars prequel trilogy than Avatar. The title furthers the confusion, as changing “John Carter of Mars” to just “John Carter” has to be the oddest shortening in movie history, and I still don’t understand the reasoning behind it.
But all this aside, even if it can somehow manage to attract a mildly interested audience who will find something redeeming in these trailers, the film doesn’t just need to be a hit, it needs to be a SMASH for Disney to have sunk so much into it. They want, no, need John Carter to be the next big sci-fi franchise. But the math makes this an incredibly tall order. With the production budget at $250M and unknown millions of marketing costs past that, those involved with the film have said the movie needs to make $700M worldwide to warrant a sequel.
A gladiator fight where the person getting executed miraculously kills everything and survives? What a twist!
So what’s the only way this can happen? The movie needs to be just so damn good that it needs to force people into theaters to see it after week one, two, three and so on. Once you see it, you have to tell everyone you know they must check it out, as the inherent concept isn’t engaging or coherent enough to get people to turn out the way a big established franchise like Batman or Harry Potter can.
Again, you can say that happened with Avatar, but what that film had going for it was that the amazement of moviegoers was not necessarily with the story, but the visuals. You were telling all your friends to see it, or came back to the theater multiple times yourself because the new 3D and motion capture effects were unlike anything anyone had ever seen in a film. John Carter does not have this same sort of revolutionary tech behind it, and so it must stand on story alone.
I would LOVE for John Carter to be a amazing. I’m as die hard a sci-fi fan as you get, and I’m always happy to see new amazing films released in the genre. I am not rooting against it, but I see so many barriers ahead that I can envision it being a colossal financial failure. If it’s bad or mediocre, it will lose tons of money. If it’s well-reviewed, it still may lose a lot of money as people don’t put all that much stock in what critics say. There’s a stark disconnect with what they deem good, and what audiences will turn out for. Though they overlap on occasion, the subject matter has to be able to get people excited or interested, and I don’t think John Carter does either for the large majority of those who have seen the trailers.
We’ll see if I’m proven wrong in two weeks, and I’ll write an apology post to Mr. Carter himself if that’s the case.