John Carter Rides Again!

If you have been reading this blog for the last few months (which is as long as it has been going) you will recall that I was very enthusiastic about Disney’s John Carter.   You may also be aware that John Carter cost a sizable portion of Disney’s movie division their jobs.

John Carter has been maligned as a bomb – but is that a fair assessment?  My best movie buddy and I watched the DVD this weekend, and we agreed that the movie was (1) awesome; and (2) flew by.  It is over two hours long but feels like a much shorter film.  This is due in large part to the fast pace.  The action never lets up.  The film’s worldwide take was an impressive $282 million.   That is not pocket change.

Here is the rub:  John Carter cost $250 million to make.  It cost another $100 million to advertise – not that this advertising was apparent in even the slightest degree to me, and I was looking forward to the film.

I can’t believe that John Carter can be called a bomb with a straight face.  A box office bomb makes little money.  John Carter made lots of it, but Disney forgot to control costs.  Any product launch (and that is exactly what a movie is) will fail if expenses spiral out of sight.

I thought that John Carter was much better than Prometheus, which I also enjoyed.  Prometheus has not bombed, but it cost only half of what John Carter did.  That is a big factor.

If you would like to help Disney recoup some its money, the DVD is available at Amazon here.



I saw Ridley Scott’s latest movie, Prometheus, which is a prequel of sorts to his 1979 masterpiece, Alien.  I thought that Prometheus was a good film, not a great one.  As with many other films these days, you should not tug too hard on any one of the plot threads, or it will all unravel.

Even if you don’t see Prometheus, you should check out Govindini Murty’s fantastic examination in The Atlantic Monthly of the cultural tropes and influences in it.  This might be one of the few times that an article about a film is more interesting than the film itself.


Lockout – Star Wars Has Nothing To Fear

I can’t begin to describe Luc Besson’s Lockout without making reference to Star Wars.  Not because Lockout deserves to be mentioned in the same galaxy as that 1977 classic, but to highlight that the similarities between the two do not make Lockout especially interesting.

Han Solo, I mean, Snow (Guy Pearce) is framed for espionage in 2071 America. He is given a chance to redeem himself if he goes aboard the Death Star, I mean, maximum security orbital prison to rescue the princess, I mean, First Daughter of the President of the United States, Emilie Warnock (the lovely Maggie Grace).

As you can imagine, there is little rhyme or reason as to why the First Daughter was even allowed to enter this space prison, nor why she did not go with at least a battalion of Marines to guard her.  Yes, the inmates are all kept in stasis while there, but why the prison warden allowed her to meet with the lunatic Hydell (Joseph Gilgun) is beyond plausible explanation.  Nor do I care.  The entire setup of this movie ignores logic at almost every turn.  What follows is a station crawl as Snow and Emilie try to evade and escape from the Imperial stormtroopers, I mean, prisoners, hunting for them.

Spoiler Alert (and lots of them):  Given the chance to escape, Emilie refuses to go, allowing her escape pod to leave without her.  Ugh.  The leader of the prisoners (who of course all come out of stasis – did you have to ask?) is Alex (Vincent Regan) brother of the crazy Hydell, who assumes command of the prisoners without explanation as to why they would follow him in particular.  Perhaps it is his cool beard.

Also, the orbital prison is destroyed at the end of the film by an attack of X-wings, I mean, American space fighters, which shoot a missile into the center of the station to blow it up.  No, really, that is what happens!

Snow is your typical wisecracking tough guy/special ops/cop type, and his character shows promise at times.  I could also see him being put into a sequel that is better than this first installment.  That being said, he is not very much different from any other tough guy of the genre, and apart from the heavy Star Wars similarity, the film most reminds me of Die Hard, with the lone American battling an international cast of space bad guys.

Lockout is not terrible.   It is not that good either.


The Hunger Games Unappetizing Fare


Lionsgate // PG-13

142 mins

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Woody Harrelson, and dozens of  young actors who get killed midway through the movie

The Hunger Games is a dystopian film in which young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take part in the dystopian Hunger Games, wherein twenty-four dystopian youngsters compete to the death for the right, I suppose, to say that he or she won the Hunger Games.  It isn’t made clear what the great prize is at the end of the homicidal rainbow, or why the oppressed, dystopian people of the dystopian districts of dystopian nation of Panem (of which there are twelve – Katniss hails from the twelfth) should submit to this squalid, dystopian gladiatorial contest for the amusement of the dystopian, decadent Capitol.

All of this is occurring in what is apparently a dystopian future America, in which the outlying districts send resources to Capitol, which is something of a dystopian D.C. crossed with Thunderdome.   The dystopian “citizens” of Capitol, if they can be graced with the dignity of such a term, are a wretched bunch  (and look as if they have are refugees from pre-revolutionary France dressed in an unholy combination of  Hot Topic and 1980’s Benetton clothing) cheering and squealing in delight at the dystopian murder games played out for their dystopian entertainment.

That a lot of dystopianism to ingest.  Wow, this film is bleak.  What am I to make of it?   Is it an anti-capitalist critique of modern capitalism for the 99%?   A parable for the age of reality television?  A love story?  It is a mixture of all of those things.

Katniss and her fellow male district “tribute,” Peeta Mellark, are sent from their drab, 1930’s Depression-style community in District 12 to the bright and shining Capitol to train (in a mere four days) to fight the twenty-two other selectees, as well as, ultimately, each other, in a high-tech outdoor stadium, watched all along by the millions of denizens of this bizarre nation.  A nice touch is that real color invades the screen only when Katniss departs her gray district town for Capitol, a nod to Dorothy’s wondrous entrance to the Land of Oz, but in this case, something far more sinister.

The youngsters are trained by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and their look spruced up by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who despite being relatively sympathetic characters, nevertheless do not challenge the basic premise of the Hunger Games, which is that they are revoltingly immoral contests.  Perhaps they feel that they can’t, that they are powerless to alter the Hunger Games, a blood sport whose only purpose, it seems, is to remind the people of future America not to get uppity and rebel.

I have not read the books.  Now, after watching this movie, I don’t want to.  I can’t say that the books are bad, but The Hunger Games did not resonate with me.  I found the premise of two dozen kids killing each other for the amusement of the crowd to be disturbing, and I am not squeamish.  I could stomach Gladiator very well, but that was a far different film.  Also, it is not that The Hunger Games was especially bloody.  That element was rather limited.  No, the premise of the film is not something that I care for – at all.

There were several times during the course of The Hunger Games that I just wished it would end.  It is a very good film, just not one that I enjoyed.  That may seem contradictory, but it isn’t.  I can recognize the quality of the moviemaking.  Director Gary Ross has done a fine job and Jennifer Lawrence is a splendid actress.  Dystopianism is not for me.  I think that in order to really like a science fiction movie or novel, I have to want to “visit” the imaginary world in which it is set.  I would like to visit Middle-earth, Narnia, the Federation from Star Trek, or even the Galactic Empire from Star Wars (only for a short spell) but I don’t have any desire to visit the depressing, frightful Panem with its sordid Hunger Games.


Of Flops and Fanboys

So I saw John Carter. Twice. Yes, you read that right. Twice. I loved the film. Disney, the studio behind the movie, however, has recently announced that it is planning to take a $200 million write-off this quarter on its anticipated losses. You see, John Carter has flopped. Not simply flopped, but crashed and burned like one of the awesome CGI airships that plied the Martian skies in the movie. John Carter has reportedly cost $250 million to make and another $100 million to advertise (not that it did much good) and the film’s worldwide earnings of $182 million in its first ten days of release are nowhere near the break-even mark.

When did we get to the point where $182 million dollars in ticket sales is a flop? It is a deceptively simple question. When Hollywood started making $350 million movies, that’s when. I thought John Carter looked great, and the computer images were spectacular. I wrote a review of it for The Armchair Critic website (check it out) a couple of weeks ago. I suppose very few readers took my advice and went to see it.

This got me to thinking about whether there is rhyme or reason to the success or failure of science fiction or fantasy (SFF) movies that are based on an already existing property, such as a book (John Carter) or comic or television series. I decided to go through an exhaustive list (okay, seven) SFF movies and how they fared at the box office. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-2003) came first to mind. It was expensive – $281 million – and garnered $2.9 billion worldwide. Chris Roberts’ listless Wing Commander (1999), based upon the game of the same name, cost $30 million and had a paltry box office take of less than $12 million.  Joss Whedon’s ambitious and humorous Serenity (2005) cost $39 million and had a box office of just about that.  Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) was awful, costing $130 million to put onscreen, and took in a completely undeserved $379 million.

Stephen Norrington’s dull The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) cost $78 million to film but made over $179 million. Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), an almost totally ahistorical version of the Battle of Thermopylae (the Persians did not toss hand grenades!) cost $65 million to make and took in an astounding $456 million. Zach Snyder’s Watchmen (2007) cost $130 million to film and took in $185 million.

Is it possible to draw any conclusions from this list? First, it is a good idea to base a movie on a book by Tolkien. That being said, The Lord of the Rings films were excellent, and even with the superb source material, there is no way the films would have made so much money if they had been bad, or even mediocre. Wing Commander was based on a videogame and had a poor script. It deserved every last dollar it did not get.

300 (not strictly a fantasy film but for all intents and purposes one) was based upon a 1998 comic book series by Frank Miller. I have never read it and don’t plan to, so I can’t give an opinion on its quality. The movie was extremely successful, but I don’t think it had much to do with the comic series. How many people had ever read it? I had never heard of it before the movie appeared. Harry Potter and the Something of Something Else it was not. The movie did have incredible battle scenes, and perhaps appealed to the inner fanboy in moviegoers not ordinarily interested in such SFF films. Gladiator had earlier enjoyed great success in the swords and sandals genre, and 300 mined much the same vein.

Watchmen was a great film, faithful (perhaps slavishly so) to the classic comic on which it was it was based. It did well in the theaters, but was no blockbuster. After all, Watchmen was, as a comic, a literary look by its author, Alan Moore, at the meaning of the superhero. Many people loved the Watchmen series, but how many regular moviegoers really love the Watchmen as a group of superhero characters, the way many adore Batman or Spiderman, and will go see a movie featuring them? I don’t think very many, and this may have been why, after the initial rush of fanboys saw the film, its box office draw declined. It still made a profit, but was no huge success.

Godzilla on the other hand, was lousily written, and still made cartloads of money. This is the hardest to explain. With such great starting material to draw upon, Emmerich removed everything good about the monster Godzilla and left the bad. Nevertheless it was a great box office success, and perhaps this is an example of a film succeeding in spite of itself.

As for fan favorite Serenity – oh, my heart goes out to it.  I was a big fan of the television show Firefly, and in 2005, I could not wait to see the movie based upon it.   This movie, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the notion that interest in some things may be a mile deep but only an inch wide.  Once the fans of the show had seen the movie, there were not many other diehards out there willing to plunk down cash on what was, in effect, a movie that condensed four or five never-made seasons into a feature film.  Remember too that the tv show was canceled midway through its first season.  Serenity was fortunate to nearly break even.  It made me sad to think of all the stories that Joss Whedon could have told but did not get the chance to tell.

John Carter was well-written. It was beautifully filmed. It was not, however, based upon a well-known property. Even though the first story appeared in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom cycle of stories has been more of a cult hit than something with strong crossover appeal. That doesn’t mean it could not have done better, perhaps with a smarter marketing campaign. But the major point would seem to be that the best way to ensure that a movie is a financial success is to control costs. Based upon the rumors (which we can’t be certain about) John Carter‘s first time live-action director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) needed expensive reshoots that drove up the cost of the film. A quarter-billion dollars is a lot of money, and I have to wonder, why a Disney studio executive did not shout “Enough!” after the first hundred-fifty million? There are not enough fanboys in the world to guarantee a big hit if the film does not connect with mainstream moviegoers.