In hopes that box office failures are among the more wonderfully drugged-out and anti-social blockbusters released in the world, I’ve decided to look at a cabal of the most significant box office failures in history. I’m first going to dip my toes in with a pair of very modern films, this one ceremoniously coincidental considering that this summer’s The Legend of Tarzan is yet another Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation that is good and bad, much like John Carter, exclusively as a function of its willingness to consider itself as pulp fiction rather than proper narrative.
Unfortunately, the only significant albatrosses around John Carter’s neck are conceptual and circumstantial business decisions, not the result of genuine bewildering badness as cinema. Circumspect though it is as drama or adventure, its failures as money-making object are exclusively at the hands of Disney’s ego to pump the film full of money; the actual film is too competent, too curated, too cleansed of deviousness or tangents, to be as spirited in its badness as the box office failure might suggest. Much like their resurrection of The Lone Ranger and Tomorrowland (superior films both, the former a glorious mess of cinematic tomfoolery) under the belief that they can do no wrong when aping the Pirates of the Caribbean formula, John Carter is exclusively the result of a company following in the footsteps of success (Avatar, in this case) like a bloodhound afflicted with a Pavlovian lust for hunting down, and copying, whatever cat slinks on by in its path.
Silly though Walt Disney Productions was for its feat of necromancy with a 100 year old pulp object and the company’s infusion of at least one million dollars of cash into the production for every one of those years, the actual film is rather dry and arid in comparison to the lofty hope for a hefty magnitude of a failure. While The Lone Ranger was a proper auteurist vehicle, a failure with genuine gusto that flaunted its willful disdain of narrative logic or tonal balance at every turn, John Carter is primarily content to crystallize around every safeguarded and committee-driven decision in the book.
Which is a shame. When it releases itself of its inhibitions and stops considering all of its movements with scrupulous respectability, the film has a certain spunk and moxie, a raffish quality that sprinkles buoyancy over the proceedings every time it accepts its B-Western origins without smothering them in savior-myth airs. Take the intro, where confusion even gets in on the fun in the opening moments as we whisk brazenly between the mausoleum-quality glory of a faded mansion and a primordial red expanse of Western clay that suggests an earlier, leaner John Ford picture had it rippled with Technicolor. The who-cares insouciance of the shift – like it wasn’t even thought through – is amusing until you consider the film’s effort to imbue these scenes with purpose and leaden import.
That particular import is a dazzlingly atrocious introductory throat-clearing that dresses up what ought to be a rakish B-picture in self-aggrandizing, stifling world-on-its-shoulders airs, gifting us with not one but two awful prologue scenes set in two different time periods on two different planets that trivialize the far-fetched another-reality nature of the piece by trying to explain everything for us. The nadir is turning author Edgar Rice Borroughs into Carter’s nephew who is inspired to write about his uncle when he discovers Carter’s diary. As always, contextualization and explication are best left for films of a nobler caliber; the vise-grip of the blockbuster that needs to explain itself obliterates any sense of unexplainable whimsy in a picture that just can’t live without reminding us that Burroughs wrote a book about it all, and that it was based on real life. Presumably this is sometime before he hop-skipped to Africa to speak to a gorilla who once saw a man in a loin-cloth flaunting his muscles against (and yet also in favor of) colonialism. A film like this should be disreputable, content to be itself without any concern for legitimizing itself, and there is nothing more reputable and legitimizing than telling your audience that it’s all worthwhile because it’s a book.
By and large, John Carter is a passable B-picture until it over-considers itself and commits trashy-cinema heresy by dressing its trash in a tuxedo and turning it into garbage. While uttering words like “Heliumite” and “Zodangan” is a mild diversion for the film and the reviewer, the film’s unerring voyage to legitimate the words with a story that shifts from fleet-footed, fantastical theatricality to disastrously over-determined convolution and complication tramples over any fun in the film. There’s a pugnacious alien dog sludge thing that is endearing in its cartoonish inelegance, much like the film when it isn’t stomping all over its pug-dog elan with more narrative than a much sharper tack of a film could handle.
When it works is when it isn’t trying to convince us that it works. Michael Giacchino’s score is cheerily pompous and Dan Mindel’s cinematography hyperbolic in its alacrity and saturated colors. Before you know it we’re in the middle of an Errol Flynn picture. There’s a loopy, presentational giddiness to the production that, once the narrative flattens everything in its path, begins to feel grafted from another film. The piratical picture becomes the Oscar hopeful.
With a title that promises visions of Nicholas Sparks, this space opera encircles war, destiny, nationhood, self-identification, and any theme it can sniff out from under its feet. Character motivation is slippery amidst the deluge of sidekicks and secondary villains, wise seers and visionaries, podium speeches and back-alley decisions, all of which require an appendix to properly intercept. The film would have been better served with an appendectomy though, as the surfeit of intrigue squeezes the pulp right out of the juice. A certain sloppiness, within limits, is appreciated, but John Carter is so invested in its severely unmedicated case of elephantiasis that it forgets that, for this kind of story, it ought to make do with a whole lot less.