CNN’s Gene Seymour has posted his views on why Hunger Games connected with audiences in a way that John Carter did not. I’m a little bit cautious about posting these kind of articles because I know most of those who come here are, as I am, passionate fans of at least the ERB books, and usually of the movie as well. I want to ask your indulgence though — we can’t just live in a bubble and not consider the implications of what has happened. John Carter is not the bomb it’s being made out to be, and there are global box office receipts to prove it. But it was never going to be a $155m opening weekend — nor did it have to be in order to succeed. In any event, we’re not going to run from the Hunger Games and hide around here, we’re going to try and understand what happened and why and hope that in the process a path forward for sequels to John Carter will eventually present itself. Right now that seems a longshot …. but understanding what works, and what doesn’t work, is part of that process.
The Hunger Games and John Carter
CNN) — Pure products of Hollywood, “The Hunger Games” and “John Carter” were conceived, designed, stretched and pre-tested with one purpose: to lighten billfolds while satisfying mass appetites.
These two movies seemed especially intent on seizing the wavering attention spans of young people with premises deeply rooted in science-fiction — or, as some genre lovers might prefer to call it, speculative phantasmagoria.
Same goals, different results. Drastically. Different. Results.
Hunger Games, in case you hadn’t heard by now, has exceeded advance expectations by reaping $155 million in its first three days of nationwide release. That’s the third-highest opening tally in box-office history, just beneath the $158.4 million drawn from 2008’s Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight,” and not too far removed from the $169.2 million made last summer by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II.”Gene Seymour
Those latter two features were sequels, while “Hunger Games” is just the first installment of what will almost certainly be a trilogy of films made from Suzanne Collins’ phenomenally popular trilogy of books. The stories are set in a dystopian future in which a totalitarian society forces teenagers to engage in globally televised ritual murder. This means that “Hunger Games” made the biggest, fattest opening-weekend nut of any movie that wasn’t a sequel or spin-off.
Meanwhile, after two weeks in the Great American Multiplex, “John Carter” continues to tumble in what many believe is a downward spiral of similarly unprecedented dimension.
Disney’s lavish, $250 million adaptation of the swords-on-Mars fantasy novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs brought in $5 million, increasing its overall box office to $62.3 million — roughly half of which was made in its own opening weekend. Those using the word “epic” to classify “John Carter” now use it to describe its estimated $200 million shortfall.
“John Carter,” for whatever it’s worth, isn’t quite as dismal a movie as it is a moneymaker. Thirty, even 20 years ago, it might have been exotic enough to be taken for pop-cultural innovation. Now it comes across as a lumbering, good-natured oaf who happened to stumble into the marketplace at the wrong time. On the other hand, “The Hunger Games,” with its reality-TV-on-toxic-drugs premise, is so very much “of its time” that it’s tempting to think much of its imagined future has already arrived. (Do you feel a draft? I do.)
Meanwhile, those who approach “John Carter” with foreknowledge of its box-office crash-and-burn might be surprised to see how charming it can be at times, especially when its eponymous Civil War veteran-turned-rhino-riding superhero (Taylor Kitsch) is adjusting his previously Earth-bound muscles to Martian gravity. In its heedlessly bombastic manner, the movie is faithful to its origins as a rip-snorting romantic fantasy much like Burroughs’ far more famous stories featuring Tarzan. If the producers were more willing to let Andrew Stanton direct the movie as the garish, live-action comic strip it was meant to be, it might have connected, though not necessarily for a home run.
But even the decision to call the movie “John Carter,” instead of “John Carter of Mars” or even “A Princess of Mars,” the actual title of Burroughs’ first installment of the Carter opus, is emblematic of an over-cautiousness that dampens every sequence and set-piece. The whole movie feels worked-over, second-guessed, whipped to a thickness that hobbles the movie’s momentum. It’s as if “John Carter” wants you to see every single one of those aforementioned millions of dollars up on the screen. And who besides an accountant would care?
COMMENT: I think the most interesting part of this article is this quote: “John Carter,” for whatever it’s worth, isn’t quite as dismal a movie as it is a moneymaker. Thirty, even 20 years ago, it might have been exotic enough to be taken for pop-cultural innovation. Now it comes across as a lumbering, good-natured oaf who happened to stumble into the marketplace at the wrong time. On the other hand, “The Hunger Games,” with its reality-TV-on-toxic-drugs premise, is so very much “of its time” that it’s tempting to think much of its imagined future has already arrived. (Do you feel a draft? I do.)
I think that issue of “of its time” is an interesting one not because John Carter is not “of its time”, so much as — the need to recognize that it’s not “of its time” and figure out how to make that work in the same way you would with, say, a period movie, which it is, by the way. Andrew Stanton made the point that he approached it like a historical epic — and the post civil war era-ishness of it all is sustained throughout, with Barsoom being imagined in steampunk fashion.
The question is – was anyone involved in the promotion really thinking about this, and wondering — how do we make this work? If the film-maker was going in the direction of “historical fantasy” with steampunk sensibilities, how then to make that seem attractive to audiences of today? After all, isn’t that pretty much the way it is with Lord of the Rings? How was New Line able to make it connect in ways that Disney could not with John Carter?
It’s all food for thought at this point.