IndieWire: “John Carter” and the perpetual sneak preview culture

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by Matt Singer via Indiewire

When it arrived in theaters in March, Disney’s “John Carter” faced an audience as inhospitable as the arid landscape of Mars. Preceded by months of negative hype about its forgettable marketing campaign, truncated title, untested star, and a director who might have been out of his depth moving from animation to live action, the film’s inevitable box office flop — just $72 million domestically against a budget of more than $250 million  — felt like a foregone conclusion.

“John Carter” came to DVD and Blu-ray last week, complete with a new round of reviews and reconsiderations. When the film opened in theaters, reaction was mixed at best; 52% at Rotten Tomatoes, 51 at Metacritic. But now the overall tenor of reviews seems to be shifting, from muddled mess to unappreciated gem. IGN called the Blu-ray “great.” Salon described director Andrew Stanton a “genius” and a “savant.” Crave Online compared “John Carter” to beloved classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Citizen Kane” that bombed on their initial release. Following as many critics and cinephiles as I do on Twitter, I’ve witnessed a steady stream of supportive tweets since its Blu-ray premiere last Tuesday (“Enjoyable as hell, and highly re-watchable,” reads a typical one). Suddenly, people kind of like “John Carter.” So what changed?

Expectations, for one thing. I don’t believe that critics (at least reputable ones) are easily swayed by things they read in The New York Times or Variety. I don’t think they go to the theater with their review already written. But I do think no movie gets seen in a vacuum (except maybe when the crew of the International Space Station watches “The Avengers”). Every viewing experience comes with baggage, and that includes things like hype and buzz, both good and bad.

Read the full (thoughtful) article at indiewire

14 thoughts on “IndieWire: “John Carter” and the perpetual sneak preview culture

  1. Pascalahad wrote:

    If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to see the short film “Call of Cthulhu” made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. It’s an as-literal-as-you-can-get adaptation of the short story. It has no main character, no budget to speak of, it’s a compilation of testimonies, but boy is it effective, and it captures HPL’s writing wonderfully (a next to impossible feat).

    Here’s the trailer — looks cool.

  2. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to see the short film “Call of Cthulhu” made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. It’s an as-literal-as-you-can-get adaptation of the short story. It has no main character, no budget to speak of, it’s a compilation of testimonies, but boy is it effective, and it captures HPL’s writing wonderfully (a next to impossible feat). Structurally, this movie is in defiance of every rule in Hollywood. Granted, it’s a short (47 min), because the original novelette is short, but I saw no reason why this kind of story couldn’t be featured as a feature-length movie. It works. The transition from written word to movie works. It should word especially well with pulp adventures, where emotions are not overly complex. Pulp frightens filmmakers, because they don’t think its innocence is relevant today. My guess is that it’s more relevant than ever. Unless I’m mistaken, Disney’s Zorro is still the most beloved adaptation of the character, is it?

  3. Agreed, Michael, excellent analysis of what Burroughs did with Carter’s intentions.

    My 0.02 on the ‘structural issues’ issue:

    Sure, the back half of the book is problematic if you’re trying to bash it into a Hollywood 3-act mold that takes place in a long weekend, but that’s part of why I think it could ultimately feel so fresh onscreen. Maintain the sense of being a strange travelogue of events that actually happened to a person, instead of a recognizable stroll through well-worn story beats. If you embrace the notion that this is a true story being recounted, with VO throughout, you earn all kinds of slack in letting the story unfold as the novel does.

    The biggest problem I see is in dealing with the ridiculously convenient accidental reunions with Kantos Kan and later, Tars Tarkas. Both easily solved if you make them intentional [i.e., Carter seeks out Thark instead of getting lost].

    I feel those chapters of Carter alone in the Warhoon prison, or alone with Woola on the landscape, or the strangeness of the encounter at the Atmo Factory, are important meditative passages for the character – and for the reader/audience to settle into Barsoom as a real place beyond a few set pieces. I also believe that those weeks/months of longing for Dejah, aching to know her whereabouts, is just as important as the character herself (if not more).

    Yes, it’s episodic. LIFE is episodic. When you embrace the narrative conceit by which the book was written, a film can emerge that feels more like an actual adventure (I’ve had a few, presumably we all have) than a contrived ideal of one.

    The issue isn’t length – one could easily tighten it up into 2.5 hours through montage, clever consolidation, and VO translated from the text. You don’t have to show everything, and words can suggest much beyond the world onscreen. (I know, this goes against the ‘rule’ of show, don’t tell, but rules are made to be broken in the right situations) And the issue isn’t coherence – after all we’re only talking about a linear sequence of events (that do include foreshadowing for the suffocating finale). The issue is the very goal of making it fit an academic storytelling rubric of how a blockbuster tentpole movie is supposed to play out. (Again with rules that need breaking sometimes)

    In short, the structural ‘problems’ of the latter sections of the book are only problems when trying to pace it into something it isn’t, and needn’t be.

  4. Dotar Sojat wrote:
    “And I have to say — John Carter was never a “flat uninteresting brute” — dunno where you’re getting that.”

    I’m going to agree with Dotar on that. If John Carter was a “brute” he would have just allowed the Tharks to kill Woola when he was injured by the white apes; probably have forced himself on Dejah; not have bothered to return from the Valley Dor determined to warn everyone that it was a false heaven; pulled together the various races of Barsoom to stand united…those are not the actions of a “brute.” He was a Southern Gentleman who kept a code of chivalry and loved his wife and kids. Granted that might seem “flat” and “uninteresting” (or “vanilla” in Stantonspeak) to some but he wasn’t a brute. Heck Conan is a brute compared to John Carter.

  5. Ralok (Eric) wrote:

    Dude, your asinine comments are enough to drive a peaceful man like me to violence!
    and spouting psuedo-phylosophical bullshit from star wars isnt going to make you right! Because we as human beigns cant simply act, all we can do is attempt and try . . . because if we dont try we automatically fail!
    And you are complaining about shapeshifting as if burroughs never did anything similar!
    And why is the new backstory useless? because it gives john carter an actual personality instead of being a flat uninteresting brute.

    Take a chill pill, bro. You’re ruining my argument about the fans being reasonable and not rabid! Seriously, I’ve taken the contrarians to task for going too far with too much hostility, and now you’re doing what I called them on. Just be a little more chill……

    And I have to say — John Carter was never a “flat uninteresting brute” — dunno where you’re getting that.

  6. MCR wrote:

    Sorry Dotar but you know what-there are rabid, fetishistic fans. And I Just spent time responding to one.

    And you were reasonably patient and reasonable. There are exceptions, I guess, and this would count as one, but I’m not seeing too much that can reasonably be described as rabid.

  7. Dude, your asinine comments are enough to drive a peaceful man like me to violence!

    and spouting psuedo-phylosophical bullshit from star wars isnt going to make you right! Because we as human beigns cant simply act, all we can do is attempt and try . . . because if we dont try we automatically fail!

    And you are complaining about shapeshifting as if burroughs never did anything similar!

    And why is the new backstory useless? because it gives john carter an actual personality instead of being a flat uninteresting brute.

  8. Pascalahad wrote: “It’s VERY focused, it’s “John Carter wants to be reunited with Dejah Thoris”. You can’t be more focused than that.”

    Actually, that’s something I’ve been analyzing lately because my feeling was that when reading the book, the objective of the protagonist was always clear and I could relate to it, while in the movie the approach is different because his conscious objective and unconscious objective are both there, and are in conflict, so what he says he wants/needs (go home to cave of gold) and what he actually needs but doesn’t’ understand (accept that he’s “John Carter of Mars”) are in conflict.

    But just to share my recent discoveries upon analyzing the book: John Carter’s focus or objective shifts repeatedly, and each time it does, Burroughs very, very carefully makes sure that we, the reader, understand the new objective. It starts out with “discover gold”. Then he lands on Mars and it becomes “win respect and form alliances”, which he does with Tars, Sola, and Woola. Then Dejah arrives and it becomes “win Dejah’s respect”, then “escape with Dejah” from the Tharks, then “win Dejah’s love”, then eventually be reunited with Dejah. What I noticed was the Burroughs seemed to always want to make sure that the audience was never in doubt about what the objective was, and one outcome of that is that you always feel in alignment with Carter — you’re on the journey with him. But there is definitely an episodic aspect to it that creates problems when you try to restructure it into a two hour movie that holds together and is coherent. Stanton was correct in perceiving that there was a problem with the structure….and he made choices that made sense to him. Some people really embrace the changes and others have mixed feelings, and then there are those who hate them.

  9. First off Ralok calm down. Yeesh talk about going off the handle. But in response:

    “MCR did you ever even read “a princess of mars” it isnt some high class masterpiece for christ sakes!”

    Yes I have read A Princess of Mars. And not it’s isn’t some high class masterpiece. But neither is The Lord of the Rings-its overlong, wordy and flat out boring in spots-but that didn’t stop Peter Jackson from adapting it and remaining faithful. Neither is Harry Potter, yet the filmmakers treated those books with respect. Where was the respect for A Princess of Mars? Oh that’s right, it’s just pulp trash if your ranting is any indication, improved by the director.

    “stantons biggest triumph was linking together the disparate elements of the book into a cohesive narrative . . . you realize there is NO cohesion to hte original book, it is like all serialized books . . .written like a TV show”

    And how does he do that “cohesion?” With bad concpets like shape shifting Therns? Confusing subplots and macguffins like the medallion and the 9th Ray nonsense? Or giving John Carter a useless dead wife and kid back story? How is that making the story cohere?

    “he (Stanton) is very passionate, and he gave it his all . . . some of what he did fell flat, but that DOESNT MAKE HIM A BAD PERSON”

    Yeah but that doesn’t make him a genius, a savant or the right person to have made this movie. You know people who knew him said Ed Wood was a nice guy too, yet that didn’t mean he had talent.

    “Because he did try, no matter what you say HE DID TRY, even going over budget to try and make this thing work for christ sakes! Maybe to you he didnt try hard enough, but at least he tried dammit! ”

    Wait a minute. Going over budget is a good thing? For most people if they go over budget on a project and it doesn’t turn a profit most of the time that’s a bad thing, resulting in people losing their jobs. You realize that if Stanton hadn’t gone over budget that the sequel that so many people want might actually have been green lighted instead of it being dead as the proverbial doornail. As for trying….do or do not. There is no try.

    “Unlike you, who only choses to criticize unendlingly because this doesnt fit your heavenly version of barsoom!”

    And what was your version of it Ralok? A cliched riddled hack job?

    Sorry Dotar but you know what-there are rabid, fetishistic fans. And I Just spent time responding to one.

  10. for me it was pretty important that the characters act appropriate for the new situation.

    John Carter has a completely different character history in the film, but what was important too me . . . was . . . if he reacted, how I would imagine John Carter from the books would react . . .

    HE has come pretty close to losing members of his family before in the books, but not to something like a house fire . . . not to an accident like that . . .

    I feel like he acted . . . appropriatly for hte situation . . . he was John Carter even though his history was different . . . does that make any sense?

    I think the same is applicable to all of the other characters . . .

  11. A Princess of Mars is to me a high class masterpiece, otherwise I shouldn’t be here discussing it in the first place. It’s VERY focused, it’s “John Carter wants to be reunited with Dejah Thoris”. You can’t be more focused than that. And with all due respect for what Stanton achieved, since I love the movie, it’s definitely not for all the things he invented to link the events in the movie, but for his skill in handling the characters, even altered from the book, and the mood he instills in the movie.

  12. MCR did you ever even read “a princess of mars” it isnt some high class masterpiece for christ sakes!

    stantons biggest triumph was linking together the disparate elements of the book into a cohesive narrative . . . you realize there is NO cohesion to hte original book, it is like all serialized books . . .written like a TV show

    if you want an accurate princess of mars, ask for a TV show with episodes based on chapters

    as a film though it wasnt perfect, far from magnificient . . .but most of the issues I see with it are in the direction of the actors, which is of course a difficulty when transferring from animation to live action.

    but the writing was fairly genius in how it linked together the completely random occurrences of the book! I suspect that much of the effort in writing was making it coherent.

    And nobody is saying these things about stanton other than you, you seem to have it out for the guy . .. he is very passionate, and he gave it his all . . . some of what he did fell flat, but that DOESNT MAKE HIM A BAD PERSON

    and launching personal attacks on him, and insulting him is going too far!

    Because he did try, no matter what you say HE DID TRY, even going over budget to try and make this thing work for christ sakes! Maybe to you he didnt try hard enough, but at least he tried dammit!

    Unlike you, who only choses to criticize unendlingly because this doesnt fit your heavenly version of barsoom!

  13. ” Salon described director Andrew Stanton a “genius” and a “savant”

    Que vomiting. Seriously? Unless Stanton can end world hunger, cure cancer, stop global terrorism and reunite the Beatles he’s not a “genius” or a “savant.” Heck he couldn’t even adapt John Carter of Mars without pointless cliches and butchering it so no, he’s not a genius.

    With that out of the way, the article does make a good point of taking the film away from all of the buzz and looking at it objectively. I gave it two tries-or three if you count listening to Stanton’s commentary-on Blu-Ray and as a stand alone film it was OK -some really good parts but still too many bad parts as well. (As an adaptation sorry folks it still failed there, making “Genius’ Stanton less a “genius.”) So possibly in the future it will be seen as an “underappreciated gem” but that still doesn’t make it a grand slam (or Dragonslayer or The Rocketeer which to me are underappreciated gems.)

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