Note from Dotar: READ THIS! Very insightful and written with heart and flair.
Here there be spoilers for JOHN CARTER and A PRINCESS OF MARS.
I saw JOHN CARTER in its opening week with two friends, which, I’m sad to say, was apparently an uncommon occurrence. Many didn’t see JOHN CARTER, and yet, I and my friends found it to be an utter delight. It was exciting, funny — “I hear you’re INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS” — and most of all, wondrous. The world of Barsoom was so palpable to me it haunts me more than two weeks later. Everything in that world felt so lived in and old. I’ve been unable to get the film out of my head. People harp on about it costing two-hundred and fifty million dollars, but by God you see every penny on screen. The last time I was so drawn into a fantasy world was Middle-Earth in the Weta LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.
It’s a joy.
But then, I’m not surprised: it’s Andrew Stanton. Like Brad Bird, he’s Pixar alumni and so he knows how to make a film.
And yet, JOHN CARTER is slammed in the press and reviews are lukewarm, while at the same time, far, far worse films make ten times as much money.
So why didn’t it do well for critics and the box office?
First of all, I have little respect for narrative criticism. The major contention I have is that most of it is a vapid clutching of straws in an attempt to be temporally relevant. There is no patience for consideration. The truest test of the quality of a work is time. No other factor can so accurately gauge quality. BACK TO THE FUTURE is a classic because almost 30 years later, it is still magnificent to watch for old and new audiences alike. On the other hand, COMMANDO, TEEN WOLF, and WEIRD SCIENCE, all beloved films made in the same year, I feel one would be pressed to say that have stood the test of time. Even today, I find that THE INCREDIBLES and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN improve with each viewing while INCEPTION and STAR TREK (11) weaken considerably. Most criticism today is immediate, focusing on the environment surrounding the film rather than the film itself, because it has rarely been seen more than once, let alone studied. And how can they study it? Do they even understand basic story structure? They lack the very tools necessary to identify its mechanisms, let alone that those mechanisms are faulty.
This is particularly problematic for JOHN CARTER as I feel that it is a risky, demanding film that pushes its form in order to pull of a great ending. I believe a second viewing may actually enhance the film as it will make more emotional sense as a whole, but it could just as easily make it even more demanding and gruelling. Unfortunately, I have only seen JOHN CARTER once. However, I spend my days writing and breaking films down into their component scenes, and have been doing so for ten years. So I’m somewhat adept at doing so retrospectively on one viewing. And I spent two weeks actually reflecting on the film, reading reviews, articles, interviews, and even A PRINCESS OF MARS in order to form an opinion.
And I am more in love with it than before.
So why didn’t it do well?
I believe there are four reasons why.