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Every time I write about John Carter, I find myself wanting to sell it to you. Usually, writing this blog requires a careful suppression of my naturally benevolent attitude towards fantasy fare in the knowledge that most of these movies don't end up being half as great as we expect them to be. But Disney's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars books is such a preposterous proposition – the opener to a mega-budget franchise, directed by a first-time live-action film-maker, set on a Mars that doesn't remotely resemble the real red planet and based on a series of books from a weird outdated genre which hardly anyone has read – that I can't help rooting for it.
One gets the impression that director Andrew Stanton, the Pixar dude who helped create Wall-E and Finding Nemo, has the same feeling about the film. Earlier this year I spent time at the studio's Oakland HQ hearing how plans for John Carter were progressing with a small group of US- and UK-based writers. Last week I found myself listening to Stanton talk about the project once again with a larger European-based selection of bloggers and film journalists in London. Disney really wants us to like this movie.
Stanton screened a number of clips from the film, possibly the best of which – a segue showing US army soldiers trying to persuade Taylor Kitsch's Carter (in battered Confederate uniform) to sign up to the new fighting force – didn't even take place on Mars. There were scenes in which Carter is thrown in with a gaggle of alien babies – offspring of the "green Martians", or Tharks – who battle for supremacy with humanoid "red Martians" on the planet. Carter also meets an alien dog-type creature that seems to be his companion for much of the movie. Finally we saw a segment in which Carter battles some more green Martians, this time from a more primitive tribe. The film so far has the feel of an adventure in the spirit of the great 1930s serials (with all the baffling pseudo-sci-fi silliness this entails) and the 70s and 80s movies like Star Wars and Flash Gordon that drew inspiration from them.
With a number of 12-foot tall, four-armed talking aliens to portray, Stanton has been working to avoid the kind of wooden acting that afflicted those who worked opposite CG characters in the Star Wars prequels. Yesterday he spoke extensively about recruiting actors of the calibre of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church. They play the alien Tharks, which required all three to act in mo-cap suits, on giant green stilts, in the 110 degree heat of the Utah desert.
"I had spent most of my life imagining what it would be like to talk to these characters, and I wanted it to be instinctive," said Stanton. "I felt that if the actor was really there looking into the eyes of the other actor – the human one – you would sense it ... So we actually put the characters on stilts in motion-captured grey pyjamas with these helmets and cameras they used on Avatar pointing towards their faces. It was a very odd-looking set. You would have the actor really there, you would have these guys on stilts representing Tharks and you would have people in green gimpsuits making sure they didn't fall over and hurt themselves. Some days on the shoot I sat there and thought: 'What the hell am I doing?' But man did it pay off, and if we were to shoot another one tomorrow I would do exactly the same."
"The instincts that we were able to document, and then were able to transfer to the animators ... spoke volumes. Often it was a case of what the actors did not do. You didn't realise it was interesting just to watch somebody just stand there and not do anything. And you would never have the guts to do that as an animator. As an animator you would think, 'I'm being paid to do this', and then start overacting. You see what Willem did: Willem did nothing. He had the confidence of an actor in that role to know to do nothing, which helped keep everything grounded."
In terms of scale, John Carter is way beyond epic, and is going to require a spectacular suspension of disbelief from any audience that goes to see it. It's been almost a century since anyone sensible believed in the possibility of intelligent life on Mars, and I'm not sure anyone ever rated the concept of astral projection – by which Carter is transferred from one planet to another – as serious science. So it's hardly surprising that Stanton is going out on a limb to ensure that the inhabitants of the world he's created appear as genuine as possible.
The cities and buildings of Mars are also based on real locations in the US desert, with ornate dwelling places and crumbling alien facades superimposed on to them via CGI. John Carter has a very different – I would say more natural – look to it than the Star Wars prequels, whose use of all-CG environments saw them lose a lot of the original, Earth-filmed trilogy's vivacity and charm.
"I thought: how do we show a planet that's older than ours that's dying? So we found places on Earth and with a little bit of photoshopping we would turn them into man-made structures," said Stanton. "Your eyes are seeing more that is real than is fakery. That turned out to be a huge win."
Whether John Carter achieves victory when it arrives in cinemas next March remains to be seen. Stanton says he already has ideas for sequels – there were 11 books in the original Rice Burroughs series after all, with this movie based mainly on the first, A Princess of Mars. As a potential franchise, this dwarfs even Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series.
It's pretty obvious that filming the project has taken everyone involved out of their comfort zones. With a little bit of luck, John Carter may do the same for audiences. One thing's for sure: in at least one sense, it's going to be out of this world.
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Bryan Cranston reflects on the unjust failure ofIt’s been 10 whole years since Andrew Stanton’s John Carter landed with a disastrous thud to become one of the biggest box office bombs in history, but the sprawling sci-fi epic is arguably more popular than it’s ever been. While it would have been preferable for audiences to turn up and pay for a ticket while the mega budget blockbuster was playing in theaters to prevent such a catastrophic financial loss, we’ll have to make do with the fact that it secured a reputation as an underrated and unjustly overlooked cult favorite a long time ago. The world-building was phenomenal, the visuals were sumptuous, but a bland marketing campaign didn’t do the intergalactic epic any favors at all, even if remains a perennial favorite.
a beloved sci-fi box office disaster
Ref: Nov 14, 2022
Stanton’s plans for a trilogy went up in smoke when John Carter wound up an eye-watering $200 million in the red, nixing sequels right out of the gate. Disney doesn’t even have the rights to the source material anymore, but that hasn’t stopped star Bryan Cranston from gazing wistfully on his contributions to the film in an interview with Collider.
“I love Andrew. He’s great guy and a really terrific director. I had a really good time on John Carter. You know what? That would be a good study. When you look at all the successful films, they go, “Oh, yeah, look at all these wonderful films that did incredibly well.” Go back and look at films that did not do well at the box office and say, “Why? What missed? Where did it miss? Is it the story, is it marketing, is it-? It gets that label and then you can’t shake the label.
I’ll tell you one more thing that’s frustrating to me. When I was young, there used to be really good film critics to come on the air during the news and to tell you, artistically, what they responded to, what they recommend you go see. A tiny little art house movie or a big budget movie, whatever, and somewhere in between. They gave you their artistic impression with complete relativity and you then made your decision. Now they fired all those people and what they have instead are the news readers, the anchors, reading what the box office successes were for the weekend. As if the five top box office numbers, that’s a recommendation to go see that movie because it made that much money.”
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