Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Get Carter

I haven't gone off on a mad rant in what seems like forever so I'm going to seize the opportunity and get the old blood boiling right here, right now.

And the subject of my vitriol? The new blockbuster movie John Carter. And, yes, I'm using the word blockbuster in the loosest possible sense because the interwebs are currently filled with reports that JC is bombing, and bombing hard.

But I'm not going to rant about the movie itself because, y'know what? I really enjoyed it. Yes, there were a few moments here and there where I thought it dragged a bit, but on the whole it ticked most of my boxes (oo-er) and kept me entertained for well over two hours.

No, what I'm going to rant about is the way this film has been presented to us, the dumb public. First, a little history lesson.

You may or may not already know that John Carter is based on a 100 year old book called John Carter of Mars: A Princess of Mars that was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the very same chap who also gave us our favourite king of the swingers, Tarzan. To be honest, I wasn't actually aware of the John Carter books (there are … lord knows how many in the series – 11? Something like that anyway) despite the fact that I'm a bit of a nerd and they've apparently influenced hordes of science fiction movies over the years. That bit in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones where Anakin, Obi-Wan, and wotserface are made to fight huge CGI beasts in an arena? Pure John Carter, it turns out.

That being the case, my first exposure to the series has come about as a result of this new movie. Which comes as something of a mild shock because Disney have done a piss-poor job in actually marketing the film. Case in point? I didn't actually know the release date until a couple of weeks back. And this is supposed to be a massive tentpole movie experience.

Probably the first sign that Disney didn't really know what they were dealing with came when they changed the title from John Carter of Mars: A Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars. To be honest, I actually prefer the shorter title - it's less cumbersome, and pretty much says all you need to know. And if they end up making further John Carter films (admittedly something that's looking somewhat unlikely now) there's no reason why we can't just tack the 'A Princess' bit back on in the same way George Lucas retitled Star Wars as Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope.

What I didn't agree with was Disney's justification for the truncating of the title. Basically, they said something along the lines of 'boys won't go see a movie with the word princess in the title.'


And then a short time later they lopped the 'of Mars' bit off the title too. The reason this time? Girls won't go see a movie with the word 'Mars' in the title. Of course.

What The House of Mouse seems to forget is that audiences aren't really that dense, and at some point the boys are going to discover there's a princess in the movie, and the girls are going to find out that most of the film is set on Mars. That being the case, as far as I'm concerned you might as well be upfront about it from the word GO.

Failing that, why not call it John Carter of Barsoom (Barsoom being what the inhabitants of Mars call their home planet in the books and movie)? It's nebulous enough and has an air of mystery about it.

Anyway, what we ended up with is a movie which, if you were a fan of hit US medical drama ER, is just going to make you think of this:

John Carter of County General, not of Mars.
If this was a character that was firmly planted in the public's subconscious – like Batman, or Superman, or even Dick Tracy – I could understand this. But this film was always going to be about introducing this 100 year old character to the general public. Although obviously we would all have just called it John Carter out of sheer convenience anyway - BUT THAT'S NOT THE POINT.

Next up they released some hideous posters. I mean, really hideous and actually downright boring posters. Don't believe me? How about this:

A boring poster.

Why don't I like this? Well, it says NOTHING. Carter himself is almost in silhouette so we glean nothing about him, while the background is just … red. Erm, can I see some Martian-type people in there? Possibly, but they're red too. It's all red. RED. And that font they used is boring. About the most interesting thing here is the Martian JC symbol, but that's squirrelled away in the bottom righthand corner, probably because it's a bit to Marsy and girls wouldn't approve of that sort of thing.

Oh, but don't worry - they had another bash at it!

Another shitty poster.

Look this one is … oh. Well, the one thing you could say about the red poster is that at least red relates to Mars being the red planet. Where is Carter now - Arizona? My chief complaint here, though, is that they're just riding. This is a man who can leap great distances across the Martian landscape, who finds himself in epic battles against those who would seek to control Mars, and what's the most dramatic thing Disney could find to put on this poster? John and his pals out on what looks like a leisurely Sunday afternoon horse ride (if horses were large six-legged beasties). It's just an incredibly dull, poorly photoshopped image. Do you remember a time when movie posters were beautiful works of art that actually told a story? (Oh, and Disney? Han's about to kiss a princess in that poster. Just sayin')

But wait! They did some banner posters to hang in cinemas and surely they…

Riding? Again?
Oh I give up.

What's funny is that Disney's first teaser poster was actually pretty good. Look:
Tease me, tease me, tease me, tease me baby, till I lose contro-ol. Never let it be said that I won't quote the geniuses that are Chaka Demus and Pliers. 

So what do I like about this? Well, There's John Carter for one, looking all mysterious and Grrr. And it uses that enigmatic Martian typography that was later reduced to the size of a postage stamp, but which looks really quite cool here. It's an understated, almost iconic approach that I think works well. Or at the very least better than the infantile offerings that followed it. It's nothing if not eye-catching.

Looking beyond the posters, Disney subsequently completed their trifecta of cock-ups by releasing a couple of underwhelming trailers. Even I was bored by them, and I like pulpy big-budget sci-fi. I won't do a blow-by-blow account of how they messed up here because we'll be here forever, and to be fair the third and most recent trailer actually was a lot better, but it seems like it was too little, too late; by all accounts audiences really couldn't care less about the film.

Which is a shame, because as I said at the start of this post, I really quite enjoyed it. Certainly enough to consider seeing it again (though not in 3D; that aspect of it is pretty pointless), or to pick it up on DVD in a few months time. And certainly enough that I felt compelled to write a 2000 word rant about how it should've been marketed better. I'm also sufficiently intrigued by the character and the universe he inhabits to think that I'd quite like to read the book(s) on which the film is based. But, quelle surprise, that notion has been scuppered as well because it seems that no bookshops are actually bothering to stock them. You'd think as part of their promotional blitz (another term I use loosely) Disney would have tried to get Burrough's novels back into stores, particularly as they've gone to the trouble of publishing some lovely looking new omnibus editions. Oh, but wait; apparently they've ballsed those up as well by cutting vital forewords (according to the review here).

All in all then, I reckon you should give John Carter a go. It's not perfect, but it's a good movie, and without your support I doubt we'll get to see another instalment in what was supposed to be a long-running franchise. And I'd quite like to see another instalment. So go on - do it for me. And with those seven little words I've marketed that movie far more competently than Disney did.

Can I have $150 million please, Mickey?


Rant over. What a way to celebrate the sixth anniversary of my anarchic little corner of the interwebs?


OddThomas said...

You're the second person that's recommended this and I must admit I was hoping you would! I only noticed the trailers a couple of weeks ago. Beyond that, nothing.

I'm no marketing guru but I'd agree with you that Disney seem not to have made even a half-arsed attempt at selling this. Maybe this was a side-project just to top up the coffers!

Tim said...

Oh, go see it! Then let me know what you think…!

I kind of get the impression that Disney don't really know what to do with anything that's not twee animated films. They screwed up a bit with Tron Legacy which didn't make as much as they thought it would, and John Carter is actually full of quite gruesome bits - lots of hacking and slashing and the occasional decapitation. You get the impression they were trying to hide that sort of stuff in the trailers!