Will 'John Carter' Be Another Big-Budget Flop?

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Walt Disney Pictures' John Carter - 2012

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Walt Disney Pictures' John Carter - 2012

The epic special effects action film "John Carter," formerly "John Carter of Mars," launched another trailer on Super Bowl Sunday in hopes of building momentum for the March 9 release date. Based on a beloved science-fiction series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film has a built-in core audience waiting to be impressed. So far, the trailers for the film have inspired comparisons to the "Star Wars" prequels, Jake Gyllenhaal's "Prince of Persia," and "Hercules" -- the Lou Ferrigno version. This is not the most promising start as far as overall quality, but those films did make money.

Title Change

The goal of movie companies is to reach the widest audience possible. To reach those mega-million profits, sci-fi and Burroughs fans aren't enough. You also have to rope in the audience that has never heard of this story before. That's why the recent title change that dropped "of Mars" from the title is so bewildering.

Speculation is that the title change was an attempt to dissuade potential moviegoers from making any mental comparisons to recent flops like "Mars Needs Moms." Unfortunately, this has also removed any indication of what the movie is actually about. As Meredith Woerner at io9 laments, "Now it sounds like a movie about Noah Wyle's character on 'ER,' or some sort of mislabeled Jimmy Carter biopic. Just terrible."

First Trailer

Like the bizarre array of Geico commercials, Disney has chosen to release trailers that pick and choose elements from the film in a way that appeals to different segments of the audience. The first "John Carter" trailer did a nice job featuring the prettiness of the actors (Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins) and some of the more gorgeous special effects. One sci-fi fan dubbed it a "breathless Harlequin Romance of a Trailer," but didn't mean it as a compliment.

Slash Film was cautiously optimistic, worrying about the lack of alien presence and discernible story. The comments section is full of argument about whether the film looks more like "Conan" or "Prince of Persia," and savvy viewers touch upon one of the difficulties of adapting this type of material.

When using a source like Burroughs, which was the inspiration for many an epic like "Star Wars" and "Superman," you risk seeming cliche because everyone's seen it all before. It's the same as any company wishing to do a vampire movie now; comparisons to "Twilight" are inevitable, even if the source material came out way before those sparkling vampires ever existed.

Second Trailer

The second peek at "John Carter" showed more of the Martians and focused on the biggest action sequences and special effects. The plot lines are still a bit muddy, and the dialogue is Schwarzenegger-esque. Many reviewers, including those at Collider, are still banking on the project due to Pixar director Andrew Stanton. As writer for "Toy Story" and writer/director for "WALL-E", he's got a solid reputation as a skilled storyteller.

Sci-fi fans online felt even more comparisons to popular epic films were inevitable after this "John Carter" trailer, but it doesn't necessarily follow that it's a bad thing. While some audiences may feel turned off by the "repeat" nature, there are many moviegoers who will go specifically because it reminds them of another film they liked. With high theater prices, audiences are more apt to bank on what they feel is a sure thing, rather than something completely new.

Comedy Trailer

This is hopefully a case of pulling out the most random bits of a film that have nothing to do with the full arc. Disney released a comedic "John Carter" trailer full of one-liners and scene splicing that makes it look completely cartoonish, no doubt to bring in the younger crowd. Kitsch, who was so charming in "Wolverine," seems more thuggish than ever. The stilted dialogue, scantily clad actors, and "funny" aliens sadly reminded me of the "Hercules" films, which had Ferrigno awkwardly dubbed.

With a $250 million budget behind it, "John Carter" needs to do extremely well at the box office to make a profit. Early buzz is not all that promising, but the comparison to "Prince of Persia" might work in its favor. That film had a weak early showing but, bolstered by a strong international response, ended up pulling in $335 million, albeit with a $50 million lighter budget. If there's an actual good story in between the random array of "John Carter" clips we've been given, word of mouth will definitely help boost the U.S. take.

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