Red Is Dead
The story goes that back in the mid–1980s, at some point between the end of post—production and eventual theatrical release of Michael Mann’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to ditch the title and replace it with the uninspiring Manhunter in the grounds that the original shared a word with Year of the Dragon, one of his earlier movies that had come out the previous year and tanked at the box—office. Now, while it’s abundantly clear that there’s no exact science when it comes to a business where financial success depends wholly on the general public, who can be a fickle bunch of bastards at the best of times, surely basing that sort of decision—making on such superstitious tomfoolery can only best be described as pure idiocy.
I can understand Year of the Dragon being rejected by audiences and going straight into the crapper. I’d caught it when the film first opened here, going along because I’d found The Deer Hunter tedious, really loved the original 219—minute cut of Heaven’s Gate, and wondered what director Michael Cimino would do next. As it turned out, he’d made a crime drama, co—written by Oliver Stone during his cocaine years, featuring a self—righteous fascistic bully steamrollering his way through a retched miasma of overt racism, sexism and xenophobia. By the time I saw Michael Mann’s film, in which Brian Cox’s understated portrayal of Hannibal Lecter was far more chilling than Anthony Hopkins’ pantomime psycho turn, Year of the Dragon was just a distant ugly memory. With the original title would it have been more successful? Or would folk have pitched up at their local cinema expecting some Russian kung—fu flick?
Was De Laurentiis’ meddling down to his inability to recognize, let alone concede, that the previous content was at fault or his own personal messed—up Hollywood hoodoo to ward off failure? This was, after all, the showman who still ballyhooed the elaborate and expensive animatronics used in his remake of King Kong even though they’d had to resort to a man in a monkey suit during filming because the mechanics didn’t work. Though when he decided to ditch the “Red Dragon” title it’s a shame there hadn’t been somebody on hand to throw De Laurentiis into a quandary by reminding him that just a few years before John Milius had made an absolute killing with Red Dawn, in which Colorado high school students fought a guerrilla war against invading Soviet paratroopers. Torn between the one word brimming with success and the other tainted with the stain of wretched failure he probably would have had a seizure on the spot.
A quarter century on, it would be good to think this sort of corporate witchcraft had been laid to rest, but apparently old habits still die hard. Maybe it’s just another unexplained side effect of the Santa Ana winds, periodically turning the suits in the San Fernando Valley and over the hills in the Los Angeles basin into bigger arses than usual. Except this time its “Red” that’s leaving executives off—colour, or more precisely, the Red Planet. For Hollywood, Mars has always been troublesome. Although to begin with the fact that it was bad was good for the studios as invaders from Mars (and any other hostile planet for that matter) made for good metaphors of the pervading Communist threat in the great science fiction films of the 1950s, in much the same way that those pesky Martians, first landing on Horsell Common, in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds were seen as an allegory of British Imperialism.
Much like the seemingly unstoppable three—legged fighting machines that emerged from the cylinders, laying waste to England before being routed by common bacteria, the end of the Cold War meant that Hollywood had no need to use the red planet as a threat to hang over us, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a cough in the face of forthcoming alien invaders. But anyway, by then science fiction had already been infantilized in distant galaxies. When the Martians tried their luck to take over our world again it was in Mars Attacks!, which, typical of a Tim Burton film, looked pretty in places, had a rambling plot that went nowhere, and failed to recoup its budget. While in the recent War of the Worlds – Spielberg’s definite article—less take on HG Wells – Martians weren’t even mentioned and the agonizing clarion call of the tripods, sounding before they unleashed their vaporizing heat–rays, was a welcome relief from the continual screaming and yelling from Dakota Fanning’s brattish character.
When Hollywood looked to Mars as the setting for dramas, the results were as successful as most NASA missions to the planet. Though Total Recall made money by taking Philip K Dick’s story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and beefing it up with brutish, cartoon violence, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars was a pallid retread of the director’s Assault on Precinct 13, while Doom – quite possibly the nadir of the video game–to–movie adaptations – was so sickeningly awful it shouldn’t ever be brought up in conversation again. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars aimed for some kind of 2001 profundity but missed the target. Nobbled by characters that had the bland stuff, shortly after their mission began I wished Joseph Cavor was in charge to liven things up. The only thing noteworthy about Red Planet was it was even more scientifically inaccurate than the old George Pal movies with those wonderful Chesley Bonstell matte paintings. When NASA – who opened their doors to the makers of Armageddon – refused to get involved, they pretty much declared it was a film to stay well downwind of.
So the only logical way forward would be to go back to the pre-Mariner 4 days when Mars still remained an enigma, allowing writers to conjure up tales set on a planet filled with mystique and exoticism. Back then we could have The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s utterly astonishing collection of linked short stories that begins with Rocket Summer, set in 1999, where the heat from the take–off of the first rocket to Mars has startling effects on the surrounding Ohio landscape, and carries on through the next quarter century and more to finish with The Million-Year Picnic – oddly enough one of the first of the stories to be published in the pulp magazines of the time – that brought the narrative to a remarkably poetic close. But The Martian Chronicles had already come to television in the form of a three part miniseries, broadcast thirty years after the book’s publication. Written by Richard Matheson, it tried its best but, like much all screen adaptations of Ray Bradbury’s work, it lost the beautiful lyricism of his prose in the translation from page to screen.
Before Bradbury there was Burroughs, the grandfather of Mars–based fiction, whose own series of Martian chronicles, set on the world the native multi–coloured oviparous races call Barsoom, feature John Carter, a one–time Confederate Captain in the American Civil War transported to Mars via astral projection, the Martian princess Dejah Thoris, and their eventual descendents. Though the English–born author Edwin Lester Arnold may have got there first with Lieutenant Gulliver Jones: His Vacation, published in 1905 and later known as Gulliver of Mars, it’s Burroughs the readers of fantasy fiction remember. A Chicago native and the son of a Major who fought in the American Civil War, Edgar Rice Burroughs served with the 7th Cavalry before being invalided out on medical grounds. Eventually working as a pencil sharpener salesman, he first started writing to see if he could come up with better stories than the ones appearing in the pulp magazines he was advertising his business in.
Yet if Burroughs is familiar to cinema audiences it’s as the creator of Tarzan instead. Although Tarzan of the Apes was published months after the first John Carter adventure appeared in the pulp fiction magazine All—Story – spread over six instalments under the title Under the Moons of Mars before eventually being published as A Princess of Mars – Hollywood obviously found it easier to bring his Lord of the Jungle to the screen than the many wonders of Barsoom, where studio—shot scenes could simply be intercut with stock footage of animals in the wild, omitting the need to venture out on location. Although of course any jungle adventures would still involve a far larger wardrobe budget than what would be required for Mars. While Tarzan went through numerous incarnations in film and on television, played by a succession of actors that included the great Johnny Weissmüller, Buster Crabbe, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott and Ron Ely, John Carter languished in print.
For a long time the closest John Carter came to the screen was in the early 1930s when Bob Clampett, the legendary Warner Bros. animator, drew up test scenes for an animated adventure. In the end all we got out of it was Marvin the Martian joining the Looney Tunes roster of characters. Twenty years later Ray Harryhausen’s interest in the property came to naught. In the 1970s, Amicus brought out adaptations of a trio of Burroughs’ novels, with At the Earth’s Core, the first book in the Pellucidar series, sandwiched between The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot from Burroughs’ Caspak trilogy, but still there was no interest in Barsoom until a decade on when Walt Disney Pictures were looking to go ahead with a film written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the screenwriting stalwarts who would later bring all four Pirates of the Caribbean films to the masses, then rewritten by Bob Gale. But again, the project fizzled out and it looked like we were only going to see Barsoom in pictures from fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta (up above) or, more recently, Frank Cho (below).
Luckily, come the turn of the century, interest in John Carter renewed. Maybe after the three stinky Star Wars prequels some studio executives decided to treat the audience to some spectacle that had a decent story for a change. Although for a while the film rights were in the hands of Paramount Pictures who were happy to put Robert Rodriguez, another purveyor of piss—poor movies, behind the camera with a script that began with Carter as the captain of an elite special forces unit, taking out unsavoury rebels in Central Africa before being transported to Barsoom from inside a cave adorned with red fire-gem crystals. After a switch in directors the studio lost interest, allowing Disney to regain the rights and finally go ahead with the project. Obviously this was a cause for celebration. Michael Chabon was brought in to work on the script. Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall–E and one of the original members of the Pixar Brain Trust, was on board to direct. The film, based on the first novel would be released on the centenary of the publication of A Princess of Mars. At last everything was looking up!
If there was a downside it was that in the hundred years since the book saw print it, and the further novels in the series, had influenced or inspired countless science fiction or fantasy films, from the early film serials from Universal Pictures featuring Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, down the line to Star Wars and Avatar, where to say that Lucas and James Cameron were “influenced” by the Barsoom novels is actually an incredibly polite way of putting it. So there’s always the danger that some illiterate little twerp watching the movie will see a Thoat, one of the eight–legged Martian horses, and think the filmmakers have ripped off Avatar, not knowing that when Cameron wasn’t basing his designs on 1970s prog–rock album covers he was shamelessly plundering from Burroughs. Of course if that was the only downside, I guess it could be considered a win because what Stanton and everyone else involved didn’t know when they started production at the end of 2009 and how spectacularly Robert Zemekis would shaft them.
There was a time when Bob Zemekis made pretty decent movies. But then he became captivated by performance capture, which would have been no bad thing if only the end results hadn’t looked so bloody awful. Ranging from the odd to the downright disturbing, the characters in his first outing, The Polar Express, looked like something out of a kiddie’s worst nightmare with their lifeless eyes and strange facial movements. Carrying on the process through Beowulf and his take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol there was little sign of improvement as the staff working at his company ImageMovers, by then acquired by Disney, seemed to be caught up in the details rather than understanding that the basic principle of animation was to bring something to life. They still hadn’t figured it out by the time Mars Needs Moms, based on the children’s book by the cartoonist Berkeley Breathed rolled around, which was a shame because Mars Needs Moms was pretty much the Beagle 2 of Mars movies.
Released earlier this year, it hit the ground with a dull thud and just lay there, making less than $7m on its opening weekend from a $150m budget. By the time Mars Needs Moms was sluiced out of cinemas and the air freshener was pumped in, the film had the distinction of already being the fifth biggest box–office flop in cinema history. There was even talk that its failure would bring the fad of showing every damned thing in 3D to an abrupt end, which might not have been a bad thing. What did happen though was that two months after Zemekis sent his torrent of shit flooding through uncanny valley, John Carter of Mars had suddenly become John Carter. How about that?! Of course Disney strenuously denied that the stinking great turd Zemekis had recently dropped had absolutely nothing to do with the suddenly truncated title but it still felt as if the spirit of Dino De Laurentiis was merrily roaming the corridors was Burbank.
When the first teaser trailer for John Carter came out in mid-July the most puzzling, and disappointing aspect was that it lacked any of the “wow factor” Burroughs fans expected. Frankly it was dull. With the London FX houses Double negative, Cinesite and nvisible knuckling down to get the film finished, luckily nobody blamed the omission of some expected eye—popping spectacular down to those scenes being incomplete. Nearly twenty—five years ago, when I was working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit departments were advised well in advance which scenes had to be fast—tracked for inclusion in the trailer, and that was long before kit like Pre—Viz made it easier to sort and select the requisite material. So the creeping suspicion that followed in the wake of this remarkably bland teaser was that it had been slapped together (perhaps having been taken apart beforehand) by a perturbed marketing department that suddenly had no confidence in knowing how to sell the movie.
For a while everyone laid low, hoping any controversy over the truncated title would die down, but then in the following months excuses for the title started coming out. Mark Strong, who plays Matai Shang, leader of the Holy Therns, took a stab at it back in the summer by explaining:
“The reason is that he has to earn that title. Again, it’s a franchise or a number of books; a series of books that people may or may not know, but if you call him John Carter of Mars, I think at the very beginning, all the work’s been done and what Andrew wants to do, I think, is introduce people to this first film, and by the end of it, he becomes John Carter of Mars, but not at the beginning. In the beginning he’s John Carter, but by the end of the first film, he’s John Carter of Mars; so he’s earned that title to take it off should it want to go to further storytelling.”
I suppose that’s one way of looking at it, especially with a franchise in mind, but then they could have made the point even clearer by checking back through the opening pages of A Princess of Mars and calling the film Captain Jack Carter of Virginia. That would hammer home the fact that he was an Earthman and everyone else wasn’t. Then finally the time came for Andrew Stanton, who obviously knew that he had a responsibility to the studio that had invested north of $250 million in his latest movie, to step up and just recently announce:
“Here’s the real truth of it. I’d already changed it from A Princess Of Mars to John Carter Of Mars. I don’t like to get fixated on it, but I changed Princess Of Mars because not a single boy would go. And then the other truth is, no girl would go to see John Carter Of Mars. So I said, “I don’t won’t to do anything out of fear, I hate doing things out of fear, but I can’t ignore that truth.
“All the time we were making this big character story which just so happens to be in this big, spectacular new environment. But it’s not about the spectacle, it’s about the investment. I thought, I’ve really worked hard to make all of this an origin story. It’s about a guy becoming John Carter. So I’m not misrepresenting what this movie is, it’s John Carter. ‘Mars’ is going to stick on any other film in the series. But by then, it won’t have a stigma to it.”
To begin with it sounds like the sort of mealy—mouthed misdirection that tumbles from the lips of some weaselly politico eager to hold on to his job, where starting off by saying, “Here’s the real truth,” immediately sends up warning signals because everyone has come to expect that whatever comes next is a whole world away from the real truth. Since his words came on the heels of the first proper trailer, released at the beginning of this month, it didn’t exactly chime with the new on—screen content that suddenly seems to be all about the spectacle. So it was disappointing that someone of Stanton’s standing was playing the game he was obliged to play. But I guess we should have known that someone who had enjoyed the years of freedom up in Emeryville wasn’t going to be completely held in check by the machinations of Hollywood. When he wrapped up his statement by acknowledging that ‘Mars’ did have a stigma attached to it, I wonder how well that went down in Burbank?
Or maybe Mars wasn’t as big an issue any more. Show the audience something big and shiny and they’ll soon forget what stunk up the place a day, a week, or a month ago. With the trailer the publicity department had got back on their feet by showing the goods but not naming any names. If you watch the teaser again, have a look and see what’s missing from the new trailer. Here’s a clue: Back in the summer Universal released a very expensive movie called Cowboys & Aliens. I didn’t see it. I don’t feel any real urgency to see it when it comes out on shiny disc in a week or so. But I do know it cost $163 million and only made just shy of $175 million worldwide, which in anyone’s book labels it a flop. Is it a coincidence that all the footage set in the Old West from the John Carter teaser hasn’t made it to the trailer?
So Mars is bad, a combination of the Old West and aliens are bad, and the first poster is just lousy. Difficult circumstances dictate that it’ll be an uphill struggle to give this film the recognition it deserves. It’s one of the few films that I’m actually looking forward to seeing next year. Hopefully Disney doesn’t bottle it, John Carter finds an audience and there are more films in the series to come. If they have some backbone and believe in the movie all the studio really has to worry about are the fans of medical dramas thinking it’s a film about that nice student doctor from e.r. But if it doesn’t work out I can always go back to Burroughs’ text. All I have to do is remember the words:
‘With my back against a golden throne, I fought once again for Dejah Thoris’
and I’m in another world...
For those who haven’t read the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which I hope is just a simple oversight, Sterling Publishing in New York have begun reprinting the Barsoom and Tarzan series, with stories from the Pellucidar and Caspak series coming out next year. All titles can be obtained through Amazon and if you place your right order now they should arrive in time for Christmas. Having seen the double–issue Radio Times, there’s pretty much fuck all on as usual. Rather than getting stuck in the company of annoying relatives, find a comfy chair, grab a nearby box of chocolates, and get stuck in to some Burroughs. You’ll thank me later.