"John Carter:" Doomed By Its Own Greatness?

A few days ago, I was listening to one of my new favorite things: The Next Picture Show podcast, from the the creators of the (sadly, defunct) The Dissolve. In it, cinephiles Scott Tobias, Keith Phipps, Tasha Robinson, and Rachel Handler translate the site's Movie of the Week feature into audio form, taking on "a classic film inspired by a current release, devoting one 'Keynote' episode to the older film, and one 'Forum' episode to tying the two films together, (along with further recommendations for current viewing)." (As you can easily see from that description, pretty much tailor-made to fill the "One Of Joseph's New Favorite Things" category.)

This week, they were talking about something that is not -- and never was -- one of my favorite things, but which still seemed a whole lot better to me when I finally saw it than I had been lead to believe by its press: John Carter (Though Not "Of Mars," Because That Would Be Confusing Or Off-putting Or Something).


During the conversation (where the quartet seemed to agree with my overall sentiments that the film was a pricey mess that it would have benefited greatly from far less set-up, about half as many framing stories, a much tighter script overall, and a lead with actual charisma, but which still managed to have an engaging second half and was overall more than a bit enjoyable), they mentioned "The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer," which contains this fascinating quote:

This more frantic trailer reveals the most problematic part of John Carter, and possibly why it was doomed to underperform no matter what happened: Because the Barsoom books were so influential to cinema's greatest sci-fi auteurs, just about everything in it had already been plundered and reused by other hits. And as a result, the more that was revealed of John Carter, the more derivative it looked, even if its source had originated these ideas. Look at what George Lucas took from Burroughs for his Star Wars movies alone: In his movies, the Sith are evil Jedis; in the world of John Carter, the Sith are evil insects. Star Wars had Princess Leia; John Carter has Princess Dejah. Leia’s infamous bikini inReturn of the Jedi? Worn by Princess Dejah first. That flying skiff she’s standing on next to Jabba the Hutt? Carter again. Even those banthas in the Star Wars were culled from the John Carter books, which are populated with similar-looking beasts of burden called banths. Looking beyond Lucas, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously pillaged the books, as did James Cameron, who in numerous interviews called Avatar“almost an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure.”

OK, so that's not quite the same thing as being doomed by your greatness, I suppose. But it does seem fair to say that the film was at least somewhat doomed by the greatness -- or by the great influence --  of its source material.

That must have stung, no? Your work is dismissed as predictable and derivative, yet it's really everyone else's work that's borrowing from you (or from your source). You're banished with the scarlet letter of "Tired Retread," even though you know that you're the "True Original," deep down. It's having the narrative turned so entirely and neatly on its head that really hurts. (Reminds me of the time I was told that someone hadn't really enjoyed Casablanca because it was "so clichéd." Actually, no. Casablanca is not clichéd; it's the well-spring from which all clichés flow.)

In fairness, John Carter certainly suffers from more than merely "feeling old hat" -- including (and of particular interest here) the flaw of being a bit too reverential to its source material. The massive pacing flaws are both glaringly obvious and particularly surprising from a fellow famous for keeping his Pixar projects ruthlessly focused. And the casting mistake(s) are particularly hard to ignore, for me.

But the charges of unoriginality? Of being unimaginative and of recycling previously-successful sci-fi material? Those seem exactly backwards.

Attribution(s): All posters, publicity images, and stills are the property of Walt Disney Pictures and other respective production studios and distributors.