Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hollywood's 'Mars curse' explained

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Over at The Secret Sun, Christopher Knowles provides a fascinating, nuanced reading of Disney’s recent Mars movie-disaster John Carter.

If I’m being nitpicky, though (which I am), I’ll have to take issue with the suggestion that John Carter was “sabotaged by outside forces.” To be fair, this suggestion comes not directly from Chris Knowles, but from Richard Hoagland, who Knowles refers to in his article as having highlighted (on Coast to Coast AM) the fact that celebrated director Andrew Stanton’s name featured scantily in Disney’s marketing for John Carter: “As Richard C. Hoagland pointed out, his name was nowhere to be seen in the promotion or advertising of the film. Very strange,” writes Knowles. 

Actually, not strange at all. Disney didn’t want audiences to actively associate the live-action and thematically mature John Carter with Andrew Stanton’s name, which previously had been linked exclusively to animated productions suitable for very young audiences (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, WALL-E). It was a marketing strategy on Disney’s part. Simple as that.

But no marketing strategy, however daring, could have saved John Carter from box-office oblivion, contrary to what Richard Hoagland has suggested. The movie was simply too damn odd to succeed. It showed no interest in conforming to generic convention. It doesn’t fit the blockbuster mould. Ponderous and literary, the movie is faithful to the point of slavishness to the dense mythology of its source material -- material that today, in comparison to the likes of Tolkien’s most famous work, is outrageously obscure.

What killed John Carter was the Martian Curse, which is not in any way conspiratorial or mystical, but is a cultural spectre risen from our collective disinterest not in Mars itself, but in science-fiction movies about the Red Planet. Paradoxical though it might sound, we are simultaneously fascinated by Mars as a scientific curiosity and bored senseless by Hollywood’s imaginings of it. So much has been written about Mars from a factual standpoint that it seems almost as familiar to us as our own moon (and last time I checked there’s not a thriving sub-genre of moon movies).

Science fiction as a genre is infinitely bigger and more exotic than Mars, and given that we are so frequently told by officialdom that Mars is almost certainly lifeless (an assertion that will likely be proved hollow sooner rather than later), it seems unrealistic in the extreme for Hollywood executives to expect us to queue round the block to see movies about a dusty red rock which, in cosmic terms, is just across the street from us. For fans of the science-fiction genre -- and for cinemagoers in general -- Mars simply feels too close to home. Sign me up anytime for a trip to a galaxy far, far away... but Mars? Been there, done that. Sorry.

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