I love Mars fiction. Really love it. I did an interview last week (these days, that means people ask me questions rather than vice versa. Funny how life turns out) where I was asked what the appeal of Mars was in SF. It’s close, is what I reckon. Close enough to get there, just about. It’s pretty hospitable too compared to everywhere else in the Solar System. Hospitable enough to survive there, just about. Mars has a lot of cultural weight – it’s a big orange light in the sky that people have hung a lot of – mostly – belligerent meanings on for millennia. Holy cow, man – it’s Mars! That is why folks still dig it. Do you need any more reasons?
To say Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories are such an important part of the SF genome, there is a surprisingly small amount of baggage attached to them. They’ve not been adapted umpteen times. We don’t have a fixed idea of John Carter like we do of Burroughs’ better known Tarzan. John Carter has not been woven into our odd mythology like Batman, Flash Gordon and so on. He’s like Boom-ha, god of teacups, a minor deity in the post-modern pantheon (note, I made Boom-ha up, because I can).
John Carter should have been a good property to develop. People are familiar with it, but not take-it-to-bed-cuddle-it familiar – you can’t buy a bobble-headed, super-plush John Carter cuddly toy. There’s creative room there. It’s swashbuckling romance, it’s got love and swords and flying ships. It’s on Mars. As previously mentioned, Mars is cool (although actually, it’s freezing. Brrr).
But John Carter (of Mars) did dismal box office, hit bang between its red-man Martian eyes by the curse of the Red Planet. Every film with “Mars” in the title (and many other films about Mars lacking the word) over the last couple of decades has failed financially, been a bad movie, or both. Mars Needs Moms – bombed. Ghosts of Mars – awful. Red Planet – even worse. Mars movies have a higher failure rate than Martian probes. The Martian looks to buck the trend, but then once in a while a robot gets through to roam about the surface. Quite a few impact on the surface.
John Carter is not that bad a film. I’ve been meaning to see it ever since it came out, so when it came up on Amazon I gleefully informed my wife we’d be watching it, no complaining please. She thought it rubbish, but at least managed to stay awake all the way through. Tellingly she disparaged is as having the look of something made in the 1970s, which was precisely why I liked it. It was cheesy but fun. The two hour running time whipped by.
There’s a number of things at play in its spectacular failure (and it lost a lot of money). The first part is audience awareness. Mars films are generally crappy, and that will have kept folk away. The marketing campaign was badly orchestrated when it should have been deft, because John Carter is important to SF as something that has inspired a whole lot of something elses, but is not that well known in itself. We’re talking about marketing that didn’t announce the picture to existing Burroughs fans, or decide what the film was called.
Second were the qualities of the film. The hero’s ability to leap like superman was overplayed, and helped unpick the stitches of disbelief-suspension already loosened by a lot of not very convincing CGI. The dialogue made me wince. The plot was muddled – I enjoyed the frame story unlike some critics, but there was too much to-ing and fro-ing on Mars between the same locations. The story was a vehicle to deliver set pieces, it lacked sufficient forward drive to make it compelling. Lastly, the acting was quite often knuckle in the mouth hammy (though to be fair, I blame the script for that again).
I did enjoy it, and rather a lot, I only wish it were better. John Carter is one of the sources that inspired my own book Champion of Mars, which I set out to write as an homage to all the different types of Mars tales by Stephen Baxter, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock and more. It was, of course, cheekily timed to come out when John Carter did to take advantage of all the excitement that would inevitably be generated for Mars by the film. Er, well, that worked! Maybe I should have avoided putting Mars in the title…