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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 24
Blues for Barsoom
John Carter

Hollywood has declared war on Mars.

Let's be more specific. With only a handful of days before it begins its theatrical release, John Carter appears poised to be one of the biggest flops in the history of cinema, a sort of Heaven's Gate for the geek set. No sooner did the trailer for director Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars run during the Super Bowl than The Daily Beast's Chris Lee cited the as-yet unseen adventure film "with Avatar-size ambitions that's being greeted sight-unseen as the next Ishtar." One only needs a brief peek around cyberspace to find story after story repeating the same thing: press blackouts; heads rolling at Disney; comparisons to Cutthroat Island and Battlefield Earth (and more than likely I'm exacerbating the problem by mentioning it, but then the search engine algorithms already seized this meme). Other sites prepared their autopsy reports before John Carter even rolled into their digital mortuaries: lack of promotion; weak tracking estimates; audiences confused as to what the movie is about. Even geeks who grew up absorbing names like Tars Tarkas, Dejah Thoris, and Ras Thavas evince a surprising amount of ambivalence, if not outright hostility: what's wrong, they ask, with the novel's original title? Where's the "of Mars" in its current title?

Heaven's Gate Battlefield Earth Dune Howard the Duck

Upon reading Lee's piece, I attempted to maintain perspective. We've been here before, I reminded myself. Critics and studio heads often greet high-profile science fiction movies with indifference and worry. Sometimes with cause. David Lynch's Dune brought whole scenes of its source material to life in an often visually arresting yet, yes, emotionally dead cinematic misfire. For all of the admirable qualities found in David Brin's The Postman, Kevin Costner's bloated, tone-deaf adaptation never rose above its mundane post-apocalyptic setting, bogging down in dreary clichés and self-importance. Mike Nichols took the promise of Wolf -- how could a movie starring Jack Nicholson as a man unleashing the beast within miss? -- and riddled it with silver bullets, making an insufferable flop. (Had Nichols shot even one scene of lycanthrope Jack ripping out somebody jugular vein with his teeth, the movie would have made $100 million opening weekend.)

Yet just as often studios scuttle good, even great, movies. Film historians and critics praise Ridley Scott's Bladerunner today, but, plagued by reediting and studio interference, it dropped out of sight rapidly during the summer of 1982. Terry Gilliam's brilliant Brazil shone with disparate bits of Orwell, Kafka, Philip K. Dick, Carol Reed, and Billy Wilder, and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Picture, yet Universal released the picture into a few scattered theaters with little support and no fanfare, perhaps hoping it would vanish without a trace. (I drove across Houston in 1986 to catch a 9:45 pm showing, the only showing available that week, and fell in love with it from the first frame.) Alex Proyas's Dark City, nearly fourteen years after its theatrical run, stands as one of the best, and certainly most unique, science fiction movies of the past twenty-five years, yet it was landed with a thud financially. And the more I think of how badly studios treated Brad Bird's The Iron Giant, the more I shake my head in dismay.

(And then there are those movies that never should have been filmed. Ang Lee's Hulk? Even my more highbrow friends have to mentally contort themselves to utter a positive word about it. Howard the Duck? Ugh.)

However, no matter what kind of perspective I try to keep, the possibility that John Carter might be a flop fills me with no small amount of worry.

Part of the reason is pragmatic. Avatar set huge records and made huge world-building in science fiction cinema viable. A successful box office run for John Carter potentially might make studios think of adapting other classic science fiction novels. No matter what your take on the works themselves, certainly most of us would rush to the nearest multiplex for an adaptation of Larry Niven's Ringworld, Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, or Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth. Who among us wouldn't line up on opening weekend for a film version of The Uplift War or Cyteen? And even if it winds up starring Bradley Cooper, I'll plonk down money to see Hyperion on screen. Failure could prolong the wait for any of these movies.

Mission of Gravity Hyperion The Adjustment Bureau

But the bigger reason comes from a far deeper place. I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars novels. Barsoom became as wondrous a place to visit in my early adolescence as Arrakis and Trantor, and Carter himself as much a part of my private mythology as Gully Foyle or James Bond. I tell myself that a bad film won't matter, that the novels still exist and I can always revisit them. And on one level I do believe that. A successful John Carter, admittedly, make me happy that part of my childhood survived into the twenty-first century. A failure... well, I don't know. If it's good and it still bombs, I'll likely be able to at least walk away with some degree of satisfaction. A bad adaptation I might almost take personally, in the same way I took Total Recall and The Adjustment Bureau personally. If that's the case, Hollywood not only will have declared war on Barsoom, but on me as well.

Fingers crossed.

Copyright © 2012 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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