Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Martian Curse

Coming Friday: John Carter, the epic sci-fi / action film, set mostly on the planet Mars, based on the book by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Never heard of it? You're in good company. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Disney is already flipping out: public interest is almost non-existent, the buzz isn't good (critical consensus so far: "you have seen this film before"). The prognosticators have downgraded projections for opening weekend box office from $25 million to $20 million. This is for a film that engaged four effects houses to complete, with a budget estimated from the official and astounding tally of $250 million to a flabbergasting (and off-the record) $275 million.

Teaser one-sheet from last summer.
JCM = John Carter of Mars. it was also
apparently NOT supposed to come out
'til June.

Show of hands: who has ever read the Barsoom novels the thing was based on? Who has ever heard of Taylor Kitsch, the star? Do you remember the early promotional material from last fall, when it was called John Carter of Mars? When we saw a trailer for it, my wife thought it was the sequel to Terminator: Salvation.

I honestly would never have thought there was such a thing as The Martian Curse-- but at least for Hollywood films, depicting or mentioning or even pointing a camera in the vague direction of The Red Planet is box-office doom. Big doom. Doom-de-doom-doom-style doom. Here are a few examples:

Martian with Dreads:
WTF, right?

Mars Needs Moms (2011, last year!): Disney's $150 million motion-capture all-CG bomb, based on a children's picture book. This one famously opened with $6.9 million in box office, which would be respectable if it were a mumble-core live-action film with non-union actors just talking about going to Mars. It realized a final profit of just over $20 million, which is horrible. It may have killed Robert Zemeckis' career: let's wait and see if he and M. Night Shyamalan (The Last Airbender) go into the wedding video business together. Still, compared to $275 mil, in retrospect it might have been a bargain.

"Open the pod bay doors, please-- Never mind, wrong movie."
Mission to Mars (2000): Featuring Tim Robbins in basically a long cameo and Gary Sinese with an incongruous amount of eye makeup, Mission to Mars was not all that bad a film, and alone among sci-fi films of late, it dealt with the actual technical details of going to Mars (i.e it's gonna take a long time). It was Brian DePalma's plodding tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, it even featured space helmets that looked like they were swiped from Tony Master's (2001's art director) prop closet. Cost $80 million to make, took in $60 million total, after an unimpressive $20 million opening weekend.

Mars Attacks card from 1962. Kids were really
on their own back then, huh?
Mars Attacks! (1996): Based on kitschy (but not Taylor Kitschy) trading cards from the height of the Cold War, Tim Burton brought his own brand of strange whimsy to the entire thing. I actually got a huge kick out this film, which absolutely refused to take itself seriously for even a second. But with a $70 million production budget, it opened on nearly 2000 screens and took in $9.3 million. It took until about three months ago to gain a modest profit, a rare failure for Burton.

Almost forgot these entirely (which says something):

Red Planet (2000) featuring Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore. Cost $70 million to make, took in $8.7 million opening weekend for a sad $17 mil total. Don't remember this film at all.

Ghosts of Mars (2001): It's exactly what the title says it is: Mars colonists from Earth being possessed by Martian ghosts. made with a $28 million budget (modest for this crowd), it lumped together less than $9 million in receipts with a $3.8 million opening. The anticlimactic final big-budget film for John Carpenter.

Why do Mars movies fail so badly? I haven't a clue. All the film mentioned have solid pedigrees and represent the best values of production Hollywood has. I guess a curse sometimes is just that: a mysterious sort of ill fortune. maybe it's a planetary version of "the Scottish Play," a celestial body None Dare Call By Name.

So: I'm taking all bets! Does John Carter join this gallery of cinematic ignominy, or will it somehow find an audience? The lower you guess, the better the payoff!


  1. I've actually read the ERB Martian series (yes, it was a series of half a dozen or so books).
    And it's nowhere near as entertaining ERB's other series set on Venus.


  2. I can add another one - the Asylum Pictures take on this same property from a couple of years ago, starring my old friend Antonio Sabato Jr.

    It made no money of course (duh, Asylum), but at least they had the good sense to write a line of dialogue explaining it wasn't set on THAT Mars, but another planet with the same name several solar systems away. I suspect it was a post-production decision (it's a line of narration) resulting from someone noticing the very same things you did above.

    Streaming Netflix! See for yourself!

  3. Nobody brought up the obvious exception: TOTAL RECALL (1990). This one may have an out from the Martian Curse: It's a Philip K. Dick VR story, so was Quade ACTUALLY on Mars at all?

    And yes, this film has been remade, out later this year, in fact.

  4. I remember it, but I'm not convinced that there ever WAS a movie called TOTAL RECALL.

  5. It would be much nicer if you had a direct feedback / email link somewhere, as I could elaborate some fascinating anecdotes about a recent release that you would find rather amusing....