It’s now been almost two months since Disney held its nose and released John Carter, investing everything it could in trying to draw audiences even as they knew that it was probably going to end up being the biggest write-down of all time. And, though it hasn’t come close to wreaking the kind of havoc that Heaven’s Gate did when it bankrupted United Artists back in 1980, it’s still proved a colossal disappointment, pulling in just $69 million domestically (barely breaking even on its $250 million budget on the back of stronger overseas performance) and leading to a $200 million operating loss for Disney. Strangely, though, it hasn’t been all that poorly received – its 51% score on RottenTomatoes, though objectively low, isn’t that far off the 57% scored by the first Transformers movie, and my unscientific survey of people I knew who’d seen it produced none of the out-and-out disdain that I would expect out of such a colossal misfire.
Now that we’re a bit further removed from the histrionics and hand-wringing of the release, I’d like to circle back around to John Carter as the starting point for examining the importance of a movie’s ‘texture,’ which is sort of my fancy way of describing the overall effect that production design, for good or ill, has on film and television viewership.
Of course, there was a lot that went wrong with John Carter, from an uninspiring lead (Taylor Kitsch in the title role) who had little chemistry with his supposed love interest, to an unforgivably long and confusing opening sequence before anything pertinent to the plot was actually revealed, to muddled storytelling that didn’t adequately establish characters or reference points on which a watcher could base an emotional connection with the story. Yet none of those things were particularly worse than your average blockbuster, and there were quite a few good, interesting moments sprinkled throughout that would have piqued the interest of cinephiles. What doomed John Carter wasn’t that audiences thought it would be bad but that audiences didn’t have any interest in it, and the ones that went to see it, even if they liked it, didn’t come away with such a strong or positive impression that it convinced other people to see it too.
To me, the major failure of John Carter – and the reason that it failed to attract the huge audience that it aimed for – was its poor production design. Though its final budget was somewhere around $250 million, for much of the film it was hard to tell where that money had gone: a lot of the movie is spent with Taylor Kitsch just wandering around the desert. Then you come to certain grandiose scenes and you discover that all the money went through what ends up being a small number of avenues. This was director Andrew Stanton’s first live-action feature, a fact that is fully on display – the scenes with the fully CGI Thark race, for instance, are vividly rendered, while live-action scenes are decidedly less engaging.
The reason for this, I think, is that these scenes, and the movie as whole, lack texture, that sense of reality that creates the illusion of the world. The costumes worn by the Martian characters in John Carter are almost identical and uniformly ridiculous, seemingly taken straight out of storage from a swords-and-sandals epic of the 1950s. The interiors, meanwhile, are closer to templates than to lived spaces. Or, to put it another way, it’s as if the set designers were told to create a general exotic, alien space rather than ones that were tailored to fit within the movie’s spectrum of created societies and individuals. They didn’t, in other words, have personality.
Reading that over, it comes off a little more abstract than I intend, so let me offer a counterexample at the other extreme. Prior to 1979, Ridley Scott had directed several TV episodes, a short, and just one feature, a period drama called The Duellists. By the end of 1982, he had added two more features to that list, both of which are on the short list of titles to be considered as our greatest science fiction movies: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). We’ll leave Blade Runner aside, because it’s too much of a specialty movie to be considered in this class of title: it earned just $27.6 million on its initial release, barely making back its budget, a fact that is not surprising when you remember that, though certainly a masterpiece, it may well be the most boring masterpiece ever made.
Alien is another matter, a movie that made almost $80 million domestically on an $11 million budget and spawned a cinema franchise, a major success story by any measure. Unlike Blade Runner, it has a clear plot line and operates as an audience-friendly genre hybrid (horror and science fiction), succeeding in both more than most movies in either. Where Blade Runner and Alien are similar, however, is in their sophisticated and beautiful production design. If you’ve seen Alien, you’ll know immediately what I’m referring to: the sterile white walls of the ship’s infirmary, the eerie darkness of the crash site where the crew finds the egg, the industrial feel of the cockpit. It isn’t that it feels like a place that we have been, or even a place where we think these characters would be particularly likely to spend time. It’s that the space itself has a particular and distinct character – a fine-grained texture that makes everything within it more vivid and real.
A movie’s ability to create that kind of texture isn’t on its own going to make it good – Gangs of New York is an example a film wherein top-notch production design couldn’t make up for narrative deficiencies – but, film being a visual medium, it is something that can make or break a movie, and is a primary reason that many stories that would be marginalized in other media become art in movies. As a novel, Star Wars would be indistinguishable from the trashy space operas that, according to legend, George Lucas was deliberately trying to emulate; similarly, movies like The Godfather and 2001 are elevated above their source material because of the care taken in the construction of their visual worlds. Actually, nowhere is this better illustrated than in contemporary television, where Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire are among the most acclaimed series on the air. All three of these (and most especially Game of Thrones, another fantasy adaptation) rely on the vividness of their worlds to force audiences to take their stories seriously – which in turn gives their stories that much more dramatic weight.
All of that brings us back to the John Carter fiasco. Based on a property unfamiliar to a mass audience and lacking a major star, Carter had to bring in an audience based on the promise that we would see a new story set in a new world that we had never seen before. Instead, the movie’s trailers offered some green-skinned aliens and a shirtless Taylor Kitsch set in a desert landscape that looked like a re-used set from Gladiator. A trailer can’t really tell us that much about how well a movie’s story is going to work, because two and a half minutes is only enough time to highlight a couple plot points and give us a general sense of what to expect. What it can do, however, is tell us a lot about how a movie is going to look – which is why so many bad high-concept movies can still result in great previews. John Carter, though, just looked bland – probably the worst thing for it possible.
You want to know a movie that didn’t have that problem? Avatar, a movie that I have now mentioned enough times on this blog to grudgingly concede that I need to watch it again. Avatar’s story is deeply problematic, but, in stark contrast to John Carter, James Cameron’s world is a richly textured one, alien, beautiful, and so real that you want to believe that it exists. For a couple of hours, it makes the impossible real. John Carter, though, just arouses a disinterested shrug of the shoulders accompanied by an ambivalent, “Oh, that was kind of cool.”
And I don’t care what medium you’re working in – that’s not the reaction you want from a work of art.