A few weeks ago I spent a goodly chunk of a weekend doing something that would make a lot of people groan. I settled onto my couch and watched two films which were intended to rule the 2012 box-office, and introduce a dominant new star into the Hollywood firmament. It said so. Right on the front page of “Entertainment Weekly.” The emergent star was Mr. Taylor Kitsch, and the films were Battleship and John Carter. Alas, EW’s prognosticative powers were not confirmed by either film, and rather than blaze a path to immortality, each quickly became synonymous with bloated, boring, can-you-believe-they-even-made-that-anyway, career-ending failure. The question before us is: why? Much time, money and effort were expended by intelligent and creative people to bring these films to the screen, so how do they manage to flop so irredeemably? If I could answer the question definitively I’d be the new ruler of the industry (and – dare I say it – the WORLD!), but absent that, it’s still worth kicking the question around a little bit.
Many fingers could be pointed with regard to the failure of either film, but both clearly faced uphill battles right out of the gate.
Edgar Rice Burroughs created John Carter at the same time he created Tarzan (in 1912). Both were successful on the page, but Tarzan made a fairly quick leap to the big-screen, while John Carter never quite got off the ground. The most famous abortive attempt at a movie version was an animated proposal by Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett in 1936, footage of which can be seen here:
Separate attempts at live-action in the Seventies and Eighties also fizzled, which is to say that despite a long history of success in print, the world was not exactly clamoring for a John Carter movie, nor was he a well known character outside of certain circles of sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts. That created problem number one for the recent film, since most people just have no idea who the character is or what he’s all about. This was in no way helped by problem number two, a rather obtuse advertising campaign, including trailers and posters which provided absolutely no background for the uninitiated.
Within two minutes the guys in marketing sort of make the film look like a re-hash of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones by way of Conan the Barbarian, featuring the creepy guys from Fringe. None of which is fair to a venerable character by a well-known author which anticipated all of the things it looks like it’s imitating.
Battleship faced an entirely different set of problems, but name recognition wasn’t really one of them. The board game remains popular, and is well-known to a whole generation of people who remember either of these (or their successors):
Fundamentally, however, it was reasonable to assume going in that a film based on a board game would be something less than compelling.
But a funny thing happened on the way to what look like two really problematic ideas for expensive summer blockbusters. They’re both pretty good films. Maybe they aren’t all time classics, but there are WAY worse films, and you could make a pretty good case that they’re better than any of the Transformers films, or something like Thor (and I preferred them to any of the recent Batman films). So why did they both flop so badly?
Well, there is an obvious possible weak link here, and that would be former star-of-tomorrow, Taylor Kitsch. The trailers for both films immediately demonstrate that he’s something less than a magnetic personality, though his persona isn’t exactly unfamiliar to modern audiences. The Battleship trailer devotes almost half it’s length to the “drama” of Kitsch’s character, and it just fizzles out on screen:
But angry young men are never really out of fashion, and his flat performance style is in keeping with recent preferences. So is it all his fault? As much as I found him problematic in both films, it’s really not fair to saddle him with the blame, but that seems to be part of what’s happened. His upcoming projects are budgeted at much lower levels, and he doesn’t exactly have prime positioning in the credits. The buildup from the EW article evaporated with the poor box office results of both films, and a later turn in Oliver Stone’s Savages did little to resuscitate his career hopes. While it might be premature to write him off, his biggest chance may have passed, and that’s kind of what interested me most about watching these titles back to back.
Can you imagine being the guy who was the public face of a half BILLION dollars worth of flopped filmmaking (and those budgets certainly play a role in the actual categorization of either as a failure)? Even when the deck was stacked against both films from the outset? Even when the films are actually pretty darned entertaining? I can’t help but wonder how it feels to start the summer on such a high, and end it on such a low, especially when it could portend the end of your career just when it should be taking off.
In the next few months Hollywood will roll out a whole new slate of summer films, some of which will flop (despite being worth watching), and some of which will succeed (despite being dreck). But all of them involve the hard work of people putting their careers on the line in a very public way – a way most of us can’t remotely comprehend. So the lesson of my Kitsch-y weekend is this. Before accepting word-of-mouth reports, remember to give those films a fair shake before writing them off (and yes, that includes visiting John Carter and Battleship if you haven’t already). It’s only fair, and I’m sure Taylor would appreciate it.