The internet is having a big old schadenfreude-gasm over news that sci-fi epic John Carter has bombed catastrophically at the box office, losing $200m. Most of the people lining up to mock the film’s overweening ambition haven’t seen it. Well, I have. And jeer all you like. I bloody loved it. Hollywood needs to produce more ludicrous follies like this, not fewer, and here’s why.
How to summarize this sprawling, heroic mess? The main character is a hunky Wild West renegade who wakes up on Mars and discovers he can leap enormous distances. That’s about it as far as plot goes. But! There’s a panting alien dog that runs really fast. You get to see Dominic West acting badly and blasting foes to bits with a blue sort of… sleeve thing. Lynn Collins – star of such deathless classics as The Dog Problem (57% on Rotten Tomatoes) – plays a military scientist who, in common with all top scientists, wears nothing but cleavage-baring lycra. The men all wear breastplates. Even the fat ones. There are some gangly aliens who are like Jar Jar Banks only even more annoying.
When the credits roll you discover the whole thing is dedicated to the memory of Steve Jobs for some reason. It’s like Flash Gordon meets Gladiator meets Dune meets Mad Max meets Avatar meets He-Man merts Wacky Races, and was no doubt commissioned by a studio executive in the grip of an eye-bulging coke binge. Consequently, John Carter feels faintly unhinged. It is ambitious and maximalist and incident-packed in a way that defies all logic or sense. It is also – here’s the thing – utterly unique.
Yes, it’s fair to say that John Carter – for all its cosmetic similarities to other, more successful films – is unlike anything else you’ll have seen at the cinema in this or any other year. It is not a sequel, or a lazy remake. Yes, it’s based on a book by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. But there’s a reason we don’t refer to him as ‘John Carter creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’. The book was obscure, by no means a guaranteed money-spinner. In fact, everything about John Carter resembles a kamikaze plot to baffle the world’s cinema-goers and lose as much money as possible.
This spirit of suicidal risk-taking is all-too rare in the movie world, and is to be applauded. The only puzzle is the title, which is mystifyingly dull, and may explain why so few people went to see the film. John Carter sounds like a mid-90s courtroom drama starring Matthew Perry as a lovably mixed-up hotshot lawyer. It doesn’t sound like a demented space fantasia. Maybe if they’d called it Alien Sexblast, or Hunks On Mars, or Boingy-Shooty Bounce Man, it might have shifted more tickets. But anyway.
The point is, we’re living through a stultifyingly dull era for cinema, where even superhero movies, like The Dark Knight, are self-consciously solemn and joyless affairs, great yawning hymns to the director’s own self-importance. Everyone seems keen to laugh at John Carter‘s commercial misfortune. The result will be to make Hollywood even more terrified than it already is of taking a gamble on new franchises. Is that what we want? What would you rather see at the cinema? A grand expensive folly, doomed to heroic failure? Or G.I. Joe 2?