While it won’t help the heads that rolled back when pundits were predicting death to all those attached, the minds behind the Spring stumble known as John Carter can breathe a bit easier today. After weeks of hemming and hawing, days of defending and redefining, 2012 has another confirmed megaflop to add to its growing list of obvious underachievers. Even with its early opening in foreign markets and obvious bows to billion dollar franchises like Transformers, home studio Hasbro has hit a sand bar with its unbelievably dumb Battleship. With a mere $55 million in domestic box office and an outlook of less than $300 million worldwide, the proposed tentpole (complete with sequel-suggesting stinger) now joins the Edgar Rice Burroughs blunder as one of this mediocre movie season’s strategic stumbles.
Perhaps it’s the jingoistic “USA! USA!” patriotism that runs through the narrative like a ribbon of rotting fudge. Maybe it’s the implausible, repetitive premise (aliens invade Earth, and a ragtag group of heroes, including a rogue desperate to go straight, single-handedly take them on) and the lack of any legitimate rooting interest, character wise. It could be the ‘too close for comfort’ association with Michael Bay and his Farm Film Report aesthetic of manic action and blowing stuff up…“real good!” Whatever the case, the Peter Berg popcorn epic, a project he agreed to after passing on an attempt to bring Dune back to the big screen, has earned one of the rotten reputations that come with failing to fulfill your backer’s fiscal desires. From studio to producers, presidents to personal assistants, it’s the kind of crash and burn that will have impact in today’s micromanaged Tinseltown.
The anatomy of a bomb is never simple to fully explain. Sometimes, it’s the material vs. whose making it, as when a clearly outclassed Brian DePalma tried to turn Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities into a star-studded cartoon. In other instances, it’s bad ideas chasing even worst talent choices (the 3D CG horror that’s Mars Needs Moms, for example). No dud is predesigned. Everyone involved in even the biggest flop approaches the project with providence and possibilities. They work hard to maneuver around potential pitfalls and put their best foot forward in almost all areas of the artform. Once made, however, marketing and manipulative executives step in, and with the perverse preview process (gauging quality by group think reaction? There’s logic for you) and critical catering, what was intended can end up very, very difference once the title hits theaters.
We’ve all heard stories from disgruntled directors regarding work taken away from them and reconfigured by the brass. Almost every underachieving effort can pinpoint a part of the process where script changes were mandated from outside (actors - especially labeled superstars - are usually guilty) and edits were offered without their complete cooperation. In fact, almost every commercial release aimed at a mainstream audience is manufactures and manipulated to meet specific demographical and artistic requirements. In general, wannabe hits have to cater to the non-English speaking sector of the planet, play via simplistic storytelling ideals, and aim its amusements directly at the 12 to 18 year old male adolescent viewer (both in truth and in type).
On the outside, Battleship appeared to have it all. There’s massive mechanical motherships shooting buzzsaw like destro-orbs around the world. These weapons reduce Hong Kong, and a Hawaiian highway, to nicely rendered F/X dust. We also have body armor wearing ETs with bad attitudes and laser guns. On the side of right is the renegade champion-in-training with his fatal flaw visible for all to see, his hot blond gal pal, her button-down military dad, and the bad boy’s sainted brother who is destined to die a noble, if wholly unnecessary, death. There’s action, a pop star trying for silver screen cred (still looking for it, right Rihanna?) and the added bonus of a real life war hero serving as a side subtextual attempt at authenticity. As a director, Berg is more than competent (his The Kingdom is a fine War on Terror thriller) and the acting overall is OK.
So, why did Battleship bomb? Why did a movie made specifically to fulfill the known needs of the worldwide marketplace miss the mark? Well, for one thing, the movie is bad. Not awful in the sense of Uwe Boll, or Shawn Levy. It’s just dumb and derivative. In fact, don’t be surprised if the movie is embraced on home video as part of some elaborate homage-oriented drinking game. Secondly, the familiarity is never cut by anything new or novel. Battle: Los Angeles had the same old hackneyed plot, but tried to trick us via a found footage, cinema veritie documentary style (it didn’t work). Had Berg found a way to turn the spaceman vs. soldier angle on its head, or invent a new kind of cinematic POV, he might have beat the script’s banality. As it stands, he did little except add to it.
But there is something deeper here, a cynicism that runs rampant through our present day social news networking. Opinions, learned or not, kneejerk or seasoned and well reasoned are thrown our into the marketplace of ideas in the flick of a smartphone. Audiences, offering their instant reactions like water to a dehydrated media monster, fuel a sometimes lethal word of mouth that can sink a movie before it even has a chance to play. Call it the ‘90s TV version of acceptance. Back a decade and a half ago, the boob tube would throw random projects at the home viewer, using technology to instantly rate a response. A couple of episodes, and the ratings would dictate an authoritarian thumbs up/thumbs down. Similarly, Facebook fills up with instantaneous reactions, rendered a work’s chances of winning over an audience almost impossible.
This is what happened to John Carter. It had massive expectations (live action effort from Oscar winning Pixar pro), web geek gushing, and an out of control, elephantine budget. When initial screenings suggested success, the movie was pushed and pushed hard. When critical approval (or the lack thereof) made conclusions a bit more dicey, the last hope came at the hands of those bastions of ‘likes’ and comment rants - the audience. Unfortunately, they didn’t like the primed pulp epic, and their rejected resulted in dismal returns and a few empty corporate offices. Like any wave, there was little that could be done to stop it, and even when some came back to re-defend the film, the result was rendered moot. Consensus was created and a flop was found.
In Battleship‘s case, the movie is just miserable. It’s stupid and doesn’t apologize for being the same. It’s lack of success is clearly a question of quality, not something more complex. However, in a world which failed to embrace the far better John Carter, it becomes a companion in suggested sameness. In some ways, it’s like mass hysteria. Once the idea gets out there and infects the conversation, that’s all anyone can talk about. Sometime, the gossip is warranted. In this case, it’s apples and badly rendered extraterrestrial oranges.