I am not contrary by nature. If I go against the grain, or kick against the consensus, it is not through any deep desire to be “different” or to prove myself a “maverick”. But I am about to tell you that I thought two of the biggest critical and commercial Hollywood flops of the year – John Carter and Battleship – were absolutely fine.
John Carter came out in March; a sort of quasi-steampunk sci-fi saga based on a series of books first published before the First World War, it cost a reported $250 million, before marketing, and made around $300 million worldwide. As a result of the shortfall, or writedown, between cost and revenue, and expectation and cold, hard reality, the head of Walt Disney resigned, with the film being blamed for the studio’s Entertainment Division slipping from profit to loss in the first quarter of 2012. It was intended as a trilogy; it may have to be satisfied with being a trilogy of one.
Battleship came out in April and May; a noisy sci-fi maritime war movie apparently based on the Hasbro game of yore, it cost just over $200 million, before marketing, and made around $300 million worldwide. Nobody resigned, but it was considered a major failure all the same. Both films debuted at number one on the US box office, and both films slipped to second place soon after, presumably sunk by word-of-mouth as much as anything, although neither was reviewed kindly by the press and quotes for the posters were thin on the ground.
I caught up with both blockbusters on DVD. This seems apt, as apparent “flops” often make up the shortfall on DVD, where audiences are more likely to take a risk, especially if a film is being viewed by more than one person. And in any case, who cares how well or not a film did at the box office? Citizen Kane was a flop, and that’s pretty well regarded. The only people who care about box office are studio accountants, whose job it is to care. Is the film “any good”?
John Carter was released in 3D, so I can guarantee that would have annoyed me, had I seen it at the cinema. I was better off seeing it in 2D on my telly. Now, let me state this first: I really like Taylor Kitsch, the young star of both films. He found fame on TV as high school heartthrob and underachieving layabout Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, which I’m currently catching up with, five years later, thanks to Sky Atlantic. He has movie-star looks, and a movie-star torso, and you can easily see why he was groomed for the big-screen crossover. Although well-paid for both films, I’m sure, I now find myself feeling terribly sorry for him. He was the star of two huge studio disasters in a row – how unlucky is that?
In John Carter, he is John Carter, the Confederate Civil War soldier who winds up on Mars, where he must take his top off and fight an internecine war between two alien races, helped only by his soldiering skills and a new one: that he can jump really high. Director Andrew Stanton, who came direct from the digitopia with laurels on his head after his amazing work on Wall-E, among others, was directing live action for the first time, and was candid enough to admit that it was a learning curve for him, and that he needed a lot of help and patience from those around him. I’m no studio boss, but I would have perhaps given him a smaller, cheaper film to play with for his first go.
Anyway, if you go into John Carter with adjusted expectations, you might be pleasantly surprised. It’s an old-fashioned sci-fi movie, more HG Wells than William Gibson, and family fare; a perfectly serviceable Star Wars-esque caper, with some good CGI creatures and a watchable star turn from Kitsch, who’s like a less complex Keanu Reeves. Reliable, scenery-chewing support comes from Mark Strong, James Purefoy, Dominic West, Samantha Morton (some seen, some in voice only) and there’s some decent spectacle here. (When I say Star Wars, it’s closer to the latter trilogy than the first, but it’s in that desert-planet ballpark, and there’s nothing in it as offensive as Jar-Jar.)
Battleship, meanwhile, is like Transformers meets Tora! Tora! Tora! Although Peter Berg is best known for loose camerawork and naturalistic acting on FNL, here, he’s playing with a very big train set: actual battleships versus extraterrestrial ones – you know the kind: bloody massive, all groaning metal and bass notes, with that electronic whizzing noise every time something new emerges from the metal.
Put it this way, it’s a hundred times better than Pearl Harbor (it’s set on Oahu, Hawaii, among the US Navy fleet), as it’s self-aware and out for a bit of fun. When one character – a US Army amputee actually played by a non-acting US Army amputee for maximum “our boys” points – says something portentous, a nerdy computer guy – played with great humour by Hamish Linklater – says, “Who speaks like that?” It’s full of this kind of self-lacerating dialogue. It’s a film about an alien invasion based on a board game, after all. (I didn’t notice all of the visual parallels that were made between the game and the movie until they were pointed out to me afterwards, but the missiles the aliens fire at the human ships are designed to look like giant, malevolent versions of the plastic pegs used in Battleships. Ha!)
Battleship reminded me of Armageddon, and that’s not faint praise. This time, Kitsch plays a layabout with a more responsible older brother, just like he does in FNL, so he’s on safer ground initially … until we’re expected to believe that he transforms himself into a crew-cut US Navy officer in time for the invasion. There are too many salutes to the brave boys of the services – some real-life Navy veterans play a dramatic role, for instance, and there’s a lot of flags – but overall, it’s a perfectly exciting way to spend two hours.
Oh, and Rihanna’s in it, and she’s alright, too.
I watch a lot of small, inexpensive, often foreign arthouse movies, with no stars in, and modest ambitions, and these are my sustenance and my stimulants. But, you know, The Poseidon Adventure was a blockbuster, and so was Laurence Of Arabia, and it would be snobbish to demean their place in the cinematic firmament. Don’t be put off from renting a “flop”, because successful films are just as likely to be a letdown.
I’m seeing Kitsch in his next film, Oliver Stone’s Savages, next week – which is not a $200 million-budget toy-range blockbuster but a stylised drugs/crime thriller, as I understand it, with less riding on it. I have my fingers crossed for him. He deserves another crack at this. He has clear eyes, he has a full heart, and right now, he can’t seem to get a break.
(Interestingly, my friend Adam Smith of Empire magazine just Tweeted that Peter Berg told him Universal would consider Battleship a “flop” unless it made $1 billion. Those are big numbers.)