Tuesday, January 17, 2012

John Carter had me at "hello," lost me at "how are you?"

When I hunger for new cinematic visions that seem to represent a clear departure from things I've seen previously, John Carter is the kind of movie I think of.

Or so I thought from the first trailer, anyway.

Here's that first trailer:

Of course, everything that was minimalist, ominous and visionary about this first trailer felt pedestrian in the trailer I saw last week, before either Tintin or War Horse.

Here's that trailer:

Now I think it just seems like any other gladiator movie, any other ripoff of Star Wars, with one shot that seems like a ripoff of Avatar (which itself was a ripoff of oh-so-many things).

So I don't know where I stand with respect to John Carter. Am I excited to see it? Watching that first trailer again just now, I felt so. Watching the second trailer again reminded me that I might not be.

I think it gets at the difference between a teaser (which, even at 1:45, the first trailer essentially is) and a trailer (which tells you more of what the movie is essentially about). And so that explains the title of this post, which you thought was just a clever riff on the oh-so-current cultural reference, Jerry Maguire.

See, the teaser is kind of a "hello." It says "Hi, I'm a thing. You may or may not have known I was a thing, but this footage is designed to give you that knowledge and get you a little excited." A teaser is great, because it leaves open the possibility that the movie could go in so many different directions from what you're seeing. How skillful, for example, to give us the detail that this man started in 19th century England before ending up on Mars. That bit of information is meant to give you the Keanu "Whoa" reaction.

However, once the full trailer is revealed, it can no longer hide what it's about. That's the "how are you" -- literally, how is the movie. How do those images we've seen coalesce into a story.

And that's where John Carter appears to trip. Clearly, Disney thought its best bet to get a big audience on the first weekend (still almost two months off) would be to highlight the movie's action. You'll notice that 19th century London makes no appearance whatsoever in the second trailer -- that only confuses people who came for an action movie.

But what we're left with is a bunch of lame Star Wars prequel stuff, including gladiator footage that seems to be right out of Attack of the Clones (that was the movie where they fought in an arena while chained up, right?). Then there's a bit of warmed-over Braveheart ("He will fight for us!") or any of the countless movies that involve a rallying speech to an underdog army.

I guess I'm giving away the change in my excitement level by the poster I chose to accompany this post. If I'd still been in giddy-teaser-phase, I might have led with this poster, which is even listed as the "teaser poster" in the file name (I hadn't consciously realized there was such a thing, but it makes as much marketing sense as a teaser trailer):

Oh, how I long for those days when John Carter could still have been about anything.

John Carter seemed to have the cross-genre potential of a movie like Cowboys & Aliens, where elements of our past and elements of a science fiction future fit together naturally in a way that both expands and blows our mind.

Oops, except Cowboys & Aliens didn't pull that off, either.

Here's hoping John Carter pulls it off better than Cowboys & Aliens. If it doesn't, not only will it fail to be the first awesome movie of 2012, but it may not even be worth watching on video.

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