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“John Carter” and the Curse of Mars

The Disney Martian adventure John Carter opens this weekend, and those who go see it will be mystically transported, along with the titular hero of the film, to a version of Mars called Barsoom. Disney is hoping quite a lot of explorers will take the trip, because with a budget estimated at $250 million, it’s going to need to be a monster just to break even.

If John Carter does become successful, not only will a lot of Disney executives breathe a heavy sigh of relief, but the film will have done something else: break an evil Martian curse in which films that take place on the fourth rock from the sun fail, often miserably, to make money at the box office. Or to put it another way: Red planet films usually stay in the red.

Examples, you say?

Mars Attacks!
This 1996 film by Tim Burton, in
which cartoonish Martians with ray guns zap Congress and otherwise make a
mess of Earth, is a rare misfire for its quirky director. The film took
in $37.7 million at the domestic box office, less than half its $80
million production budget.

My Favorite Martian
1999 movie version of the ’60s television show was aimed at the kids and
featured Disney stalwart Christopher Lloyd in the title role. It
brought in a modest $36.8 million at the domestic box office, which
would have been fine, had the film not cost $65 million to make.

Mission to Mars
2000, Disney gave director Brian De Palma $100 million to make this
near-future adventure with a title not-at-all coincidentally the same as
its classic ride at Disneyland (you remember, the one that simulated a
rocket launch with inflatable seats). However, this did not result in a Pirates of the Caribbean-size success: The film brought in $60 million domestically.

Red Planet
could at least comfort itself that it had the most successful
Mars-based film released by a major studio in 2000, thanks to this one,
released by Warner Bros., which pulled in less than $20 million at the
domestic box office. Since it had an $80 million budget, this is no
good. It appears to have killed the career of its director, Antony
Hoffman; this is his sole film credit.

John Carpenter’s The Ghosts of Mars
master Carpenter attempted a tale of ghostly Martians possessing the
bodies of hapless human miners but couldn’t scare up an audience. At
$28 million, the film was relatively cheap, but when you only bring in
$8.7 million at the domestic box office, it’s still a flop.

Martian Child
2007 domestic drama starring John Cusack isn’t actually a science
fiction film (although it is based on a novel by famed science fiction
writer David Gerrold), but it features a small boy who maintains he is
actually from Mars. So, you know, let’s add it in for fun. Its
production budget was a small $27 million, but its domestic box office
was an even smaller $7.5 million.

Mars Needs Moms
2011 film, in which a boy heads to Mars to retrieve his kidnapped
mother, is notable for being one of the biggest flops in film history:
Budgeted at $150 million, the film brought in just $6.5 million its
opening weekend and struggled to get past $20 million in total domestic
box office. It ended Disney’s relationship with director Robert
Zemeckis, and killed Zemeckis’ animation studio, ImageMovers Digital.

(I’ll note that I could have included 2005’s Doom
on this list — $28 million domestic gross on a $60 million budget —
but I think that’s more of a failed video game movie than a failed Mars

You’ll notice that I’ve been using domestic box office
numbers here, but in every case, adding the international box office
doesn’t change the equation much. For example, Mission to Mars
worldwide gross was $110 million — slightly more than its production
budget, but not near enough for the film to have been considered a
success in the theaters, once you factor in marketing and distribution

So what was the last genuinely successful major film involving Mars? You have to go back more than two decades to Total Recall, which was one of the top 10 films of 1990. You might also consider Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds,
which brought in $234 million domestically, and that would be fair,
since the H.G. Wells novel and nearly all other adaptations of the work
note that the aliens involved are from Mars. But it’s telling to me that
Spielberg’s film doesn’t invoke Mars or Martians at all; watch the film
and you’ll see that the original home of the aliens is never mentioned.
Since this isn’t accidental — a filmmaker like Spielberg doesn’t just
let a detail like this slip his mind — I think it means this particular
War of the Worlds doesn’t involve Mars.

It’s also worth noting that the original title of John Carter was John Carter of Mars, but along the way Mars got snipped out,
presumably for better demographic appeal. And, well. You can take Mars
out of the title; it’s harder to take Barsoom out of Mars.

And in any event, at $250 million, John Carter
will have its work cut out for it to break Hollywood’s Martian Curse. But if
it doesn’t, 2012 has another contender to do so: a remake of the last
successful Martian film, Total Recall. There is irony in that.

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