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Why 'Hunger' soared; 'Carter' bombed

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Tue March 27, 2012
Moviegoers wait in line for the opening of
Moviegoers wait in line for the opening of "The Hunger Games," March 22 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: "Hunger Games," "John Carter" exist to make money, appeal to masses
  • But "Hunger's" returns went through the roof, he writes, "Carter's" fell through the floor
  • Wildly expensive "Carter" seems old, he says, while "Hunger Games" is of the moment
  • Seymour hopes young audiences are aware of Hollywood's hype manipulation

Editor's note: Gene Seymour has written about movies, music and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Pure products of Hollywood, "The Hunger Games" and "John Carter" were conceived, designed, stretched and pre-tested with one purpose: to lighten billfolds while satisfying mass appetites.

These two movies seemed especially intent on seizing the wavering attention spans of young people with premises deeply rooted in science-fiction -- or, as some genre lovers might prefer to call it, speculative phantasmagoria.

Same goals, different results. Drastically. Different. Results.

Hunger Games, in case you hadn't heard by now, has exceeded advance expectations by reaping $155 million in its first three days of nationwide release. That's the third-highest opening tally in box-office history, just beneath the $158.4 million drawn from 2008's Batman sequel, "The Dark Knight," and not too far removed from the $169.2 million made last summer by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II."

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Those latter two features were sequels, while "Hunger Games" is just the first installment of what will almost certainly be a trilogy of films made from Suzanne Collins' phenomenally popular trilogy of books. The stories are set in a dystopian future in which a totalitarian society forces teenagers to engage in globally televised ritual murder. This means that "Hunger Games" made the biggest, fattest opening-weekend nut of any movie that wasn't a sequel or spin-off.

Meanwhile, after two weeks in the Great American Multiplex, "John Carter" continues to tumble in what many believe is a downward spiral of similarly unprecedented dimension.

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Disney's box office disaster

Disney's lavish, $250 million adaptation of the swords-on-Mars fantasy novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs brought in $5 million, increasing its overall box office to $62.3 million -- roughly half of which was made in its own opening weekend. Those using the word "epic" to classify "John Carter" now use it to describe its estimated $200 million shortfall.

"John Carter," for whatever it's worth, isn't quite as dismal a movie as it is a moneymaker. Thirty, even 20 years ago, it might have been exotic enough to be taken for pop-cultural innovation. Now it comes across as a lumbering, good-natured oaf who happened to stumble into the marketplace at the wrong time. On the other hand, "The Hunger Games," with its reality-TV-on-toxic-drugs premise, is so very much "of its time" that it's tempting to think much of its imagined future has already arrived. (Do you feel a draft? I do.)

Meanwhile, those who approach "John Carter" with foreknowledge of its box-office crash-and-burn might be surprised to see how charming it can be at times, especially when its eponymous Civil War veteran-turned-rhino-riding superhero (Taylor Kitsch) is adjusting his previously Earth-bound muscles to Martian gravity. In its heedlessly bombastic manner, the movie is faithful to its origins as a rip-snorting romantic fantasy much like Burroughs' far more famous stories featuring Tarzan. If the producers were more willing to let Andrew Stanton direct the movie as the garish, live-action comic strip it was meant to be, it might have connected, though not necessarily for a home run.

But even the decision to call the movie "John Carter," instead of "John Carter of Mars" or even "A Princess of Mars," the actual title of Burroughs' first installment of the Carter opus, is emblematic of an over-cautiousness that dampens every sequence and set-piece. The whole movie feels worked-over, second-guessed, whipped to a thickness that hobbles the movie's momentum. It's as if "John Carter" wants you to see every single one of those aforementioned millions of dollars up on the screen. And who besides an accountant would care?

The budget of "Hunger Games" is an estimated -- and, as with the movie itself, relatively modest -- $100 million. There are flashy things to see in Gary Ross' movie, from the chompers on Stanley Tucci's unctuous host to the pyrotechnic dress worn by the story's otherwise ice-cool heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). But the movie's adapters, including Suzanne Collins herself, know that the basic story elements have already worked their mojo on their target audience; even those who haven't read the books likely were drawn by curiosity. Whatever special effects were marshaled on the movie's behalf didn't seem as important as how Kat would wriggle or shoot her way out of trouble.

Those wishing "Hunger Games" had more tragic dimension or made its audience more explicitly feel the sting of its carnage have a point. But the movie wasn't made for them. It was made for the millions of young readers who, for whatever reason, share Kat's smoldering resentment of the status quo.

I'd like to think that as these young adults of all ages buy their tickets to this speculative phantasmagoria, they retain some suspicion, however vague, that the hype masters who made them flock to the multiplexes on cue over the weekend exert a not-altogether-benign influence over their lives.

If that's so, and I'm not really all that hopeful, it may become harder over time to hurl big, bloated carnivals at them to lighten their wallets. Even if they're good-natured, slovenly lugs like "John Carter."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

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