Why the failure of “The Martian Child” symbolizes the content problem for filmmakers.

By Michael Calleri

Buffalo Alternative Press Movie Editor

            Because of the confluence of a number of factors, I didn’t see it before it opened, but have now caught up with the movie “The Martian Child.“ Generally, critics see everything that’s released, either through advance screenings or within a few days of their opening. Once in a while, a film falls through the cracks. Its preview screening conflicted with another screening, its screening or opening date was too close to a print deadline and reviews of other movies were already written, or there wasn’t any screening at all, which happens more often than not these days with horror films.

The studios consider the new breed of horror productions “critic proof,” and their marketing gurus believe that teenagers are going to rush to the theater on a movie’s first weekend to see them regardless of what’s been written. Maybe, maybe not. A vast number of fright films fail at the box office, and I’m a believer that the more publicity the better for any movie. And for the studios to assume that all of the reviews are going to be negative is the kind of silly forecasting that is hardly bulletproof. In fact, it‘s ridiculous thinking. “28 Days Later” and “Saw” are two terror tales I liked.

    Further complicating matters for studios and their distribution arms is the fact that teens are slowly becoming less and less a factor at the box office. The so-called “teen movie generation” of the late 1990s and early 2000s is now in their twenties. The new teenagers are techno-zealots, and they’re spending less time at the movies, and more time with video games, computer connections, cell phone downloads, music sharing, and making their own mini-movies on hand-held devices that would definitely impress Thomas Edison. The teen audience is gone, folks, and the Baby Boomers, the ones with the money, are still interested in going to a theater to see a film. But that’s a huge worry factor for moviemakers because it’s an audience they can’t figure out. It’s fragmented and “Hollywood” (in the generic sense) doesn’t like fragmentation. It drives everyone crazy.

    This brings me to “The Martian Child,” the existence of which lies at the very core of the movie-going problem.

    Shortly after it opened, I saw “The Martian Child” starring John Cusack. I wasn’t impressed. It’s a dull film with lackluster performances - except from John’s sister Joan Cusack and the always reliable and engaging Amanda Peet. Perhaps one day we could see these two talented ladies in a screwball style comedy. Add Tea Leoni and Brittany Murphy, and I think you'd have a winner. “The Martian Child” is about an orphaned lad who has convinced himself that his parents never abandoned him, but that he’s from Mars. A lonely, widowed science fiction writer, played by Cusack, wants to adopt the cute kid, but, of course, he has to face the annoying and stereotypical adoption board.

    Not liking the film had nothing to do with the fact that I have never really jumped on the John Cusack bandwagon, although I did think he was exceptional in Woody Allen‘s “Bullets Over Broadway.” And Cusack’s not alone. I’ve also avoided the Josh Hartnett and Paris Hilton bandwagons. Obviously Hilton has no future in movies, but why Hartnett keeps working is a mystery to me.

    I have to backtrack just a bit, folks. Think of this as a flashback. There’s a movie fan in Buffalo who has a massive collection of books about films, a huge collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, and is the go-to guy for anything gay-related at the movies. Gay as in homosexual, just in case you were thinking of Paris in the early 1900s. Anyway, this movie fan may not have seen everything associated with gay filmmaking, but his knowledge - albeit a tad pigeonholed - is the best of the best. He’s also a major follower science fiction. In my capacity as movie critic for this Buffalo Alternative Press website, for the Niagara Falls Reporter newspaper, and for WLVL radio, which broadcasts in Erie and Niagara counties and in southern Ontario, I receive a lot of emails from people, and thanks to the Internet, these emails can come from people around the world.

    The fellow in question, Michael Klemm, with whom I have worked in the past on a now-defunct weekly newspaper, often sends me emails about movie matters, which he recently did regarding “The Martian Child.” I have engaged in email discussions with Mr. Klemm on a number of things associated with films, including the idea of reviewing movies through the prism of ideology. But that’s for another article.

    The email the other day from Mr. Klemm revealed that the story told in the novel “The Martian Child” is completely different from what is peddled on screen by director Menno Meyjes and his screenwriters Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins. Considering the movie on its own terms, all three of these gentlemen need to go back to film school and learn a few things about pacing and structure, framing and emphasis of scenes, and emotional development and growth of characters. And don’t accuse me of not liking so-called “touch-your-heart” movies. I thoroughly enjoyed “Enchanted,” and the truly wonderful “August Rush” had me figuratively shouting at the screen for Keri Russell to tell Jonathan Rhys Meyers that the little boy musical prodigy is his son.

    Bringing Mr. Klemm’s information about “The Martian Child” into the picture creates a whole other story. One of the rules of writing movie criticism is to review the movie as seen. Okay, as seen, the movie lacks a point-of-view, meanders like a lazy river, and is muddled at its very core. Why is there no heart in this movie about adoption? Why is it so vanilla? Why don’t we care that a science fiction writer who seems to be a nice, smart, and successful guy gets to adopt the boy? Why is there a black hole in the center of the story? There, did I review the movie as shown?

    Well, the answer lies in the source material and what the production companies did to it. I should point out that the film was actually shot in the spring and summer of 2005 and has been sitting around for a bit. Also, after the footage was seen in post-production, another director was reportedly brought in to shoot additional material. So, what went wrong?

    New Line Cinema and Hannah Rachel Production Services Ltd. are the two companies behind the feature, which had a reported $27,000,000 budget. “The Martian Child” opened on November 2, and tanked at the box office. Word-of-mouth was torpid. The woeful opening weekend gross on 2020 screens (a solid line-up of venues) was only $3,376,669. As of this writing, the picture’s total take in the U.S. is around $7,350,000 with only an additional pittance from foreign markets - $150,000. The movie has already dropped from the top 20 box office list.  

    The primary word that came to mind after seeing “The Martian Child” was “edge.” As in, the movie didn’t have one. That edge, it turns out, is in the film’s source material, a novel by noted science fiction writer David Gerrold. Gerrold is also the co-author, with Barry B. Longyear, of the movie novelization of “Enemy Mine,” Longyear's award-winning book that inspired the 20th-Century Fox motion picture starring Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett, Jr.

 

    I was directed to the source material by Mr. Klemm, who has also emailed his opinion to other movie critics, including the invaluable Roger Ebert, who is to his generation what James Agee, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael were to theirs; namely, a vital and important critical resource. Mr. Klemm even got a mention in Ebert’s popular “Answer Man Column.”

    Regarding “The Martian Child,” which was published in August 2002, it turns out that the much-needed edge is this: the science fiction writer in the novel is gay. In fact, the entire work turns on his being a homosexual and the red flag this fact sends up to adoption officials. It’s not just a single man wanting to adopt. It’s a gay single man. You can positively hear the toes curling in Hollywood. As an adjunct, the novel is a fictionalized portrait of author Gerrold’s life. A single gay man, he actually did adopt a reality-challenged little boy who thought he was a Martian. Sounds like a hell of a movie idea to me. And to rub salt in somebody’s wounds - I’m not sure whose, maybe the folks at New Line, Gerrold is also the author of the teleplay of one of the most beloved “Star Trek” episodes ever shown - “The Trouble With Tribbles” from 1967.

    Truth be told, the people responsible for the movie version of “The Martian Child” took this terrific material and turned it into mush. Pure, unadulterated mush. And that’s written knowing that Hollywood usually does pander to the lowest common denominator.

    I’m not about to accuse anyone specific of being homophobic, especially those folks who make movies in Hollywood, but even during the best of times, even those who are gay or who value gay people or who like gay people or who work with gay people (which regarding the latter is everyone) are afraid of gay-themed material. It sends shivers up their collective spines. Even now. Even after “Brokeback Mountain.”

    Remember that “The Martian Child” was shooting in 2005. Later that year, in December, “Brokeback Mountain” would open. I wonder if it killed the people behind the movie “The Martian Child” to see the success of the other gay-themed film and realize that they gutted their movie’s novel of it’s gay material. I’d love to know what they thought about this development. Did the movie sit on the shelf because it was bad? Did it flounder because somebody at either the studio or the production company knew in their gut that they had blown the gig? Was it because the enterprise had been shorn of its heart and soul in terms of gay material? What did John Cusack know and when did he know it? Was he afraid of the gay material? If so, why?

    Where did New Line and Hannah Rachel Production Services Ltd. go wrong? Who was the person who said: We have to take out the gay stuff. And you just know that’s the way it was said. What were the meetings like? How do these generally intelligent people go about attacking the core of a novel and accept responsibility for slashing and burning their way through what was the book’s homosexual center?

    The result of all of this is much more than a lousy movie, which “The Martian Child” is. It’s the latest symbol of the nervousness and the worry and, too often, the downright cowardice of some of those who make films. The book has everything the movie lacked. It’s fresh. It’s funny. It’s well-written. It’s emotional. It’s heartfelt. It’s real.

    What the heck is wrong with too many of today’s filmmakers? Yes, there are some excellent works being released, and a lot of people do try hard to make movies that have some merit and don’t pander. But far too often, the opposite is true. Political conventions may have seen the disappearance of smoke-filled rooms in which hand-picked men are chosen as presidential candidates, but Hollywood still seems to play its production game the old-fashioned way. And it’s certainly wrong that in some circles, when discussing Hollywood’s utilization of gay-themed material, the word “courageous” has to be used.

    Imagine “The Martian Child” the movie with its material as presented in the novel. We would still have Amanda Peet, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt and Bobby Coleman (the little boy) in it, but we need a better director and screenwriter.

    Then, let’s re-cast the movie’s lead role with an out gay actor, say Neil Patrick Harris or T. R. Knight. Both would have done justice to the acting part of the material. Can we suppose that both wouldn’t have been afraid to play a gay role and to have the novel’s story filmed as author Gerrold envisioned it? Makes sense doesn’t it? But “Hollywood” still doesn’t see it that way. The fear is palpable, even with the success of “Brokeback Mountain.”

    Why? Do they see that feature’s popularity as a fluke?  Is it really better to reach for the lowest common denominator? The movie-going audience is shrinking. People are abandoning the shared experience of seeing a picture in a large dark space. True, some of this is because of absurdly high ticket prices and truly absurdly high concession prices and the occasional misbehavior of certain audience members. And yes, I do want theater chains to install cell phone blockers in their buildings. 

    But the real reason for the loss of moviegoers is uninteresting movies. And too many of the film released are insults to the intelligence of moviegoers. And yes, they are intelligent. They sniffed out the lousiness of “The Martian Child” didn’t they? Smart move on their part if you ask me. The audience may be fragmented in terms of the content it wants, but they are united in terms of the quality they want.

    Today, there is not a single movie star worth $20- to $25-million a picture. So stop paying it studio chiefs. Superstar talents like Tom Cruise and Robert Redford and Meryl Streep couldn’t deliver people to “Lions For Lambs” and frankly, “Lions For Lambs” with Justin Timberlake and Keifer Sutherland and Cameron Diaz in it wouldn‘t have clicked either. “Lions For Lambs” failed not because of its content, but because it was like watching an empty box. It committed the cardinal sin of moviemaking. It bored. No box office money for political movies or movies that are sociological interesting? Gee, really? Tell that to Michael Moore or George Clooney or even Bruce Willis. If “Die Hard 4” isn’t a message movie, then you don’t know what the message is.

    The bottom line is this. Message movies when produced by people who genuinely believe in the message, can be made, can be made good, and can make money. Left or right. Libertarian or radical. Liberal or conservative. Republican or Democrat. Doesn’t matter.

    To move away from politics and on to plain old motion picture entertainment, what should be considered courageous is to make a movie that doesn’t dumb itself down for audience consumption, doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and doesn’t question the intelligence of the marketplace. Yes, it has to have people behind the camera and in front of the camera who are willing to go to bat for the material. I wonder if anyone went to bat for the original material in “The Martian Child?”

    That film is symbolic of the failure of the current studio system. Too many people overseeing content. Too many fingers in the pie. If you can’t make a decent comedy or drama - a movie in which there is minimal slam-bang action and virtually no special effects - if you can’t make one of these for $25- to $35-million tops, then you need to be in another business.

    If you can’t make a movie in which you believe wholeheartedly in the material, then you need to go to a different studio or make it yourself.

    Someone read the novel “The Martian Child” and thought it would make a good movie. Somewhere along the line, the system failed the book. In Hollywood parlance, somebody “took” a meeting and during that meeting the gay lead character was equated with box office poison. The result was a movie that shouldn’t have been made from a book that will never be made into a movie again.

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