Review: "John Carter"

It isn’t often these days that a film comes around that can truly be called an epic flop. With home viewing options becoming more and more affordable, higher ticket prices inflating the true box office value of most movies, and the ever-expanding overseas markets, it’s become quite difficult for a film to lose a ridiculous sum of money. Even recent domestic flops like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (which grabbed only $90 million on these shores versus a $200 million budget) scored big overseas, allowing Disney to save face. Mars Needs Moms comes to mind as a tremendous failure but that status is at least somewhat cushioned by the fact that no one expected much from it and it essentially sat on a shelf in the Disney vault prior to its release. Epic flops like Waterworld, Cleopatra, and Cutthroat Island just don’t happen anymore…until now.

After discovering a mythical cave of gold, surly Civil War vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) suddenly awakens to find himself on an unknown plain on what he soon discovers is Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives call it). The thinner atmosphere imbues his earth-body with near super powers as he can run faster, jump higher, and punch harder than he ever could back home. John is taken captive by the Tharks, a tall alien race with four arms, and their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), and remains a prized pet until he saves Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess of a humanoid race, from the clutches of the feared warlord Sab Than (Dominic West). Before long, John is embroiled in a Martian war that threatens to spread to earth if a group of powerful beings, known as the Therns, are not stopped.

In a piece I wrote before John Carter debuted, I detailed the numerous missteps Disney made during the production of this film that led to its inevitable flopitude (a word I just made up but which fits perfectly in my mind). As a true fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, I was already disappointed going in over the poor handling and I’m even more disappointed now. At its heart, John Carter is a darn good, enjoyable, popcorn flick. It was blessed with an entertaining, simple source material that seems ripe for adaptation if done correctly and a strong cast of characters, both on screen and off, were brought together to put this film together. The execution, however, is deeply flawed.

Beyond the issues detailed in my preview piece (obscene and unnecessary budget, limited familiarity with the subject, and an egregious marketing campaign), the on-screen product suffers more than anything else from a weak script. The dialogue isn’t bad (somewhat surprising) but many of the plot points are convoluted and poorly developed. If I didn’t have previous knowledge of this series, I’m not sure I could have accurately followed along with the course of the action. This is a puzzling issues for me because, as much as this sci-fi nerd loves Edgar Rice Burroughs, his work isn’t especially complex. This should have been an easy story to tell and instead it seems that writer/director Andrew Stanton couldn’t figure out how to translate the book to film. Too much attention is paid to plot points that aren’t especially important but not enough time is given to the significant portions of the narrative. Not only does that cause confusion, it also leads to boredom as I had to fight the urge to zone out more than once and my viewing partner (read: “gracious wife”) became borderline disinterested at times. John Carter is also overly long and never finds much of a rhythm, leading to the dreaded roller coaster effect which hampers so many blockbusters.

It’s a real shame, too, because what John Carter does well, it does REALLY well. The vast majority of the $250 million spent on this movie was used in the visual departments and that definitely shows. Stanton and his team bring a fresh look to Mars and its inhabitants and give real life to Burroughs’ visions. It is a beautiful print with lavish colors and the blending of live action with computer generated images is seamless. Most of the actors are given little to work with but Dafoe, Mark Strong, and Ciaran Hinds all give the workmanlike performances that you might expect. Collins does an admirable if not entirely believable job of combining elements of both the damsel and distress and the strong, confident warrior woman. Some of her moments are better than others but on the whole, she comes through. Kitsch is really the only member of the cast who is asked to do much of the heavy lifting and for my money he gets the job done quite well. Kitsch exudes rugged charm in every role, a necessary part of the John Carter persona, and here he displays a comedic timing that I wasn’t sure he had. There are shades of Harrison Ford and Timothy Olyphant (I wish I could take credit for this comparison but that honor belongs to Christopher Orr of The Atlantic) within this performance, a characteristic that gives me great hope for Kitsch’s career moving forward.

At the end of the day, John Carter is an acceptable way to pass the time; no more and no less. At times it is quite fun though I think some more action sequences would have helped to lessen the strain of the narrative-related doldrums. It’s just too bad that Disney didn’t impose more checks and balances, both on set and on the studio end, to keep John Carter from becoming an epic financial blunder.