Well, it’s been several months since this movie has been released but I figure there are still plenty of you out there who haven’t seen it and are contemplating renting the DVD. In that case, this is the review for you! Going into production, John Carter had a lot of things going for it. It had a huge budget, well respected source material from a classic sci-fi author, the backing of the studio that gave us Pirates of the Carribean, and the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. As time went along however, the combination of a weak and misguided marketing campaign with a luke-warm critical reception led to John Carter‘s spectacular failure in the domestic box office. While it saved some face with overseas grosses, it still wound up losing over $200 million dollars by the end of its run. This marked the second live-action movie Disney has released in the past few years with the intent of establishing a Pirates of the Carribean level franchise only to have it fail to gain any traction with audiences (the other of course being Prince of Persia; a similar box office failure to which John Carter holds an uncanny resemblance to). In this review I’ll take a look at John Carter‘s weaknesses and make my guesses as to what made it such a financial dud.
The movie starts out with several disorienting jumps in time and space but settles out as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara, the kid from Spy Kids all grown up) finding out that he has inherited his uncle’s sizable estate. As he begins to read a journal that his uncle, John Carter, left him, the real story begins. The basic setup is that John Carter, a widower and former Civil War soldier, is taken captive by union soldiers in the late 1800s American wild west. Long story short, while John is being pursued by union soldiers, he and his followers are attacked by Apache and he is forced to flee into a cave with the Union Colonel (Bryan Cranston) where he is soon attacked by a pale monk-ish looking character. John shoots the monk and picks up a blue glowing object from his hand, instantly being transported across the stars to what he later discovers is Mars. He quickly discovers that Mars’ low gravity means he has basically become a regularly proportioned Hulk. This is John’s main leg up through the entire movie, and while it may look a little silly some times (think of the Hulk’s crazy jumping around scenes in Ang Lee’s 2003 version) I’ll admit that the whole superhuman strength thing did lend itself to some of the best scenes in the movie. I mean, who doesn’t want to see one guy take on an entire army and almost win?
I won’t go into too many details of the plot but to sum up the major bullet points, as John discovers more about the world around him and tries to find a way back to earth he is pulled into an ongoing civil war between the human-like Red Men. The faction of Zodanga is lead by a prince (Dominic West) who has been given an incredible powerful weapon by a group of the same monk-like entities that John encountered on Earth. Beaten back by Zodanga are the people of Helium, who receive an offer from the Prince to call a truce in exchange for the Princess of Helium’s hand in marriage. The setup of a truce in exchange for marriage feels a bit forced, reminding me a bit of the frustration I felt during Troy when the Trojans refused to give up one person in exchange for Peace, but perhaps that’s just me. In any case, the princess (Lynn Collins) runs away and is saved John, after which the three of them and a down-on-her-luck native named Sola set off in search of a way home.
Now that that’s all taken care of, we can start getting into the meat and potatoes of the review. Let’s start with what I did like about it, which was impressive effects and an intriguing storyline. The large budget of the movie is easy to see in the visuals, yet movies like Battleship and Transformers prove that pretty explosions and lots of CGI aren’t enough to hold up an entire movie. Luckily enough for John Carter, the storyline does a better job of supporting the movie than either of those two. In particular I found it interesting that John was reluctant to enter into a war to fight for the underdog, even if it was the right thing to do. After all, he fought before for a little underdog called The Confederacy and that didn’t exactly go too well. The role of antagonist is also ably played by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of a powerful race of beings known as the Therns who hold the Prince of Zodaga under their thumbs. Having played the villain in movies like Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and Sunshine, Strong is no stranger to the role and while he’s not quite as chillingly evil as some of he past characters, he does feel like a “worthy adversary” for the main characters.
Now for what I didn’t like about it. I cannot stress nearly enough how horrible an actor Taylor Kitsch is. While the screenwriting isn’t perfect, it’s not the dialogue’s fault that so many of John’s lines feel clumsy and flat, or that most of his actions come across as frustratingly idiotic rather than brave or prideful. Princess Deja doesn’t do a terrible job but isn’t nearly distinguishable enough to really improve anything. As I said up above, the best comparison I can draw is between this movie and Prince of Persia. Aside from the fact that the two main characters look nearly identical, there is also a similar inconsistency of tone as well as a big problem with natural sounding dialogue. While the Pirates of the Carribean movies managed to do a wonderful job of combining lighthearted and serious atmospheres, John Carter just doesn’t have strong enough main characters to make that combination work.
While an intriguing story line and a great deal of production value, John Carter should be better than it is. By choosing an attractive set of main characters over a talented set of main characters as well as assigning a director who has had no previous experience with live action movies and topping it all off with a weak last minute marketing campaign, Disney made it so that few will remember John Carter for very long (with the exception of Disney’s financial officers of course). If you liked Prince of Persia then you’ll probably enjoy John Carter, but otherwise I would suggest spending your time on other, better movies.