Thursday, June 21, 2012

"John Carter"- Disney Let This Film Down

I have never read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burrows, but I knew a lot of people who did who were very excited when they heard that Disney was making a movie named after the main character John Carter. But as the movie trailers began to hit the airwaves the excitement didn't last and lackluster ticket sales torpedoed what looked like a sure-fire science fiction blockbuster. I, like a lot of people, skipped the theater release of "John Carter." But a curious thing has happened since then; some positive buzz has followed the video release- which prompted me to finally check it out and see if it deserved to be a commercial flop.

 After the untimely death of John Carter (Taylor Kitch), his nephew Edgar Rice Burrows (whom John called Ned) learns that he is the lucky heir of Carter's fortune. Shortly after getting the shocking news of his uncle's death Ned is told that John left a journal telling the story of his life- and that Ned is to read it right away. John's story starts with the revelation that his body has been buried in a tomb that can be only opened from the inside and that Ned is to be the guardian of his remains.

Carter then relates a tale that starts from his gold mining days. Carter, a former Confederate Army Captain, roams the Arizona territories looking for gold when he is apprehended by a Union Colonel (Bryan Cranston), familiar with Carter's reputation as a soldier, who insists that Carter join in their efforts to fight the Apache. Carter escapes captivity and, after a furious chase, winds up in the middle of a confrontation between the Apache and the army that drives him into a cave with the injured Colonel. Once inside the cave Carter sees some strange symbols on the wall that he had encountered while gold-mining. While investigating them he is attacked by a mysterious being and the ensuing fight results in an amazing journey across the universe that transports John to a planet called Barsoom by its native people-- but known to us as Mars.

 Carter immediately realizes something strange is going on when he tries to walk and goes flying across the lower gravity of Mars. Just as he starts to find his equilibrium he is captured by a very tall, very green Martian barbarian King known as Tars Tarkus and brought back to the Thark village. Carter is later given a mysterious potion that allows him to understand the language of the Tharks by Tarkus' daughter Sola- a forbidden act that forces Tarkus to facilitate their escape.

After fleeing the Thark village Carter thinks his only problem is to stay ahead of the barbarians and evade capture, so he's shocked when two warring spaceships suddenly appear in the sky to reveal that there are other human inhabitants of Mars. When he sees a beautiful woman (Lynn Collins) being stalked by a ruthless army, he jumps into action to save her and soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict between two warring nations when all he wants to do is find a way home. 

It may seem that I got a bit long winded with the description of this film- but it's a film with a lot going on and I've barely scratched the surface. Initially it's a little hard to follow, at least for someone like me who isn't familiar with the source material. But it's such a visually stunning film that it's impossible not to be captivated by the excellent rendering of Mars and its creatures- most notably the Tharks.

I found "John Carter" to be a pleasant surprise. I downloaded the film to my ipad to watch on a five-hour flight and it was a most excellent time killer. I've heard some people say they found the movie boring- but I found it to be absorbing and action packed. It isn't just the alien planet aspect that makes the movie fun- watching Carter leap through the air like a less-powerful version of Superman added some significant flair as well.

The only real complaint I had about the movie had to do with the certain bits of necessary logic that were never explained- like how John could breath in the Martian atmosphere. Or if Tars and Sola were the only Tharks to know about their familial relationship (it appears to be unusual for fathers to know their children) and if so- why? Generally speaking the movie never delves deep into any kind of scientific exposition and the skimpy bits of narrative given to explain Carter's journey aren't enough to elevate the film into the realm of epic storytelling- but it does allow you to suspend disbelief, just enough, to get into its space-cowboy vibe.

Taylor Kitch is a likeable leading man who does a pretty good job of making you believe he's a Southern boy who can handle himself in a fight. Lynn Collins, who stars as Princess Dejah, is not only quite beautiful, but has great chemistry with Kitch and is, thankfully, a much better actress than the eye-candy we're usually treated to in modern action films.

After watching "John Carter" I'm pretty sure the failure of the movie to really take-off at the box office had more to do with the abysmal marketing efforts by Disney than any fault of the film. It's not the best sci-fi adventure I've ever seen, but it's certainly better than noisy, plot-anemic blockbusters like "Transformers." When I go back and look at trailers featuring some action sequences shown to the Led Zeppelin song "Kashmir" I have to wonder who they were trying to sell the film to. There is little sense of an epic journey or the story of lost-love that leaves you wanting to see the next installment.

It was said prior to its release that "John Carter" would have to earn over $700 million to warrant a sequel- and the official box office stands at just over $280 million, but I can't help but hope that the DVD release will revitalize interest in this likable story. I really enjoyed the wide-eyed sense of adventure and the gorgeous visual detail as well as the fusion of genres that is reminiscent of everything from superhero comics to gun-slinging classics. Maybe I like the movie more than the average viewer thanks to my love of anything genre- or maybe I like it because it took some of the tediousness out of a long airplane ride. But I do sincerely believe that it's a film that deserved more than it got at the theater and one I'll be adding to my permanent collection.


Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent thoughts. Very similar to mine. The book explained the atomspheric stuff and the history of the Tharks and why they don't know their offspring much better. The move certainly held my interest and I thought it was very well done.

The Curmudgeon said...

SQT - I invaded your space on this one back in March with my review of the film. I did read Burroughs' Mars stories (and not when it was first published, whatever you may have heard) and the movie wasn't entirely faithful to the source -- but very good and faithful to the spirit of the books. Grafting the lengthy Western prologue on the movie was ill-advised, the movie was stupidly named, and making the trailer consist mostly of the Western backstory was completely idiotic.

Oddly enough, the post I put up before I saw the movie, An old quasi-fanboy regrets the reception that John Carter's received, has proved to be one of my more popular of late.

I was kind of hoping for the DVD for Father's Day... but my hints were ignored.

SQT said...

There was a lot more I wanted to say about the film but I was afraid of making the post too long and discouraging people from reading it. I'll have to go back and read the book. After watching the movie I want to know more about the story.

SQT said...

I'll have to go back and read your post (good to see you btw). I wondered why they called the film "John Carter;" it doesn't evoke any sense of what the film is about- I didn't have a clue at first. I didn't mind the prologue because I liked knowing where John came from. But since I haven't read the book I don't know if it should have been different.

Blodeuedd said...

I did like it, good action and so.- But yes those plotholes and unanswered questions were a bit...

Elfy said...

I think the real problem with this was that they used too much of Burroughs story, which was epically awful, mind you. Add to that the complete and total lack of anything approaching chemistry between the male and female leads, and it spells disaster.

SQT said...

I disagree about the chemistry between the lead characters- I liked them together.

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...


If you and fans like you had seen John Carter at the theater, we may have been treated to a sequel.

Yes, Disney did fail to properly sell the film, but anyone with a whit of knowlege about the novels should have made an effort ot see it at the theater. Unfortunately, the 18 - 35 year-olds that make up the majority of ticket buyers, didn't know the source material and the film bombed.

John Carter will now be added to the list of cult classics like The Rocketeer that will never see a sequel because it didn't find a large enough audience at the theater.

SQT said...

I see your point but without unlimited funds I'm forced to be choosy about which films I pay to see in the theater. There wasn't much positive feedback at the time "John Carter" was on the big screen so I didn't want to spend the money. Simple as that. Also, because I'm not familiar with the source material, I didn't have any added impetus to see it. Timely feedback in the fan community is really necessary to promote films like this.