In a world where we’re constantly being bombarded with witty, character-driven sci-fi, superhero, and fantasy films, John Carter stands alone.
It’s not particularly clever. I think I chuckled once throughout the entire film, and it was fairly near the beginning. The dialogue isn’t especially thought-provoking – it’s actually quite simple. You have to remember, this movie was made for the whole “PG-13” family, something Disney absolutely nailed with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (well, until they beat it into the ground with unending sequels).
John Carter also eschews the modern trend of an intensely character-driven plot. John Carter himself is a moderately interesting and likable rogue with a dark backstory that Disney’s morality assurance department allows the film to only hint at, and this will almost certainly leave those expecting a darker, more gritty protagonist disappointed. My advice? Get over it.
Unlike almost every other film in this genre (or genres, I should say) presently, John Carter’s source material has no real (living) “cult following.” It’s based on a serialized novel published in 1917, and while the book, A Princess of Mars, certainly has its place in sci-fi / fantasy canon, most people today don’t know it. In fact, the author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ crowning achievement is Tarzan, leaving little room in modern memory for an earlier, less successful work. While many writers and directors claim the series as a source of inspiration, its fame has undoubtedly dwindled in recent decades. But this is part of what makes it great, in my mind: I had no idea just what I was getting into when I began watching it.
This also, unfortunately, was likely a big part of the reason for the film’s landmark commercial failure. In recent years, America has become obsessed with shamelessly nostalgic rehashes of well-known stories and characters. Whether it be long-standing comic superheroes (movies I am all too happy to see), modernly successful book franchises (which I am less happy to see, though Harry Potter grew on me), or questionable TV-sourced throwbacks (The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks), today it seems all we care about in popular film is what we liked as kids.
That means to attract an audience to a film in the sci-fi / fantasy genres, you either need to appeal to their sense of nostalgia or current pop culture obsessions. It’s an annoying and frustrating limitation. One that has, of course, produced great films. Under the guidance of Christopher Nolan, the Batman franchise is having its best, grittiest years. Iron Man, a hero that could barely be sold as a cartoon, has been absolutely brought to life by the charismatic Robert Downey Junior and a flotilla of clever writers. Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. X-Men. Need I say more?
For a film with a less recognized brand to prosper, it seems to have been accepted at this point that it must be one of two things: cheap and deep, or flashy and stupidly simple. V for Vendetta, which was critically lauded, had a budget of just $54 million – compared to John Carter’s monumental $350 million. Just think about that – for the cost of John Carter, they could have made V for Vendetta 6 times. With money to spare for a few luxury yachts.
A big budget sci-fi / fantasy film means big expectations. And without a recognized “brand” to back it up, it has to have mass appeal (see: Avatar) and an expensive hype campaign (again, see: Avatar) behind it. Even if the movie isn’t that good (… Avatar).
John Carter has neither. It’s a story about a guy on Mars with some aliens wearing a leather, almost bondage-like apparatus on his chest, and nobody had any idea why they wanted to see this movie. It was shitty marketing, end of story. That’s what really killed this movie commercially, in my opinion.
Anyway, back on point: the movie. As I said, the main character, John Carter, isn’t particularly deep or developed. Nor is any other character in the film, for that matter. But that’s because this film is about telling a story (it goes for the decreasingly popular “narrative wrap” format). The story is full of anachronistic symbolism and metaphors (the civil war and turn of the century native american relations are rather indelicately shoved in your face), but they’re so dated that they don’t feel cheesy or preachy.
John Carter is also rife with character condensing, as is a necessity with book adaptations. It’s most notable when it comes to certain characters essential to the plot, but who have less need for screen time. The primary Martian antagonist, whose name is so forgettable I have, in fact, forgotten it, is utterly featureless. The true alien villain (spoiler alert), whose character is unnamed (he’s the bad guy from the first Sherlock Holmes), is full of ominous one-liners and shadowy intent. It’s enough to make you curious about what’s going to happen next, but he’s just there as a mechanism for advancing the plot more than anything (and to set up a sequel).
The thing is, though, I didn’t care. The story is simple, meanders only occasionally, and takes you on a journey through one of the first truly original-looking sci-fi / fantasy worlds I’ve seen in ages. It really is an amazing thing they’ve crafted, worthy of the Disney name adorning this film. Costumes, environments, aliens, ships – it all looks amazing – and original.
The film really doesn’t evoke much in terms of emotion, but that’s to be expected for something based on a sci-fantasy novel written at the turn of the century – it just wasn’t the style of the time. But the conclusion of John Carter will, without a doubt, shamelessly pull at your heartstrings and leave you yearning for a sequel (which has been announced – though funding is a big question-mark).
Part of me wants to see John Carter live to fight another day and round out Burroughs’ first three novels in the series. I crave to know what happens next.
But another part, perhaps just as big, wants it to end here, and leave this great film to stand on its own so that, years from now, hopefully, it will be rediscovered and cemented as the classic it deserves to be.