Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: John Carter

No one remembers John Carter of Mars. Well clearly we kind of remember it now that it has a new film based on it, but certainly before the average citizen had no clear idea what the John Carter of Mars series was or that pretty much all modern science fiction is in some form or another derived from (Arguably). The book series was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs who also created a small, not well known character called Tarzan. That’s right; the guy who created Tarzan also created John Carter. Don’t feel too bad if you didn’t know this. As I said the world forgot that John Carter existed, and I’m no exception.

Which brings us to John Carter, the Walt Disney produced action/adventure film that ultimately bombed in theaters. But it shouldn’t have since it was directed by Andrew Stanton who also directed Wall-E which was one of the best films produced in the past ten years, probably longer. You’d think with that sort of prestige everyone who thought Wall-E was even slightly good would have been in line to see this film. Nope. Why did it fail? Well part of it has to be that critics did not seem to really enjoy it and while that doesn’t always affect a film’s gross (See: Michael Bay’s Transformers) but it can.

Weirdly the film is based on the original book, A Princess of Mars, but they opted not to use the name. Apparently it was because Disney feared that a film with the word “Princess” in its title would alienate boys. I’m not sure what I despise more: the sentiment behind that way of thinking or the fact that we live in a society where that way of thinking is valid. So they changed to name John Carter of Mars but then shortened it to just John Carter in order try to get a larger audience to go see it. Well played, Burroughs, your plan worked brilliantly. Wait…

Full review after the jump.

[WARNING: There are some minor spoilers here.  But nothing too bad]

'Cause "John Carter of Barsoom" just sounds stupid
In 1881 John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a wealthy adventurer and former Confederate soldier, has suddenly passed away apparently right after he contacted his young nephew with an urgent demand to come see him. Upon arriving young Edgar (Hahaha) is told that he’ll inherent his uncle’s estate and is given his personal journal. As he reads it he realizes that it is a message from John. Carter weaves a fantastic and impossible tale that depicts him, thirteen years younger, having found himself through a cosmic error in the deserts of Mars and charged with helping a princess save her world.

There are a lot of science fiction themed film coming out this summer but I suspect you won’t see too many as cool looking as this one. Yeah, there’s a lot of sand and desert but that’s just the planet; I thought it was well done and well planned. The cities looked great, as did the costume designs. I also really like how the differently the Tharks’ culture was depicted form our own since, you know, they’re aliens that only superficially resemble us and it only makes sense. So if nothing else the film looks pretty. The look of the more exotic looking races on Mars is pretty cool.

Oops, looks like Carter just rolled up on the East Side of Mars
But in addition the film is really fun. I can’t say its characters are amazingly well written or that writing is top notch but the film was an entertaining ride, which in theory is the most important thing about a film (Though that’s the logic behind The Expendables and that movie can go suck a lemon). It was a fun science fiction adventure that was a bit different than the norm. It was a blast, at least for me. There’s just something about a character who is essentially a cowboy running around with cowboy values in a science fiction setting. This also works out well for actor Taylor Kitsch who has never impressed me with his acting skills but here his character isn’t super complex at least in the way he’s written. It’s a perfect role for him. Speaking of Carter I love how he ever outright mentions that [SPOILER ALERT] his wife and kid were killed while he was fighting in the Civil War. Rather they show brief flashbacks but never once did Carter say to his new Martian friends anything along the lines if “my wife died, that’s why I’m ornery.” It’s a surprising bit of subtly in a film that is by nature not subtle.

Fun as it may be its still not particularly well written, especially when it comes to characters. It’s exactly not as bad as all that, I just wish there had been more time to develop some of the supporting characters a bit more. There are also some silly aspects here as well. One that sticks out is the idea that the Tharks acted as though they’ve never seen a creature like Carter before, saying he looks like a baby white ape, but they live on a world where the two dominant kingdoms are made up of creatures who’s only real physical difference from John is that they’re more tanned than him. That’s it. And it’s pretty clear that the Tharks are well aware of their existence so it’s not a matter of ignorance.

Intellectually I understand John Carter isn’t the best movie ever made but I enjoyed the hell out of it and I’m extremely bummed out that I essentially saw it the last day it was in theaters because I would have seen it twice if I had the chance. But if this movie is so fun while did it bomb? The film just barely made a profit and that was only due to the international markets. I have a few theories:

Dejah Thoris can probably kick your ass
Who says princesses can't be badass?
 #1) Poor Ad Campaign: Disney spent 125 million on advertisement but you’d never know it just by looking. And the commercials and trailers they did use seemed to be trying to invoke images of Avatar and The Phantom Menace. Dude, I know the Phantom Menace got re-released in theaters right before this movie but that flick is f**king awful; why would you want people to associate that garbage with your movie? The ads probably should have focused more on the adventure, Dorothy Gale-like aspects of the movie. You know, let the film sell itself. What’s worse I never saw a trailer mentioned that John Carter was created by the same guy who did Tarzan nor one that bragged that the director also directed WALL-E, which was one of the most critically acclaimed films in a long while. Probably would have gotten more butts in the seats had they done that.

#2) Mixed Reviews: I mentioned this before but this film didn’t get glowing reviews. And yes, poor or good reviews don’t affect Box Office performance to a super high degree but in conjunction with the other issues at work this didn’t help. Weirdly I feel like critics were actually too hard on the film, but that’s not really breaking news.

#3) Title Change: I don’t know that naming it “A Princess of Mars” would have done anything to change gross since we teach little boys to despise anything pink and “girly” so something with “Princess” in the title may have made a lot of dumb people avoid the film. However there’s no reason this movie shouldn’t have been called “John Carter of Mars”. That name sounds like a combination of epic and kind of ironic. If I didn’t have a TV but still liked going to the movies and saw a title like that I’d say “Oh, a new science fiction picture. Sounds good.” “John Carter” sounds too plain, especially with the less than impressive trailers accompanying that name.

#4) A Summer Blockbuster Not Released in Summer: No matter how much I liked this flick it’s a dumb summer action movie. It’s big, it’s loud, it would appeal to nerds; it should have bee released sometime between May and August, not early March. Or failing that maybe during Christmas time. Hell, they were hoping to bring in the Avatar crowd and that was a film released during the Holidays, not the middle of Winter. I’m pretty sure had this been released the normal way for a film like this it may would have at least made its cash back in a timely matter as opposed to just barely making it because Russia really dug it. The only reason I can think of that they Disney wouldn’t release it in the summer is because they didn’t want to compete with some of the big hit franchises crowding the season. But really it sounds like they were being overly cautious.

John: "I reckon them Martians after yer throne are in fer a lead diet"
Dejah: "I understood exactly none of that"

Alright, alright, rant over. And I understand that I’m not in the movie industry and this is all conjecture, not fact. Bottom line I thoroughly enjoyed John Carter and I’m extremely bummed out by how poorly it did in theaters. The fault is not on this movie but rather on Disney. It’s a damn shame; John Carter joins the likes of Hot Rod and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as good movies that ended up failing through no fault of their own. I highly recommend this and maybe, if the DVD sales end up being very good, we may get a sequel one day. Hey, if Tron got a sequel decades after the fact than anything is possible.

I give John Carter 4 Adorable Pandas out of 5.


-Great visual

-Cool looking world

-An extremely fun film


-Somewhat weak writing

-Can be a bit silly


  1. I remember when I first saw a preview for this movie - I think I might have been the only person in the theater who knew that it was based on a book. I read the book and didn't particularly like it, which is why I skipped out on the movie. But I did notice that the preview kind of sucked. They somehow made a big, loud action movie look boring. And, you're right, why didn't they show this in the summer? It's like they were trying to set it up to fail.

    1. I like to hope that Disney wouldn't set up a project that cost so much money to fail because sort of seems insane to me. That'd be like me paying some dude $1000 to punch me in the face then having to pay additional money for the hospital visit afterwards. I have no idea what Disney was thinking.

  2. Not only did Disney not want "Princess" in the title because it would (supposedly) alienate boys, they also didn't want "Of Mars" in the title because it would (supposedly) alienate girls, because you know how girls don't like sci-fi and stuff. Everything about the marketing and production of this movie fills me with great rage and sadness. Great radness, if you will.

    1. I think I barely know any women who don't like sci-fi. Damn it, Disney.