Being destined to be known as one of the biggest flops of all time is a fate that no movie wants. And yet, here sits John Carter, a completely mismarketed sci-fi adventure that cost more than the New York Yankees and made less than a relief pitcher for the Colorado Rockies.
Despite the love of first-time live-action director Andrew Stanton and the thought-to-be blooming star power of Friday Night Lights’ Tim Riggins, Taylor Kitsch, this is a blockbuster that was dead on arrival both financially and critically. There’s a fascinating read on all the things that went wrong with the production here – which was published exactly THREE days after the film was released. (Let’s not take some time to make our conclusions, boys!) With mediocre reviews and the production abandoned by its backers (heck, they even changed the title from the proposed John Carter of Mars because people don’t see Mars movies, it’s easy to see why so many people with casual interest in the film let it pass theatrically.
Here’s the thing, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it – John Carter’s actually a good movie.
I did not mistype that sentence and I will not back away from it. I realize that this is just my assessment of the film, but when I finally did settle in to watch what unfolds I was completely dumbfounded by the bad reputation that had preceded it. It is not a film without problems – I only said “good”, I didn’t throw any of my usual superlatives about it – but it is the kind of stand alone adventure film that seems sorely lacking in Hollywood these days.
Adapted (loosely) from the more than 100-year-old series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film tells how the title character got to the planet that was cut from the title, and then immediately involves him in what is basically a world war. There’s a lot of over-plotting going on – if you don’t know the books you’ll be expected to quickly learn the names of a bunch of races, Martian places, and even slang terms – and I’m sure that many of the film’s detractors will point to this as either a) confusing or b) silly. I suppose I can understand that to an extent, but if the fact that something creates its own universe is going to take you out of the story, that’s your problem.
The worlds and characters will certainly make some think of Star Wars – and more accurately, those awful prequels that shrouded the turn of the century with fear and may have caused the Y2K panic (OK, I made up the Y2K thing, but they were terrible) – which is largely because Burroughs’ books were a key inspiration to that George Lucas fellow. But John Carter stands on its own, and stands apart from the Star Wars ‘verse by sticking to one world and only a few characters. This isn’t high drama – it seems funny to consider Star Wars “high drama”, but one could make the argument that Star Wars, with its focus on family tensions and spiritual growth, aspires to reach that – and watching John Carter reminded me more of adventure films of the early Hollywood era. The tone of John Carter is more in tune with things like Captain Blood or Gunga Din – adaptations of other authors from Burroughs’ time – than modern sci-fi epics, with its closest modern companion perhaps being Stephen Sommers’ adaptation of The Mummy. Again, some may see that as a bad thing – but I think it’s a wicked fun flick.
The films I mentioned near the end of the last paragraph inspire a childlike awe in me, and John Carter fits in with them perfectly. Some of the effects are a little hokey – and obviously meant for children’s consumption – and I won’t deny that I didn’t spend a bit of time imagining a John Carter adaptation with Ray Harryhausen’s special effects and Caroline Munro wearing the same revealing outfits that “Princess of Mars” Dejah Thoris is required to don. Gosh, it sure seems like all John Carter does is remind me of things I love about popcorn movies of years gone by, doesn’t it? Wait…that’s another good thing.
It’s easy to find the reasons why it was a financial “failure” when you consider the budget and the mindset of modern viewers – it’s too long, too complicated, too different, too childish for most. But now – just three months after its release – a steady bit of support is growing for the film. Just today (I’d already started plotting this piece, in case someone thinks I was influenced) I was asked to help support an internet petition to get a sequel made. How strange is that? A film is produced for nearly 200 million by Disney and marketed as a big deal…and three months later the studio is basically done with it while folks on the internet are begging for a sequel. We sure do live in a crazy world of cinema these days. (Sorry guys, I really don’t think that sequel’s coming any time soon.)
Back to the point, I’m all for John Carter. (I even watched it twice, just to make sure I didn’t miss something awful the first time.) It’s a vast adventure that has some eye-popping visuals and creates an ambitiously drawn sci-fi world. The Disney logo has it primed for children, but there’s a bit more violence and death than I expected from the film, and a much smarter edge than I expected. The cast isn’t great, but they do their job, and nothing about it sticks out like a sore thumb.
I’m not sure if there was a way for John Carter to work as a serious, mass-audience pleasing, blockbuster in 2012 – as one article about the film’s floppiness stated, Burroughs’ ideas have been pillaged for over 100 years! – but I’m really glad someone made it. Don’t be surprised if words like “cult” start following this one around in the future, because there’s a lot of fun to be had with John Carter.
The Mike is a lover of all things cinematic, who chronicles his adventures with genre and cult movies at his blog: From Midnight, With Love.