It’s been an interesting year for Disney Studios…with The Avengers they have the biggest box-office hit of the year, and perhaps of all-time. And on the other hand there is John Carter that, while it has made back its 250 million dollar budget, it still considered a major disappointment. The problem with John Carter is that it was treated like a major pop-culture character. It was given a budget that was actually LARGER than The Avengers even though the Avengers had five films that lead into it, building up a core audience. What is the core audience for John Carters? We’re talking about a character whose glory days were nearly a hundred years ago, back in the 1910s and 1920s. Marvel Comics published a short-lived series, “John Carter: Warlord of Mars” back in the 1970s but since then this character has largely been well off the public radar.
Besides giving the film a budget that it didn’t deserve, the Producer’s second misstep was in the title. We don’t get “John Carter of Mars” or “John Carter Warlord of Mars”, titles which at least convey the fact that it’s in the Sci-Fi genre. Instead we get the lackluster “John Carter” which sounds like it might be a drama about a used car salesman. John Carter is like a Christmas gift wrapped perfectly in expensive foil paper and with neatly tied bows that you open to find slippers or underwear. It’s pretty on the outside but boring on the inside.
The convoluted plot which is desperately short on logical exposition finds Carter, a former Confederate soldier, on the run from Union troops and hiding out in a cave when a strange being appears (later revealed to be a Thern. Carter kills the Thern and grasps a medallion which transports him to Mars, known to the native inhabitants as Barsoom. There, due to Barsoom’s lower gravity, Carter’s strength is far greater than on Earth. He finds himself caught in the middle of an age’s long war between the rival cities of Helium and Zodanga. The leader of Zodanga, Sab Than (West) has been given a weapon by the Thern that turns the tide of the war in their favor. Carter finds allies among the Tharks, a giant, four-armed, green-skinned race of Martians and rescues the Princess of Helium Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) from Sab Than and journeys with her to a sacred location that might allow Carter to get back home. As Carter will soon discover though, his main antagonist is not Sab Than but rather the Thern leader Matai Shang.
John Carter is a dazzling film to behold. The barren Martian landscapes are contrasted by the majestic cities of Zodanga and Helium and their array of fantastic air ships. Director Andrew Stanton is counting on you being dazzled by the sights because the rest of the film is a jumbled mess of hanging plot threads. Carter discovers what appears to be a long forgotten spacecraft that comes to life with his amulet and is powered by (or is the source) of the mysterious Ninth Ray. Believing this ship can be used to transport him back home if the symbols can be translated; Carter and Dejah Thoris return to Heliun…and promptly forget about the ship. And just what is the Ninth Ray that was discussed so frequently in the first half of the film? Beats the crap out of me! In the original Edgar Rice Burroughs stories the Thern are another native race of Martians but here they are a completely alien race whose sole purpose seems to be to push worlds along to their inevitable destructions. Carter has great strength on Mars due to the lower gravity but this is almost exclusively manifested in his being able to make Hulk-like leaps, yet he is easily restrained by a handful of Tharks. Consistency and plausibility are nowhere to be found here.
Taylor Kitsch as John Carter is one of the worst choices for a heroic role since Klinton Spilsbury donned a mask in “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” in 1981. I know what you’re saying, “Klinton who?” Exactly! Funny thing is this is not the worst film that Kitsch was in during 2012 as he starred in the even more inferior bomb “Battleship”, and we still have seven months left in the year. Kitsch has as much charisma as a cheese sandwich. Thankfully the rest of the cast steps up to cover him. West and Collins are good and Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church voice two of the main Thark characters with far more zeal that Kitsch does as Carter.
John Carter is overblown and overlong. At least 20 minutes should have been shaved off the 132 minute production, particularly in the opening before Carter is transported to Mars. It drags on without doing anything to forward the action. This is a film that could have been a success with a $100 million dollars less of a budget but with a better script and more cohesive direction.
Audio commentary with Director Andrew Stanton
Disney Second Screen – This is an app you can download to your computer that syncs up with the film when you watch it in this mode to provide further info about the film
100 Years in the Making (10:43) – A short bio on Edgar Rice Burroughs. How he got into writing and developed John Carter. Very good but too short.
Deleted Scenes (19:00) – Several deleted scenes that were either complete or partially complete, i.e., not having the visual effects added. One includes the original Hall of Science opening and another features a scene with the young Edgar Rice Burroughs getting the telegram from his Uncle.
360 Degress of John Carter (34:02) – A making of documentary that covers a variety of tops including makeup, stunts, visual effects, and looks at the first day of shooting.
Barsoom Bloopers (2:00) – Gag Reel