I finally got the time today to check out John Carter, and see if it was deserving of the critics who lambasted it – or the so-called “fanboys” who praised it. My verdict: good movie, not superb, but it had the potential to be a great epic. I do have to say that I’m not sure where it actually missed. It was just something of an overall feeling.
The movie starts out by establishing that the main story takes place on Mars – or in the local language, Barsoom, and gives a bit of backstory, mainly about the troubles between the cities that remain on Mars and in particular the warring cities of Helium and Zodanga. Then it switches to Earth, with a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) being summoned by his uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), but on arrival Burroughs learns of his uncle’s apparent death, where he is apparently laid to rest in a mausoleum of a strange design which can only be opened from the inside, per his instructions. Burroughs then goes on to read Carter’s journal – and we flash back 13 years earlier, to when Carter was a former Confederate captain seeking out gold. He eventually finds one, but a strange man appears and tries to kill him. Carter manages to fatally wound him, when he appears to be reciting an incantation and holding a medallion, which Carter takes before he finishes. But Carter speaks the last word, “Barsoom” – and finds himself suddenly in a wasteland on another planet. And he also discovers it’s difficult to walk without flinging himself up in the air…
This interstitial time on Earth wasn’t too bad, but it did serve as a slow point for the movie that otherwise had plenty of moments of action or at least SF/fantasy wonder to keep the viewer’s attention. It probably could have been trimmed a bit, but also served to shape Carter’s character as someone who does not serve anyone else – a fact meant to be played up later in the film when others attempt to recruit him in their struggles, but I don’t think it was done as successfully as I could picture it.
Acting-wise, Taylor Kitsch was acceptable. I certainly didn’t find him inappropriate for the most part, although at times I didn’t get the sense from him I felt I should get for the character – a tired, battle-worn soldier who lost everything he loved, extremely reluctant to get involved in others struggles.
I was more impressed with Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris in general. Although there were times where her emotional pleading fell a bit flat, I think she may have given the strongest performance by a human (well, “red Martian”).
I was a bit confused sometimes by some of the male characters – I think some of them looked sufficiently alike that at times I was confused as to who it was. This, and the fact that a lot of names are thrown around pretty quickly, could confuse viewers easily. I remember being a bit confused early on about the name “Jeddak” being used by different people, until I realized that’s the word for “chief” or “ruler”. This was probably my primary complaint. Another confusing aspect was the attempted explanations of the “ninth ray” and how it pertained to the strange blue web energy.
The visual effects were well done, although in a few cases with Carter’s “flying around”, it seemed evident that he was on a rope harness. The flying ships were pretty nice looking, with insect-like designs but steampunk-like control systems. My daughter, who watched with me, wondered why Mars didn’t look more red – most of it was desert-like yellow. I could have come up with an explanation if I needed to but didn’t. This could be another reason a broader audience might not understand the setting – “Mars is red! Why isn’t it red?”
Addressing some of the “failings” I’ve seen reported…the movie does require some suspension of disbelief. This is not the Mars we know. This is the Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs dreamt of 100 years ago, and what others also believed based on the observations of Percival Lovell and others – a planet with canals built by a civilization. But also with conciliatory facts – Mars once had a great civilization, but after years of warring and water disappearing that civilization had broken down and is even dying off.
I also read where a lot of blame was being leveled at Andrew Stanton for wanting to follow a 100-year-old book so closely. Well, I’m about 30 years removed from possibly having read A Princess of Mars (I believe I did, but I don’t remember anything of it), so I don’t know if he followed it that closely – but I certainly don’t see any problem in how it was told. There were definitely matters left out (like how he can breath since Mars is supposed to have a thin atmosphere with very little oxygen – there is an explanation), but I think the storyline was solid.
That about sums up my thoughts on it for now. I think the $250 million budget could have bought a bit more, and I can see it struggling to break even, but I think it deserves a LOT more credit that it was given, and that more than anything could have been the fault of mismarketing by Disney. I found it ironic that at the end of the movie, the title card is displayed again – except “of Mars” was added, and the JCM logo that was used in marketing early on was displayed. There have been various reasons given why “of Mars” was dropped from the title (one of the leading ones is that Disney has had a dismal track record with Mars-based movies, with the last one being the flop Mars Needs Moms), but I wonder if this was based on how John Carter was addressed in the movie. Aside from when he’s called “Virginia” by Tars Tarkus, he’s generally referred to as “John Carter of Earth”. It isn’t until towards the end where he says, “John Carter of Mars has a nicer ring to it…” that I want to think that they didn’t want to refer to him in the title as “of Mars” until he truly became that. But then they could have gone with the book’s title at least in part: “John Carter: A Princess of Mars” I think would have worked OK.
There was an older couple looking at the marquee deciding what movie to see, and the man said, “John Carter?” with a quizzical look. Definitely not a lot of market penetration, even after the last minute blitz.
Finally summary: Don’t avoid seeing it based on the negative press. Give it a chance.