At this point, it’s official. John Carter has become the biggest box office bomb in film history.
And yet, as I exited the theater, all I could ask myself was, ‘Why?’ Actually I wasn’t asking myself anything. My reaction was more of a ‘OH MAN, THAT MOVIE WAS COOL’, but still.
The point I’m trying to make is that John Carter, from a purely technical standpoint, is too competent to be looked upon as a failure. Furthermore, it has too much heart, too much attention paid to its characters and world, for that to be the only perception history will have of this film adaptation of one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most well-known creations. It isn’t without its faults, but John Carter is a film that should be experienced by far more people than currently have.
Part of the problem with getting people to watch John Carter may have been conveying the plot of the film to an audience who is utterly unawares of the whole Barsoom series of books. That’s partially because the lengthy lore of Burroughs Mars is a tough one to sum up in a short paragraph or :30 TV spot, but also because John Carter as a film just has so much going on in it. The audience is introduced to John Carter, a Virginia cavalryman who is very much done with war-like pursuits. Sadly, warmongers are not done with him and before long, he finds himself conscripted into yet another conflict. Through a few convoluted twists of fate, Carter finds himself transported to, of all places, Mars.
Far from being uninhabited and dead Mars is embroiled in a civil war between rivaling factions. Throw in a race of shadowy overseers, a tribe of wasteland natives, and miles and miles of Barsoomian desert, and John Carter’s plot gets pretty heavy pretty quick. For the most part, director Andrew Stanton does a great job of juggling these various subplots and still injecting a level of character and humor into them despite having a very limited runtime. However, if John Carter has one flaw it’s that it tries to cram too much of this ‘stuff’ in, and certain things feel intentionally rushed. Honestly, there were a few scenes where John Carter literally says, “I’ll explain later!” before charging off to another scene- almost winking to the audience that he doesn’t have time for this shit.
Luckily, Stanton also has a super-solid cast driving the production which help make up for some of the hyperactive pacing that happens late in the film. Taylor Kitsch is at the very least convincing as a snarly, world-weary Carter. He isn’t necessarily the most charismatic, but he does a decent job of at least playing the part of a man who is pretty much fed up with fighting for causes he doesn’t believe in (a nice intercut scene about halfway through the film does a great job of conveying Carter’s troubles without actually needing to explain explicitly). Perhaps more likable are Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, a princess/scientist/buttkicker who desperately attempts to use Carter to save her floundering kingdom and Willem Dafoe as the Thark chieftan, Tars Tarkus. Both help acclimate both Carter and the audience to the goings-on on the red planet and are responsible for some of the funnier and cooler moments in the film.
And boy does this movie have a lot of cool stuff in it. Even if one cannot grasp the entirety of what they’re witnessing on film, the spectacle is still impressive. Being born on Earth, Carter has the ability to use Mars’ lower gravity to jump and do all manner of super-human feats. All of these are done convincingly with a combination of practical and CG effects, but even the purely CG like the various creatures of Mars- including menacing White Apes and the adorable monster dog, Woola- are done against the backdrop of a wholly alien planet. Where John Carter soars is its ability to actually transport the audience and performers to its foreign realm. The architecture, weapons, clothing, vehicles, and indeed denizens themselves are so meticulously detailed that I always found my eye wandering all over the screen throughout the film.
That’s really what it comes down to. John Carter may want for some pacing and might suffer from a bit of a steep barrier to entry, but if you’re willing to take the journey to Mars, you’ll sure to be entertained. This is a film with heart and craftsmanship, and far from the tragedy of certain elements in its narrative, it’s a tragedy that more people haven’t taken this worthwhile trip.