The poster for John Carter looks like Sawyer from Lost battling two trolls from the Mines of Moria in the Star Wars gladiator arena. The fact that this says pretty much nothing about the plot of the film seemed not to phase the marketers, but maybe that’s just because they were busy releasing confusing and unappealing trailers which similarly don’t represent what the film is about.
Disney is projecting a $200 million loss in the wake of John Carter’s release – strange, since this is a film which has essentially been in the works since the 1950s. The rights to the film have been volleying between Disney and original author’s estate as the studios waited for special effects technology to catch up with the author’s vision for his books. So, now that they have, why has everything gone all to hell?
I don’t think it was laziness by a long way. Possibly they were going for a Hunger Games type approach, however, if they were aiming for enigmatic, they missed. Instead, they stopped the train at ‘Baffling’, leaving hordes of potential cinema goers scratching their heads and desperately clutching their $15 in white-knuckled hands. The poster says Avatar vs. Gladiator, while the trailer says The Patriot vs. Dorian Grey vs. The Quick and the Dead.
So what is it; science fiction epic or period drama? Based on the 1917 novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film opens on a shot of the red planet. We are told that the planet is not, as it seems, dead and deserted but thriving with technology and life. The air is thick with insect-like aircraft which look like they’ve been plucked straight from Howl’s Moving Castle, there is a war happening, and humans are being vaporised at an alarming rate. One man alone survives, and is approached by mysterious robed men.
It is 1881, and back on Earth John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former confederate soldier who has acquired massive wealth and a host of Indiana Jones-esque adventures (not including Crystal Skull. NEVER including Crystal Skull.) When he suddenly drops dead despite being in apparently good health, he leaves a journal to his nephew Edgar (Daryl Sabara), prompting a film-long flashback to 13 years earlier. At this point, the film diverts into a mini-western, complete with bar fight, parochial town gaol and conflict with Apache Indians, until there’s a cave, a bit of a shooting, and a whole lot of teleportation. Carter discovers he is somehow now on Mars, known to the locals as Barsoom, and due to differences in gravity and bone density, he can jump extreme distances.
What ensues is an almost unbelievable amount of plot. There’s religion, false religion, warring factions, six limbed aliens, secret family alliances, forced weddings, white apes, gladiator fights, leadership battles, royalty, vague allusions to fate, and messages about war mingled in with a decent amount of well-timed humour.
The film was really ambitious. It fully commits to what it is trying to do: be epic. It has settings, languages and races as varied as Star Wars, imagery arguably better and more imaginative than Avatar (sorry, but after two hours everything started to look the same), and a storyline which, yes, for a few minutes about a three quarters of the way in fell into the really corny dialogue trap, but overall was absorbing and entertaining.
But people aren’t going to see it, and a lot of those who do, aren’t going to like it. The advertising, put bluntly, was bad. It looks like another installment of something like Wrath of the Titans. While I really enjoyed the non-stop plot, it jumps around a lot which I think could irritate people. It feels a bit as though when the film was in the planning stages, someone asked a room full of people what they’d like to see in a film. “Gladiator fights!” shouts one man. “Skimpy classic sci-fi costumes!” pipes up another. “Six armed green aliens please! Oh, and I’d like to shoot some scenes from late 1800s America!” puts a woman from the back. “I thought we were making a western” frowns another man.” “WHITE APES” screams the work experience student. “Hush you!” reprimands his friend. “This is a serious film, about the futility yet inevitability of war.”
“Calm down.” speaks the Chairperson. “We’ll do it all.”
I actually thoroughly enjoyed the film, possibly because there was never a moment when at least three things weren’t happening. It’s sad that this film probably won’t do well, because while it may feel like a mash up of a bunch of other movies, in reality, the plot for A Princess of Mars came first. However, it missed the boat.
If you’re looking for something to change your life and prompt a life-time hunt for collectible figurines, give this a miss. However, if you want to be entertained for two hours with no strings attached, go see John Carter.
Elizabeth can also be found at her blog Harold is Cool.