John Carter is a confounding feature film, in part for the ways you may have heard (a sky high budget for a film based on a property few have heard of, its foolishly simple name), some you may not have (internal Disney politics, being the debut live action film by the acclaimed director of Wall-E, its source material being an inspiration for Star Wars and Avatar) and because, in fact, in spite of everything it is a film that flirts with being quite good while largely ending up quite the mess. At the end of the day, with a budget of $250,000,000, it needed to be great and to be pretty perfectly marketed and managed. It was neither.
When it comes to the film itself, it looks every bit of its giant budget. There are many set pieces that do well in conveying a mysterious alien world but its greatest achievement is likely the alien race of the Tharks. They are tall, green, skinny creatures who manage to interact in the world of Barsook (the native’s name for the planet Mars) which fulfills the ideas of the book that it is based on, which imagined Mars as a vast desert like expanse.
That book ‘A Princess of Mars’, the first in the ‘John Carter of Mars’ series by Edgar Rice Burroughs was the author’s second most successful franchise. His most successful was Tarzan of the Apes, a concept that has been spun into more movies, radio plays, film serials and television programs than nearly any property in history. This, however is the first time John Carter has been adapted, although not the first time its concepts have been mined.
The most famous examples of films indebted to Burroughs series are Star Wars and Avatar. George Lucas is on record, as is James Cameron, of being not just John Carter fans but having been inspired by the books. The Tharks resemble the alien creatures who populate Pandora in Avatar, Princess Leia resembles in many respects the titular ‘Princess of Mars’ who is the titular character of the first Burroughs book in the series, of which this film was based.
Filmmakers have tried to adapt the material for many years, including a recent attempt by Robert Rodriguez, but it took Andrew Stanton, a veteran writer-director of ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Wall-E’ and the fact that Disney, before its purchase of Marvel and LucasFilm, was utterly devoid, save maybe ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ of a franchise with appeal for boys, for the film to get on the production schedule.
There are few films where it seems more central to the film to establish such context of its origins before its screenplay was ever written, yet for John Carter it seems needed. Because without that context we would not have gotten the film we did for with a smaller budget would come a far lesser realization of the project. And yet, paradoxically without the astronomical budget, we would not have had a film so well remembered as a flop- it’s possible we may have gotten a film that blandly made its money back and disappeared. And yet there are other factors in play.
It’s also important to view the film as the aborted first in a franchise- Stanton had wished to make at least a trilogy of films. Asked recently about the idea of a sequel Stanton was enthusiastic to make it. There is, in fact, a small cult of fans who have also championed this cause. A large enough group that ‘John Carter 2’ is the #2 suggestion to autocomplete in Google when you type in ‘John Carter’ into the search engine. It easily outranks ‘John Carter flop’ in that measure, yet in terms of the number of hits the latter far outreaches the former.
And so we have the tale of the film- one given an enormous budget (rumors of it going over-budget turn out to have been false- all involved seem to agree, $250,000,000 was the original budget and Stanton came in on budget), that lost its title and became the near anonymous ‘John Carter’, sans any mention of Mars (2011’s flop ‘Mars for Moms’ indicated to them that Mars wasn’t marketable, it seems) and which, once it arrived was met by a company that had changed Presidents twice since it was greenlit, had just bought Marvel (and was in negotiations with Lucasfilm) and thus suddenly had all the boys franchises it could ever need and which placed the film, without a major star and sans a recognizable mainstream character or hook, precariously outside of Summer and yet right in the crosshairs of the obvious to be smash hit ‘Hunger Games’.
It was dead on arrival- vague marketing, making the blandness of the film’s title shine even brighter in the spotlight and Disney’s eventual announcement of having been written off to the tune of $200,000,000, announced oddly just weeks into the theatrical run have lead its boosters to speculate at conspiracy- did George Lucas tell them to killbit if they wanted Star Wars, for instance. Given how poorly nearly every step went one almost wonders.
So, then is the film as bad as some might say? No, surely it is not. It’s very lovely to look at, is ambitious in its scope and plotting and is enjoyable to watch in many respects. Is it as good as its boosters claim? No, regrettably, it’s a bit of a mish mash of ideas, has a largely wooden lead performance by Taylor Kitsch and has some regrettably awful dialogue at times.
It might take an hour to summarize the ins and outs of the plot but the short version is that a man who wishes to escape the Civil War is teleported, via a magic talisman to Mars, gets involved in a 3 way civil war on that planet and learns he can leap great distances. He then gets involved with a Martian princess, who is betrothed in an attempt to put an end to the war. Predictably they fall in love and live happily ever after, in spite of running afoul of all manner of baddies, from enormous ape creatures to shapeshifter demigods.
And yet one can also see why the story was so beloved and the film, in some circles, well loved. It’s a sci-fi epic with interesting visuals and ideas, new environments and creatures the likes we’ve not encountered before. The princess, Dejah Thoris, is a fiery female lead and clearly one of the highlights of the film, although she too often ends up a damsel in distress near the end of the film.
The screenplay, attributed to Stanton, as well as Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, manages some good ideas, such as the wraparound sequences that establish a fictional version of Burroughs deciding to write the book and some poor ones, of which I would consider much of the dialogue. On his previous films Stanton had been able, as with all Pixar films, to take the pieces as built and rebuild them over and over. The average Pixar film is given several tries, the equivalent of having reshot the films numerous times, over months and sometimes years, whereas here the shooting lasted little more than two months. I can imagine if Stanton had the same leeway to work with here he may have made a masterful film, in the vein of his first two films. This, however, never fully comes together.
In the end ‘John Carter’ could not have been made well for less money- in many respects expensive reshoots might have actually been the best thing for it – and yet for the money it was made for and with the scrutiny and financial risks that come with it, it needed to be a great film, promoted well, in a way that revealed those strengths it had at its center. This film had neither advantage, instead becoming, in so many aspects, a how-to guide as to lose hundreds of millions of dollars on an only all right film. In the end ‘John Carter’ is in all ways a mess and yet a charming one. Unfortunately those charms aren’t nearly worth the films considerable weight in gold.