Firstly, lets get something straight: John Carter is not Avatar. It is also not Star Wars or any other science-fiction epic set on a distant planet. There’s no denying the films all have obvious similarities, especially in terms of characters and locations, but of course this is typical of the genre.
John Carter is an entirely different beast, one that predates all previous sci-fi entries by almost a hundred years. Ultimately, this is the film’s greatest asset, but unfortunately also its greatest flaw. As the great granddaddy of all sci-fi tentpoles, John Carter is completely original, exciting and visually stimulating, with conflicted characters and beautiful landscapes. However, for some contemporary audiences who have grown up with Star Wars and other such films, John Carter is strangely familiar and incredibly dated. It is most likely these conflicting ideas of originality, coupled with the notion that it has all been done before, that led John Carter to underwhelm at the box office. Arriving on a wave of bad press and unfair judgement beforehand, it seems people were far more interested in The Lorax, an animated adaptation starring the voices of Zac Efron and Taylor Swift or 21 Jump Street, a high-school comedy.
Already two weeks into release, John Carter has barely scraped $200 million worldwide, and this is off a reported budget of over $250 million, not including marketing costs. To put this in a more digestible perspective, this week sees the much-anticipated release of The Hunger Games, which according to box office tracking reports is expected to take over $100 million domestically in its first weekend, something which John Carter still hasn’t even achieved after two weeks. For a massive science-fiction blockbuster, this is a tremendous failure; think the Waterworld of our time. Things are looking increasingly worse for Walt Disney Studios, with executives apparently pointing the finger of blame at director Andrew Stanton, stating he refused help and felt he could develop the project on his own. Just the other day, Disney bravely told the press they are preparing for a loss of around $200 million, which they hope can be partially rectified with the upcoming release of The Avengers.
So where did it all go wrong? In a previous article I attempted to dissect John Carter’s extensive and troublesome trip to the screen, from the early development process right up to the oft-criticised marketing campaign. After seeing the film, I can officially offer my verdict based purely on the elements of the finished product, rather than the advertising campaign and estimated guesswork based on the trailers and early reviews. In short, though the film is entertaining, charming and elegant, it is still a messy mix of inconsistent pacing, uneven tone and wasted opportunities. Though I didn’t love the film, it definitely has a range of redeeming qualities and I certainly didn’t hate it as much as the most obnoxious critics seem to, clearly overjoyed in reporting on the year’s first legitimate flop.
In my opinion, John Carter should be applauded for its attempts at introducing an incredibly complex story and wealth of characters, without ever becoming too confusing and overwrought. Well, mostly. By launching into the history of Barsoom (Mars, to us Earthlings) right at the very beginning of the film, it does get a little confusing, especially with the fictional terminology and location names flying at the audience thick and fast. It would have been better for the background of the planet to be fleshed out more extensively later on, rather than being expected to invest in the fate of Barsoom and its inhabitants without knowing much about them.
Due to these complications in the beginning, the film struggles to develop a consistent tone and I found it hard to feel anything when Carter is on Earth. These segments are unfortunately bland, and everything from the script and visuals just don’t work, making the scenes feel tacked on. They’re not necessarily horrible, just boring and fail to create a tone straight away. Once he eventually lands on Barsoom however, any initial doubts disappear and the film does become truly enjoyable and fun. By placing Carter in a foreign and confusing land, the audience are forced to see things from his perspective, making us just as lost and captivated as he is. It is in the vast, expansive landscape of Barsoom that John Carter truly flourishes. Pixar alumni, Andrew Stanton effectively uses his prior animation background to create a fully realised world full of wonderful characters and unique architecture. I found it interesting how the landscape is portrayed as empty and impassive, yet still full of life. This is highlighted further through the almost complete lack of sea and water on screen. However, when a river is finally depicted in a particularly memorable scene, the filmmakers focus on the beauty of the water, creating a precious and powerful moment.
It is easy to overlook moments like this, with many critics choosing to critique the relatively simple nature and almost inexpensive look of the landscape. Typically, blockbusters are expected to fully utilise a large budget, spending extravagantly on gigantic structures and weird locations. Think something like last year’s Thor, which focused on the otherworldliness of Asgard, with huge mountains and crazy castles. John Carter bravely subverts these conventions and presents Barsoom as incredibly minimal and not totally different from the Deep South of our world. Such simplicity is also seen in the various character designs, with the costumes bare, plain and some would argue, boring. It’s a bold, realistic move and one that mostly pays off, especially when considering the environment the characters live in.
Introducing the character of John Carter to brand new audiences was always going to be a huge challenge. Like many prequels and origin stories, it’s notoriously difficult to determine the right balance of back-story and exposition, whilst constantly driving to move the character forward to an end goal. Taylor Kitsch is perfectly adequate in the lead role, bringing just the right amount of brawn and charm required, yet also adding a quiet determination. His John Carter is unfocused and constantly conflicted, never quite sure what he wants up until the very end. Like all classic heroes, he anchors and drives the narrative, proving effective as a genuine leader come warrior in the action sequences and chiselled eye candy in the romantic moments. Though solid enough, Carter’s back-story doesn’t quite work, coming across as a tired stereotype rather than an extensive exploration of character and motivation.
Though the rest of the cast make the most of the script they are given, they’re not really given a chance to explore their characters fully, which is a shame as they have the potential to be interesting and unique. The antagonists are little more than pussy-whipped pawns or omnipresent demi-gods, constantly appearing in the most convenient of places, ready to talk intensely and look evil. There was one specific point in the film when Mark Strong’s Matai Shang reveals his master plan, explaining his eventual motives and reasons. The politics behind his plan touch on something brilliant, something that could resonate with contemporary audiences, but is never allowed to fully flourish. Likewise, the four-armed Tharks (led by Willem Dafoe) serve little purpose other than shepherding Carter through Barsoom and then helping to save the day in the climactic battle. On a brighter note, the presentation of the Tharks is done extremely well and the top-notch motion capture can’t be faulted. In every scene the Tharks look photo realistic, fitting in with the Barsoomians and never looked out of place or tacked on. It is slightly annoying how similar and interchangeable they all look, especially when trying to decipher which one is the leader, and which ones are the women.
For me, Lynn Collins was the film’s one true saving grace. Her Princess Dejah brilliantly shifts between vulnerable and defenceless, to a feisty strong warrior and back again. Wearing some fantastic costumes, she looks beautiful and majestic, but always ready to superbly kick some butt. Arguably, her character created the science-fiction archetype of the lead female protagonist refusing to be the damsel in distress, sitting on the sidelines helpless and emotionally unstable. Think Princess Leia from Star Wars and Netyiri from Avatar, two characters clearly influenced by Dejah and her warrior princess ways. As well as looking great, Dejah also acts as the main motivation for Carter’s reason to finally stand up and fight, his drive if you will.
As you can see, there are a lot of talking points for John Carter and as much as I’d like to, every element of production cannot be discussed in detail. If initial box office grosses are anything to go by, John Carter is destined to go down as one of the biggest financial flops of this decade and will therefore be closely scrutinised for years to come. It’s also looking more and more likely that John Carter will not be successful enough to warrant a sequel. This is a huge disappointment as the story and characters have enormous potential to develop and grow over future instalments, as well improve on many of the film’s major issues.