by Tony Dayoub
No movie can withstand the scrutiny John Carter—a lavish and, no doubt, costly science fiction blockbuster—has been subject to. But as usually happens in movies of this order, some people start actively rooting against it (read this piece and its author's own comment, the third one down). Ask James Cameron, an innovator and showman who's faced such discouragement from fickle critics too many times to list (Avatar, Titanic and others). Curiously, someone like George Lucas gets a pass despite blatant attempts at cravenly bleeding his Star Wars franchise drier than a squeezed lemon for profits at the expense of its naive fans. Perhaps there's a little creative envy involved. Or in the case of some Hollywood reporters, maybe there's a bit of settling old scores against a studio, actor or filmmaker. All of this attendant anti-fanfare is to be expected when a leviathan like John Carter dares to flirt with greatness and disappointingly falls a little short. But the most frustrating aspect is the way many, even those who haven't seen the film itself, start racing behind the agenda-driven critics like a bunch of lemmings headed off a cliff. Especially when the movie they've decided to beat on is a beautifully lensed, well-acted, escapist fantasy as clever as John Carter.
To be fair, part of the blame for audiences' underwhelming response lies with Disney, who for some reason decided to downplay some of the more fantastic elements of the movie in its marketing. Take the title, John Carter. Although based primarily on A Princess of Mars (1917)—part of a series of science fiction novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan)—the movie takes its name from its hero, a former Confederate soldier who ends up teleporting to Mars (Barsoom to its people). There, Carter becomes the messianic hero of the planet after he unites two warring races in battle against a third race that wishes to subjugate them. Though the book series was originally known as Barsoom, over the years, the property became known by a far more market-friendly name, John Carter of Mars. When you think about it, it's an evocative title because the disparate elements in it—the "John Carter" and the "Mars"—somewhat beg the question, Why is John Carter of Mars? Then there's our longtime fascination with our red, planetary neighbor. Not to mention that science fiction fantasy usually does well with the younger demographic movie studios always seek (plus the added bonus that this is likely a pre-sold property among men 35 years and older). So the title of the Disney should be a no-brainer, right?
Wrong. Speculation as to why Disney changed the name to simply John Carter has ranged from a fear of audiences' pigeonholing it as just another sci-fi film to the fact that another of their movies with "Mars" in the title, Mars Needs Moms, was released to poor box office returns just last year. One thing's for certain. All other marketing aside, no one would figure out what this film is about just by reading its current title, John Carter. This is a marketing blunder on the same order of the one which buried one of Disney's largest pre-sold properties, Winnie the Pooh, when it was released last year.
It's a shame, too, because John Carter, a throwback to the huge adventure epics of the DeMille era, transports viewers to a world one can only dream of. On the arid world of Barsoom, two red-skinned races live side-by-side with a race of green-skinned, four-armed warriors and giant, furry, white apes. There is little water, but great airships and their gleaming, majestic mother-cities populate the desert planet and its sky. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), already an amazing combatant on Earth, benefits from the added advantage of Mars' lighter gravity, which allows him to take superhuman leaps tantamount to flight. And Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the princess who becomes his ally, is formidable in her own right, belying the scanty attire she often wears.
Many of John Carter's details may strike movie audiences as derivative—Carter's fight with a giant ape in a gladiatorial arena (Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones), the princess being forced to marry a conqueror (Flash Gordon), the stranger in a strange land (Avatar and any number of other films). But in truth, these should serve as a reminder that Burrough's Barsoom stories predates all of these other science fiction fantasies and inspired their creators both directly and indirectly. Instead of running away from comparisons, director Andrew Stanton (Wall·E) embraces them. How much more self-aware can John Carter be than when it acknowledges a resemblance to 1984's Dune (also a bloated misfire at the box office), both textually and meta-textually? When Princess Dejah is first introduced, it is in closeup, looking directly at the camera and describing Barsoom in a monologue not unlike Virgina Madsen's at the start of Dune. But at least Stanton directs Collins to laugh at the pompousness of Dejah's speech.
In contrast, Kitsch (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a brooder, but as the titular hero he is surprisingly ingratiating. Able to straddle both settings—19th-century Earth and futuristic Barsoom—with equal aplomb, the pretty-boy Kitsch is able to win our allegiance early on despite the limited range he is allowed to play in the story. He does his best Clint Eastwood in flashbacks to Carter's Outlaw Josey Wales-type backstory and... he doesn't get much of an opportunity to deviate from there. But he gets some great lyrical moments where Carter is allowed to display some of the inherent wonder in these fantasies, something often overlooked in movies of this scope. It's quite a laugh, the first time Carter wakes up on Barsoom and discovers the difficulty of staying grounded in such light gravity. And later, when Carter first lays eyes on one of Barsoom's flying ships, Kitsch reminds us that this astonished soldier is not a contemporary of ours but a man just as much out of time as out of place.
All is not lost for John Carter or for you, discriminating viewer. The movie is playing well in overseas territories if only just adequately here. I am certain John Carter will be reassessed in the future when talk of its cost is but a distant memory. I saw it in IMAX 3D, and it was worth every penny of that expensive proposition. You've only got yourself to blame if you miss out on the opportunity to do the same.