Disney’s famous flop is not as bad as everyone says. It’s actually pretty good.
John Carter | 2012 | 132 minutes | Dir. Andrew Stanton | Disney | My Rating: ★★★★
A few years ago, Disney launched a huge but vague advertising campaign for John Carter. Then they released it on an insignificant weekend in March. The movie cost $250 million to make and only made $73 million back. Financially, it was a disaster.
Disney shot this movie in the foot. It’s a good movie. It’s a science fiction adventure with great special effects and just the right amount of action.
John Carter was written and directed by Pixar prodigy Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E) and adapted from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan).
Taylor Kitsch (who is still as hot as he was on Friday Night Lights) plays John Carter, an angry ex Civil War captain who answers to no one. His renegade attitude gets him into trouble and John finds himself cornered in a cave of gold. There, something happens that changes his life. John gets zapped by a ray of blue light and transports to a desert planet. John discovers he can leap tall buildings in a single bound. John then finds himself surrounded by a group of hostile four- armed aliens. They look kind of like the Na’avi from Avatar but they’re green. They think John should be destroyed. They do weird stuff to him, including feed him some milky liquid that allows him to understand their language. John finds himself at the center of a civil war on this foreign planet, known to natives as Barsoom but known to us as Mars.
Two civilizations fight for control of Barsoom: Helium, which represents peace and progress, and Zodanga, which brings destruction and evil. Zodanga seeks to destroy Helium and rule Barsoom. Meanwhile, the green Tharks try to stay out of the way and let the two kingdoms destroy each other so they can have Barsoom to themselves.
Princess Dejah of Helium (played by Lynn Collins, who is totally stacked and gorgeous) is to be married to Zodanga’s leader as a peace offering. She resents that. Dejah doubles as a scientist and warrior who almost unlocks the secret of endless renewable energy and power. The Zodangans have this power already, but they use it to annihilate. The Zodangans got the power from a race of mysterious overseers, called the Thems. The Thems can shapeshift and travel through space and time. They link John to both Earth and Mars.
Anyway, the plot is really long and involved and lots of stuff happens but it’s basically good versus evil in a battle to save the world. Unlike many of today’s “action” flicks, John Carter keeps its action scenes in check. There are no gratuitous explosions, excessive shootouts or machine violence. There are plenty of battle sequences and chase scenes, but of appropriate length and magnitude. On a scale of Star Wars to Transformers this ranks closer to Star Wars.
But it’s really more like Avatar. And that’s how Disney should have marketed John Carter. Nobody really knew anything about it, and I think people were afraid to see a movie that seemed so, well, alien. Springing writhing green alien fetuses on the audience less that 15 minutes in probably didn’t help.
But once you get past all the initial sci- fi weirdness, John Carter is a seriously well- made movie. The price tag shows in the production. John Carter has great production and costume design, realistic special effects and exciting shots of “Mars”. The film is well cast, featuring performances from Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds (Rome, There Will Be Blood) and Bryan Cranston, plus voice acting from Willem Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, and Samantha Morton. And did I mention that Taylor Kitsch is really really hot? And Lynn Collins is really really hot too? John Carter seems totally out of character for Disney. John Carter feels like a sophisticated upgrade of 1980’s movies like Clash of the Titans or Conan the Barbarian, but not like the lame upgrades those films actually got. John Carter calls back a bygone era of when sci- fi epics were actually epic, action movies still had adventure, and leading men were not Robert Downey Jr. Maybe Disney didn’t know how to market John Carter because they didn’t really understand it. I watched the whole thing expecting it to suck, and I only grew more impressed. Even though this film failed at the box office, it was nice that John Carter looked so nice. It felt like for once maybe Disney cared more about that movie than they did about the money.