As a modern retelling of the “John Carter of Mars” story, the only failure here is Disney’s ability to successfully market a good thing.
A veteran of the American Civil War, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is done with fighting for other people’s causes (and for good reason). When a chance encounter with a strange being in a secret cave mysteriously transports him to a new land, John finds himself the prisoner of alien creatures living in desert wasteland. It isn’t long before our hero learns that he has stumbled into yet another war not his own and possessing sought-after skills that could turn the tide in the favor of his choosing. Fortunately, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is hellbent bent on saving her world and her way of life, and in return for helping to save her world, John Carter may again find the home and family he lost long ago.
Mars. The story primarily takes place on MARS, dammit! Also, John Carter was a Confederate soldier; didn’t you see that in the trailers? These are just a few of the important details that make John Carter what it is: a story that science fiction has been borrowing heavily from for a number of years. Originally published as serial fiction in 1912, the same guy best known for inventing “Tarzan,” Edgar Rice Burroughs, was writing the blueprint for what would become both Star Warsand Avatar (at least the advertising got that right), but the marketing (reportedly costing upwards of $100 million) not only left out the word “Mars” but also anything explaining what was the hell was going on. Sure, the production design was striking (what else would you call ships that sail on sunlight?) but not enough to sell it to new audiences. Fortunately, the rest of the world seems to have figured out what Americans were never told or didn’t know, but more on that in a bit.
John Carter is an instant classic: a reluctant hero drafted into fighting the good fight on a distant planet to save the princess and save the day. In this updated version, femme fatale Dejah Thoris is no wallflower, perfectly capable of swinging a sword and kicking butt but in need of fellow asskickers (it doesn’t hurt that Lynn Collins looks great playing the regal princess, solving the world’s problems, or skewering bad guys). The featured alien race (ie non-humans) of Mars are the Thark, and they are wonderfully realized here (and happily free of any JarJar Binks annoyances). The story is quick paced, full of enough action and plot to satisfy any filmgoer, and manages to feel original in spite of how many elements have been previously borrowed for other space operas. Some of the concepts are a little rough, like being telegraphed to another world or exactly what is going to happen to the princess if John doesn’t save her, but these are minor points compared to everything else that works so wonderfully.
The final rumored price tag for all this crunchy goodness was $230 million, a number Disney has essentially said they cannot recoup. Look at the worldwide total, however, and a different story emerges: John Carter has almost made back all of its budget in theaters alone. By Disney declaring it wasn’t a smash success by Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland standards, potential audiences have been left wondering if Disney ever had any faith in their realization of Burroughs’ work; it reeks of “we don’t like someone in the production ranks” and hints at self-sabotage. The fact that JC is succeeding in spite of this is a testament to the source material and to the vision of those who believed they could pull it off (because they did).
You know those extra-costly theaters with the plush seats, huge digital screens, and thundering sound systems that just seem a little much for the ticket price? That’s the kind of venue this film was made for and where you should go to see it. By the time pay-per-views, video-on-demands, Blu-rays, and premium channels start making everyone who didn’t see this in theaters wonder why they’d never heard of it before, John Carter should be so far in the black that Disney should be ashamed of themselves for treating Mars like a red-headed step planet.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)