Disney gives me a headache. I’m not sure any other major studio goes through more high school bullshit drama than they do. And it regularly tanks movies. You could argue they’re not good movies to begin with (see also: Prince of Persia), but selling a big, SFX spectacle to a content-starved audience really shouldn’t be that hard. Yet they keep messing it up. I’ll grant you that John Carter is a challenge—based on a 1917 book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, better known for Tarzan, it’s an early science fiction epic—but it is the work that inspired George Lucas, James Cameron, and other science fiction/fantasy writers. Disney got into this late in the marketing game, using the line, “Before there was Avatar, before there was Star Wars, there was John Carter.” Which is true, strictly speaking, but those other movies came out first, so this tagline is just confusing. A better lead is, “The story that inspired them all.” It’s more accurate and doesn’t make people think this is a remake/reboot situation.
Second issue with marketing this movie is that it’s not very good. It’s tough to make something bad look good. John Carter isn’t completely bad—a lot of individual elements work quite well—but it’s a mess and it’s so science fictiony as to be alienating. I’m a pretty big geek and even I found John Carter to be too much. But let’s start with what worked, since it’s less depressing. First and foremost, Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) gives it his all and manages to sell more of this space shit than not. He’s believable and sincere and both men and women in the audience responded well to him (didn’t hurt that he spent most of the movie in space-tech bondage gear). And the special effects, provided by Pixar, are great. The opening scene set in 1868 Old Westy times is probably the single strongest part of the whole movie. There’s a humor and lightness to the beginnings of Carter’s tale that works really well, and Kitsch is able to be roguish and charming, which is probably his strongest setting, as an actor. Also, the editing in the jail scene is spectacular, and there is a later scene that cuts between Carter in the Civil War and him fighting aliens that works out really well, too, thanks to editing and the strong score from Michael Giacchino (Up).
Unfortunately—and here’s where we get to the bad stuff—first-time live action director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) can’t maintain that tone throughout the film. The humor comes and goes in the space parts but the movie never decides if it wants to be fun or an epic. Personally, I think the schizophrenic tone is down to that in-fighting at Disney. Clearly Stanton wanted John Carter to be a fantasy epic along the lines of Star Wars and Avatar, but the fits and starts of humor smack of reshoots and cold-footed studio execs frightened by the astronomical price tag and thinking, “Well, everyone likes Pirates of the Caribbean and those are kind of funny.” They subjected Prince of Persia to this exact same treatment for the exact same reason and ended up with the exact same results. The choppy tone was also highlighted by uneven pacing. The action sequences flowed along and were engaging and cool, but the minute fighting stopped the movie ground to a halt.
And then there’s the problem of the timing. While the book that inspired this movie, A Princess of Mars, came long before Star Wars, et al, the movie version is just now hitting big screens. Large chunks of John Carter feel like such a massive retread that I found myself going, “Yes, yes, I’ve seen this already and it was called Avatar.” And I KNOW that Avatar is, technically, the copycat here, but for most people John Carter is going to seem like a knock-off because they saw Avatar first and are not aware of the Burroughs’ books. The biggest culprit of this was the storyline involving an aboriginal-type of alien called the “Tharks”. They live in the desert, wear loin cloths, scorn flying, and disdain the “red people” (the humanoid aliens on Mars). They’re basically the American Indians on the plains of Mars. They are the first group Carter encounters, and he ends up with a banished Thark, Sola, as his sort-of guide around Mars (or “Barsoom”, as they call it). All the stuff about the Tharks not getting involved in the fight between the two cities on Mars, Helium and something that sounded like Zanzibar, smacked of Avatar (and Dances with Wolves), and the movie probably would have been better off just focusing on Carter’s relationship with Sola and using her to unwind the story of the Tharks.
John Carter is not the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s not nearly as bad as the terrible marketing suggested. It’s just not particularly fun to watch for long stretches and it suffers from “this-is-just-like-itis”. And while the books may have come first, the movie is responsible for finding a fresh way to tell the story and in that, Stanton & Co. failed. As for Kitsch, who is poised to either break out or go bust this year, he’s better off waiting to see how Battleship fares in May. Based on the reaction to the trailer that ran before John Carter, I’d say his movie star dreams may yet be realized.