Tuesday, June 19, 2012

John Carter

So is John Carter, which has been called the biggest flop of the year, worth viewing to anyone interested in science fiction? I can say truthfully that the answer is "Yes," and "Hell Yes." So if its good why did it flop. Good question, first let me be honest this a good film but not top tier. No one is going to list it in the ten best films category. So it doesn't have that extra umph it really needed to overcome it's biggest hurdle. See John Carter is only a flop by degree. It has a budget of two hundred and fifty million dollars. Now Hollywood math is flexible and strange (specially if you are waiting for you money it's amazing how many popular films don't make a profit on paper at any rate), but by most estimates John Carter needed about seven hundred million to break even. By those novel the regular size box office of John Carter was like spitting into the grand canyon.

The big reason though why it failed is that the folks in the front office didn't know what to do with it. You can see this in the title snafu. First they decided that the original title "A Princess of Mars," wouldn't work because "Princess" is too girlie and they needed that all male action movie demographic. So then they went with "John Carter, Warlord of Mars." A decent title. It tells you who the hero is, what he is doing and where he's doing it. But then the front office remembered that last year's biggest flop was "Mars Needs Moms." It's obvious that people don't like Mars. So that's when they cut it down to "John Carter." Why they didn't choose "The Warlord," I'll never know. At least that has some excitement to it.

At any rate, you can see they had no idea what to do. In Hollywood when this happens you do two things: desperation advertising and pretending the film doesn't exist and waiting for the heads to roll.  Amazingly, though going in two different directions, both strategies are often used at the same time.  All this gives the whiff of the stinkeroo and that's blood in the water to film critics.  So the film gets released and the story is how bad it is failing not whether the film is good or bad.  The heads do roll, and then Disney dumps it into DVD faster than it takes type this sentence.  Now that we are done with all this business chit chat let's actually talk about the movie.

I can say I enjoyed it from it's third beginning.  Yes this film starts with three beginnings which is never a good idea.  The first beginning takes place on Mars/Barsoom and we instantly get a narrator going on about how this is not the Mars you know.  Frankly, we don't need this, I believe the audiences are smart enough to figure they are on another planet and, for those who don't read reviews or anything, there's no NEED for them to know they are on Mars.  Save it for a nice surprise.  That aside we are in the middle of a thrilling air battle.  The air ships of Mars are beautiful and alien but not so alien that the audience can't suss out the structure like the steering wheel.  One fellow is clearly beating on everyone else and so three bald dudes pop by and give him a super weapon that gives a pretty blue glow that makes your enemies go away.  They strongly hint he should use the super weapon to take over what's left of Mars.  Now here is where the title of "The Warlord" would have really worked.  Audiences might ask themselves is he the Warlord?  Keep 'em guessing I say.

The second beginning is back on Earth and has a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (here throughout now ERB) taking his inheritence of the John Carter estate.  Now I know in the books ERB used this structure to tell the story of John Carter, but here we didn't need it.  I know they wanted to set up what a mystery man John Carter was going everywhere digging up strange artifacts but it's totally a wrong move here.  This is not something we need to know about John Carter now, that he later in life was doing a little Indiana Jones action.  We specially don't need to know this because it is something of a spoiler.  Not only do we know now that John Carter survived his Martian adventures but that he came back to Earth.  This is information that should have been saved for the end of the film.  Have ERB show up at the end to receive Carter's journal and we the audience knows that his story will be spread.

Now finally we get to the good stuff.  John Carter in little over ten minutes fights off robbing bullies, tries to escape from the US Calvary four times and tries to stop a battle between Native Americans and said Calvary.  We also get a flashback that shows he's lost his wife and family.  What we get here is that John Carter is very much of a reluctant warrior, but when he has to he can get the job done.  He's smart, agile, good with a gun, and is still emotionally vulnerable.  Despite not wanting to deal with people he will still when he has to do the good thing.  These are very important things to know about our main character and the ease to which we slip into his world is just gratifying.

Once this is done he finds a mysterious cave.  Inside he must have accidentally set off some alarm because one of the bald guys from beginning number one pops in and manages to do an "O" face and attacks John.  Bad move, one baldy dead but not before he manages to activate the teleporter.  Boomo my friends John meet Mars, Mars meet John.  It's not a good meeting at first because John can't figure out why every time he takes a step he throws himself ten feet into the air.  Eventually he gets the hang of it and discovers he's Mar's version of early Superman.  He can leap incredible distances and is strong.  Good thing he finds all this out before the Green Martians capture him.

The Green Martians are in ERB's term a "savage" race.  You can't argue that point as they shoot their own young who aren't strong enough.  After seeing John's leaping the leader claims him as his own.  He's treated half slave and half as a young one and he begins to get an understanding of where he is.  The Green Martians are pretty interesting both visually and culturally.  I love when the two males literally lock horns when they have a conflict. 

At this point the plots all converge when an over head battle between the Red Martians (who look human but lays egg) introduce John Carter to the once titular Princess and the Warlord wanna be with the blue ray.  It's a stirring battle and it was fun watching the Green Martians betting on the outcome since they don't believe the battle concerns them.

Now the rest of the film you can basically guess.  There's a romantic chemistry between the smart, gutsy Princess and John Carter.  But this has to be on hold since first they have to figure out 1) how did John Carter get here, 2) who are the Bald dudes, 3) how to stop the blue ray warlord from taking over Mars.  The rest of the film has some stirring battles, a lot of good action scenes, some incredible visuals.  It's just fun to watch.  So go watch it!


  1. A good summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. Well worth seeing, but not a life changing movie experience.

  2. Haven't watched it yet, but know someone else who enjoyed it too.
    Interesting how Hollywood manages to carry on despite their tendency to spite their face by cutting off their nose!

  3. The Guy over at the AV club basically said all the same things I said. I'm glad he also mentioned the film's three beginnings.