Disney’s John Carter will be remembered for years to come – but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of a leap through time and space based on one of the best known science-fiction novels ever written, it will go down in history as a huge financial gamble that never quite paid off.
But while it may have failed at the box office (relatively speaking – it isn’t doing as badly as Disney first feared) that isn’t to say that it fails as a film. Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ beloved 1917 novel, A Princess of Mars, the movie delivers an epic science-fiction adventure you won’t quickly forget.
The story begins in the harsh 19th century Arizona territories where former Confederate soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is on the hunt for gold, caring little for anything else. But despite his apathetic attitude, he is a natural-born fighter. Even when held by Union soldiers seeking his assistance in fighting the local Apache, he never stops trying to escape. After finally getting free, he goes into hiding in a cave that is lined with all the gold he could ever dream of – but that also holds secrets he never could have imagined.
Transported to the planet Barsoom – or as we all know it by, Mars – Carter discovers that because of the planet’s low gravity, he is capable of leaping great distances and tossing around large boulders as if they were beach balls. This catches the interest of the natives – ten-foot-tall, four-armed, green, tusked creatures known as the Tharks – and especially their king, or ‘Jeddak’, Tars Tarkas (William Dafoe).
Carter eventually rescues Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins) who is trying to escape her home city of Helium now that Sab Than (Dominic West), Jeddak of Zodanga, wishes to marry her to end the thousand-year-war between their cities. Sab Than has gained an unnatural and powerful weapon from Matai Shang (Mark Strong), a member of the Therns: beings who wish to tip the scale of power in Zodanga’s favor. The motivation for this is never really made clear: all we know is that Earth is next, and John Carter has to stop them at any cost.
The acting is hit or miss. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins both surprised me with how well they handled their lead roles, and William Dafoe proves just as amazing at performance capture as he is at straight acting. But the villains really fall short. Dominic West plays a pawn to the Therns, and his character never really rises beyond that, while Mark Strong seems to be becoming typecast in these roles, and brings little new to Matai Shang.
The pacing is also way off. Some scenes last far too long; others finish before you know what’s happening. One of the best scenes in the film is also the most frustrating, as Carter and his faithful canine-like companion, Woola, fight off an entire army of Tharks while Carter simultaneously flashes back to the tragic fate of his family. The editing here was just phenomenal – but before I’d had a chance to move to the edge of my seat, it was over.
The visual effects
But now matter how flawed the action may be, it almost always looks amazing. It’s easy tell Disney spared no expense on the visual effects and every minute detail shows up crystal clear in high definition. The Martian landscapes, the aircraft – and especially the Tharks – look fantastic on a HDTV. Things occasionally lapse to the level of a videogame cutscene, but more often, the effects are much grander in scale.
Disney is known for providing a hefty number of extra features on its Blu-rays and John Carter is no exception. There’s plenty of extra meat in this package, including some in-depth insights into the development process and the special effects; deleted sequences; and plenty of behind-the-scenes material. The filmmakers provide the usual audio commentary, while the ‘100 Years in the Making’ feature takes a look at the long road John Carter took from page to the screen. Throw in a hilarious blooper reel, and there’s very little to complain about.
The final verdict
It may not be perfect, but as a science-fiction thrill ride, John Carter is hard to beat. The visuals are superb and the story works well enough. People may complain that it feels derivative, but given that the films it most resembles were themselves inspired by the original 1917 novel, that seems a touch unfair.
This is director Andrew Stanton’s (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) first attempt at a live-action feature, and unfortunately, it shows. The acting is hit-and-miss and the pace seems as uncertain as John Carter’s first steps on Barsoom. But if you can steer a course around the plot holes, you have a beautiful and thrilling adventure ahead of you.
View a slideshow of concept art images from the movie