Blu-ray Review: JOHN CARTER Is a Superman of Mars

Amidst all of the hand-wringing about the lackluster to poor theatrical performance of Andrew Stanton's John Carter as well as the doom and gloom about the future prospects of its lead Taylor Kitsch, it seems like some people miss the fact that this is a completely inoffensively fun film. While that doesn't qualify in any way as a ringing endorsement (because really, it's not), John Carter has its moments of being decent and one or to moments of being outright very very good. And while the technical gloss and pedigree of the movie might not put it on the same level of say, The Beastmaster in terms of rewatchable pulp, it's the kind of movie that will definitely find a second life on home video and TV based on the sheer exuberance of its execution throughout.

The film takes pulp sci-fi and fantasy pioneer Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom stories (the name Mars' inhabitants give their planet) and places the author's Civil War veteran John Carter (Kitsch) smack in the middle of it. While escaping Apaches (and the U.S. Army who want to draft him to fight again), Carter is transported to Barsoom, where he discovers that his human physiology lends him super strength and the ability to leap great distances like a proto-Superman.

Carter goes from being captured and enslaved by a tribe of the six-armed Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and later pulled into the conflict between the reddish-brown skinned denizens of the kingdoms of Helium and Zodanga who conveniently color-coordinate so you can tell who's who during battles. The Zodangans are led by Sab Than (Dominic West) who possess a disintegrating ray which has felled many kingdoms and now he's got his eyes on Helium and its princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but then he's got mysterious benefactors pulling his strings personified by Mark Strong's character Matai Shang.

Will John Carter find something to fight for? Will he find love with the beautiful princess? Will there be much smashing and dispatching of enemies? An emphatic yes on all counts.

The real joy of John Carter is that it's a big action adventure movie that's not above having a sense of humor, but it's also hampered by how unrelentingly dour Taylor Kitsch plays the character for most of its running time. The Friday Night Lights actor has a naturalistic style that's not really up to the high action the movie warrants, and really goes kind of serious and internal with the role. Carter's back story is that he lost his wife during the war and now doesn't want to fight, and you can see that informing nearly every scene that Kitsch is in. But it's a movie that calls for swashbuckling adventure, making his performance feel at right angles more often than not to the action onscreen.

Dafoe and Collins fare far better in their respective roles, really embracing the pulp sensibility of the material. Tars is a wise leader looking to bring progress to his people, and Dafoe invests the character with dignity and a certain amount of playfulness which works well for the CG creation. Collins is a fierce heroine here, smart, funny, sexy, and dangerous, and you'll spend a good chunk of John Carter wishing the actress had a male lead who was able to keep up with her. In their smaller, but still no less fun roles, Strong and West shine (the last couple of years have made it amply clear that if Strong shows up as your heavy, at least that particular element of your movie will be excellent), along with Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy who both deserved more time onscreen.

The action is beautifully staged and kinetic thanks to Stanton's camera, allowing the high-jumping Carter to feel like he has weight when he moves or swings and 100-lb chain through an enemy (this movie has a veritable pile of dead alien bodies by its end).

Again, the movie's not any kind of revelation, and is undone somewhat by the near century's-worth of comics, radio programs, TV, and film that have mined its source material, but that doesn't make it any less worthy or pleasurable to watch.

Special Features

The disc includes an audio commentary with Andrew Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, the featurette "100 Years in the Making," "360 Degrees of John Carter," a blooper reel, and deleted scenes.

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  • GeneralError

    We'll never know if the marketing was to blame for John Carter's "flop". It does seem like everyone who liked it, doesn't really love it, and is just mad that everyone else doesn't love it. I think it all comes down to the films terrible direction.

    It was directed like a pixar cartoon, which apparently doesn't translate well to live action. Like when Carter is first captured by the dad from Malcom in the Middle, and he jumps out the window in a cartoon gag. Or the introduction of the queen rehearsing out loud to herself, which I have never even seen outside of a cartoon.

    The weirdest part was that if it were CG they would have spent so much time on the expressions and character acting, but in live action it looks like they did one quick take of each actor and called it a day. I guess they were too used to directing voice over actors -where they would do a quick voice-over run through and then slave over animating CG expressions.

  • Qinlong

    The problem is : the description you've just made also fits a lot, if not most, of the big successes of the past ten years. So it's definitely not the answer to JC (oM)'s failure.

  • Mr. Cavin

    I assume you're talking to me? Yeah, in my opinion you're totally right about that (depressing as that may be). But what I was trying to come up with was a reason why word-of-mouth didn't help produce any result beyond the palsied marketing. Many of the other movies my description might apply to may have had better marketing, or greater cultural cachet, that would presumably make up for the product's lackluster audience appeal. Or at least that's the theory that I stick with.

    But since we're here: I don't really agree with the thesis above regarding the latitude for "middle of the road genre filmmaking" in today's market, either. Even if there were no such outlet, JOHN CARTER would fail to demonstrate that. This is a movie that cost more than most other genre fantasies (maybe combined), creating quite a yardstick for measuring its failure. Compare it with the equally low-rated, over-animated, badly filmed, and soulless CLASH OF THE TITANS remake. That movie has made its money back in spades, even though it had an equal--if not slightly more difficult--uphill battle for wide audience interest, and, at least so far as I can anecdotally tell, far less favorable word-of-mouth. The fact that one of these movies is a success while the other is a bust seems very much like it is solely predicated on the successes of the initial marketing campaign (and the box office relationship with a rather more frugal production budget).

  • Jason

    Finally wathced this last weekend. I am so disenchanted with the Hollywood media and th community as a whole recently and John Carter put the final nail in the coffin for me.

    I am 41 years old and I really liked this film a lot. Was it the best action-adventure film ever made? No, but it is the closest in theme to the kind of action-adventure films i watched as a kid.

    John Carter is another victim of the ever-changing landscape of movie-fandom. I have been saying for a couple years now that the make-up of movie fans has been steadily changing even among genre fans.

    We now Live in an era where there is no room for middle of the road in "genre" filmmaking. Big genre films HAVE to be either the best film to date of their sub-genre or they are labeled a bomb and called a piece of crap!

    There's 2 reasons John Carter REALLY failed at the box office:

    1. It opened the SAME weekend as a kids film! Which every keeps friggin FORGETTING!

    2. This generations reality-obsessed young people (16-26 yr olds for ex.) DON'T CARE ABOUT FANTASY & SCI-FI MOVIES!!!

    If John Carter had come out in the late 80's to the early 90's it would have KILLED at the box office but not Today!!!

    This NEVER gets talked about on movie blog sites but there is a HUGE disparity between movie fans of my generation(late 70's-early 90's) and Today's kids (mid-90's to today), and its getting wider every day.

  • Charles Webb

    I would disagree about your second point with younger viewers: these are the ones who supported THE AVENGERS, THE HUNGER GAMES, and HARRY POTTER movies to the tune of billions of dollars.



    At the same time, Disney didn't really make a compelling case for the movie, with marketing that was either too enigmatic (remember the initial "JCM" logo rollout for a movie that would soon not be called JOHN CARTER OF MARS), or just relied on the same couple of shots that we've seen in every other big sci-fi epic in the last decade (i.e. the arena scene).

  • Qinlong

    Indeed, the marketing campaign was amateurish, as it was stated many times ; but I can't help but wonder why some kind of positive word-of-mouth wasn't set in motion AFTER the underwhelming first week-end. After all this film is nothing if not a big old crowd-pleaser.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Because ultimately the experience was empty calories, man. Spectacle needs to be a feat, some kind of effort--but this is just invention. The finished product is little more than the storyboards. I mean, it may be really pretty and engaging in a design and animation kind of way, but ultimately its still just weightless pixels moving around the screen, a programmer's design of spectacle hung on the shoulders of tropes, archetypes, and cyphers. There is almost nothing for the audience to connect to or care about. It isn't that nobody enjoyed it--it's obvious that they did--it's that the movie is so inconsequential that it fades away pretty quickly once it has been consumed.

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