John Carter (2012) a (mildly) belated review/autopsy

Has there been a movie that received as much bad press as 2012’s John Carter?

Based on the 1912 novel A Princess of Mars by author Edgar Rice Burroughs (his most famous creation, of course, is Tarzan), the movie was released earlier this year and proved a massive flop.  It cost in the neighborhood of $250 million to make (not including marketing, which I’ll return to in a moment) and its worldwide take was a decent, but far from good considering the costs, $179 million.  The losses from this Disney production’s release resulted in the resignation of a chairman within the company.

The fact is that the film appeared doomed almost from the beginning.  Word leaked early on in the production that there were problems.  There was whispers of dissatisfaction from the studio regarding the work in progress.  There was also word of reshoots and rumors that Andrew Stanton, the director of the film who was best known for his computer animated Pixar work, was in over his head with actual human actors.

When the film neared actual release, I had the feeling potential audiences already were poisoned against the movie.  These opinions certainly weren’t helped by the film’s very bland title (the studios appeared worried mentioning “Mars” in the title would turn off the already turned off audiences) and a truly inept advertising campaign.  In fact, the later may well have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Yet as the film was released and proved a financial calamity for Disney, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the massive disinterest shown by audiences, the reviews of the film weren’t all that…awful.  True, the film polled at a mediocre 52% among critics at, but it held a higher 64% among the audiences that bothered to see the film.

So I wondered:  Was the film unfairly condemned?  Did it deserve a better fate?  Were potential audiences wrong in turning their backs?

I was curious to find out.  I missed the film in theaters but when it arrived on home video, I gave it a look.  So, what did I see?  In brief, a good, though not great adventure film.

To begin, John Carter is gorgeous to look at.  The visuals are quite impressive and I felt the filmmakers most certainly captured the “look” of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels. The computer generated effects are, for the most part, seamless. The alien creatures look quite real, and Taylor Kitsch looks good as John Carter and Lynn Collins looks equally good as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars.

Unfortunately, that the best thing I can say about them.  As handsome as the two actors are in the title roles, they really lack chemistry.  I always felt that one of the things that made the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs so successful, apart from the obvious pulp adventures presented, was the sexuality.  Both Tarzan and the Mars series featured brawny, swashbucking men’s men and incredibly beautiful women in peril.  As readers we longed for Tarzan to get Jane.  In the Mars series, we longed for John Carter to marry Dejah Thoris.

But in this film, the sexuality is toned waaaay down.  As I said before, part of the problem is that the actors lack chemistry.  The other part, I suspect, is that the producers/director really clamped down on the sexuality.  For most of the movie John Carter and Dejah Thoris show little interest in each other, it seemed, and certainly nowhere near the sexual tension present between Tarzan and Jane in films from the 1930’s.

There is also so much going on that I couldn’t help but wonder just how much was cut.  The character of Sola, for example, accompanies Carter and Thoris for the middle section of the film on but is relegated to being such a minor character with so few lines of worth that one wonders why they even bothered having her in the film at all.  The movie features three main “villains”, but once again very little is shown of them and when two meet their fate, one feels little satisfaction that the villain(s) got what was coming to them.

I suspect that John Carter was a victim of a combination of factors, from studio interference to director inexperience to an underdeveloped script.  The actors, I felt, did what they could and weren’t bad in their roles, though I suppose an argument could be made that the two leads failed to register enough chemistry between them.

And yet, having said all that, the film is not the disaster audiences suspected it would be.  It is a pleasant enough time killer with some good humor and some impressive set pieces but, and its a very BIG “but”, given the film’s costs, it could and should have been so much more.  On a four star scale, I’d give John Carter 2 1/2 stars.