What I Watched Last Night: John Carter (2012)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Bryan Cranston, Willem Defoe

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Until its eventual release two years ago, Disney sci-fi epic John Carter had been in production for over seven decades. Based on ‘A Princess of Mars’, the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’ anthology, the film adaptation could have taken any number of forms; Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett was the first to have a crack, but down the line Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) attempted a stop-motion version and Paramount even planned a Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) shoot in 2004. Eventually, Disney gave the job to Pixar director Andrew Stanton, and the space adventure was launched in 2012.

After all this grief, John Carter was an otherworldy failure, with Disney attributing all losses that year to its grotesque budget and subsequent box office failure. Oddly, even though it got generally positive reviews, nobody watched it. Why? Movie Quibble blames marketing; during disputes over the appropriate film title, studio execs were allegedly shown charts depicting the poor profits from films with ‘Mars’ in the name. It was decided that John Carter was far better than John Carter From Mars, and thus a flop was born.

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‘CGI. CGI EVERYWHERE!’

On to the plot. John Carter is a Virginian soldier that’s gone AWOL at the height of the Civil War. Obsessed with his discovery of a goldmine, he is recaptured by a chin-strapped Bryan Cranston as the hissable Confederate Colonel Powell (The Good, The Breaking Bad and The Ugly?). Through some neat escape artistry Carter manages to give Powell the slip, but after a mystical encounter the roguish hero awakes on Mars. Barsoom, as the indigenous call it, is actually worse than Earth; civil war is tearing through the native peoples, both the humanoids and the four armed Tharks, and to rub space salt into their respective wounds, Barsoom’s atmosphere is on the blink too. For John Carter, it’s out of the fire and into the galactic frying pan; the change in atmosphere gives him untold strength, and he’s chosen as champion (‘the one who jumps’) of the Thark’s desperate cause.

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Princess Lame-a.

Barsoom’s barren outlands are beautiful to behold, but it all feels a bit ‘been Tatootine*, done Geonosis**. Even though it was George Lucas that stole from Burroughs, you still can’t help but compare the gladiatorial man vs beast match up to that of Attack of the Clones. Also, for a film of such exotic locale and circumstance, the direction and cinematography is rather mundane. Action is definitely John Carter’s strong suit, but for a two hour lightsaber-and- sandals epic, there isn’t quite enough. As for the plot, it’s too complex for its own good; there are two civil wars, some shape-shifting telepathics that float around looking like Mark Strong, an inter-planetary love triangle, a protagonist with absurdly inconsistent goals and to top if off, a weird sub-narrative that sees Edgar Rice Burroughs as an Earth bound scholar in his own story. Apart from Taylor Kitsch (Carter) and Lynn Collins as a princess of Mars, the strong cast are either wasted or mo’capped into obscurity.

*there
**that

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Apparently, tug o’ war if more important than life itself.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story is quite an accurate reflection of our modern times. Before you judge the Martian barbarians, consider humanity’s own atrocities, and you’ll understand what the prescient novelist was getting at. John Carter is not brilliant, but it’s worth a look in, especially over big budget studio sinkers like World War Z or The Lone Ranger.

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