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Review – John Carter (2012) by Jamie

John Carter has one of the most troubled histories in all of cinema. It’s long and storied past began all the way back in 1931 when Bob Clampett, a director of Looney Tunes, approached then still alive author Edgar Rice Burroughs with a proposition to turn his book ‘A Princess of Mars’ into an animated feature. Unfortunately test footage of this adaptation proved unfulfilling to a nation and MGM decided to make live action Flash Gordon serials instead. Throughout the decades the rights to the book would pass to Disney and Paramount with each attempt at an adaptation proving unsuccessful until Disney finally began filming in 2010. So yes, nearly 80 years of development hell is quite an achievement.

John Carter’s problems were far from over however. In 2011 Disney lost a lot of money on a film called ‘Mars Needs Moms’ and seemed to decide that the problem with that film was the inclusion of the word Mars in the title never stopping to think that a film titled Unidentified Planet Needs Moms would probably have done even worse. So the originally proposed title for the film John Carter of Mars was truncated to simply John Carter, a title which, if you knew nothing of the history of the project or its source material, would leave you thinking you were going to see a film about a man with a decidedly average name and nothing else. Marketing! The film was finally released in the early spring of 2012 and, according to some reports, lost Disney somewhere in the region of 160 million dollars.

So how was it that a film based on source material that inspired everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars could be such a massive flop? Let’s take a look.

The story concerns one John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former confederate soldier who has taken to prospecting since the end of the civil war. Whilst trying to escape the US cavalry who want a man of his experience to help them fight Apaches, he gets in a fight with a mysterious man with a mysterious medallion and said mysterious medallion whisks him away to a planet that the natives call Barsoom but which we know as Mars. It is a dying planet were disparate city-states (and half the cast of BBC/HBO’s Rome) fight each other for domination. There are the red skinned, human-like cities of Helium and Zodanga, Helium being the good but losing side and the Zodanga the evil but winning side thanks to there Jeddak (leader) Sab Than (Dominic West) mysteriously attaining a powerful weapon. There are also the four-armed, green skinned Tharks led by Jeddak Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), who I guess are the noble savages who seem to remain as neutral as possible during this civil war. Because it’s an allegory, you see.

On Mars, John Carter has incredible strength and leaping abilities because of his anatomy and the gravitational differences between the two planets and so, whilst really just wanting to get home, he eventually gets embroiled in the conflict when the Princess of Helium (Because apparently they have a special word for king or leader but not Princess) Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) runs away after her father promises her in marriage to Sab Than in an effort to end the war. All the while the progress and outcome of the war is being place by a mystical race of space-faring immortals called the Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who gave Sab Than his mysterious weapon and prevented Helium from discovering the same technology for themselves. Oh, and the whole plot is book ended with the story being told to Edgar Rice Burroughs as he reads his Uncle John Carter’s diary.

As you may be able to see from that synopsis, the plot is a bit bloated and convoluted. I mean it’s not Star Wars prequels with endless scenes of political maneuvering bad but it’s a little flabby around the waist. It seems as though there’s a pretty simple plot in there but it’s overly complicated which work to the films detriment because it seems as though it never really knows who it’s target audience is. There will be moments of comedy involving Carter discovering his amazing leaping abilities or a really fast stubby penis-dog (that is seriously the only way I can describe the character of Woola) or an action scene involving John Carter fighting four-armed, white furred King Kongs in an arena but then there’s also long scenes involving the religion of Mars or the weird technology called the ninth ray. Add these things all together and you get a bit of a disjointed mess that may work well in a book which can take as long as it wants to explain things but in a two hour film you need decide where to trim or your left with things which seem important but are never really satisfactorily explained. To be fair, I’m sure some of the hanging threads in this film would have been explored in sequels but, well, that’s not going to happen now.

Now, I should take a moment here to say that the movie itself isn’t actually terrible. It kept me decently entertained and it looks very, very pretty with some great special effects. The main problem with the film is the source material. As I said earlier, Burroughs’ Mars books have been massively influential on pretty much the entirety of science fiction that came after them. As a result the film seems a bit unoriginal. There’s not much here that we haven’t seem before which is a shame since the books were probably the originator of some of these tropes. We’ve seen an alien out of his element with increased strength and jumping abilities fight to save his adopted planet before. We’ve seen an evil emperor with devastatingly destructive technology before. We’ve seen space princesses, four armed aliens and people fighting for their lives against alien beasts in arenas before. The sad truth is that everything that John Carter sets out to do has been done in film time and time again because the books influenced those very films.

Still, as I say, it’s a decently entertaining film of waste a couple of hours two and perhaps the thing that annoyed me most was the framing device of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sticking him in there isn’t going to make me believe that the books are an actual history of events that actually took place Disney. It worked with Bilbo writing his story in The Lord of the Rings because it just did for some reason. Weirdly it doesn’t work as well in The Hobbit. Can’t adaptations of books just be that without throwing in all this meta-bullshit? I can’t help but feel as though it’s some kind of reverence for the age of books as we progress further and further into a digital world but the reason Burroughs’ books should be revered is because they’re good and because they influenced an entire genre of humanity’s collected fiction not because they tell a secret history of events that actually transpired.

So John Carter is, in the end, a watchable film that does nothing particularly new but isn’t as stupendously awful as it’s box office failure would have you believe. I honestly think that removing Mars from the title was a reason for it‘s failure because who wants to see a film called John Carter? It could be about an accountant or a mechanic or a tramp or anything.Anyway 2.5 out of 5. Laterz and let’s just hope Disney doesn’t plan on releasing any other space opera films with princesses and warring factions and decide that the sci-fi element isn’t what will sell it… Oh. Damn. Well, I guess we can all look forward to Wars: Episode VII in 2015!

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