A man can change his armor, but not his heart.” 

John Carter is Disney’s latest feeler into the marketplace to determine the direction of their next big franchise. With Pixar showing that it has chinks in its armor (not to mention the recent quality of Dreamwork’s Animation films), and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise riding on Johnny Depp’s shoulders alone, Disney is desperate for another big hit. The company’s last two attempts, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Tron: Legacy didn’t really pan out. More desperate than ever, and perhaps attempting to cash in on the sci-fi craze that Avatar started, Disney reached deep into the archives of history to polish the dust off of a project that had been on and off again since the original source material was published in 1912. Much like David Lynch’s DuneJohn Carter had the arduous task of converting a complicated and diverse sci-fi book to life on the big screen. Dune showed us the problems inherent with such an undertaking, and as a result John Carter faced an uphill battle to finally make it to the big screen (and coincidentally so did Dune).

So here we are in 2012. 100 years after the publishing of the source material and the story finally made it to the big screen. What changed? Well, Avatar happened. Avatar showed Hollywood that science fiction films that didn’t have the words Star Wars in the title could be profitable. Disney jumped on board the wagon train and threw out a hefty $250 million to make John Carter a reality. The hope was that science fiction films were back to being mainstream. Unfortunately that is not entirely the case, and as a result, tough times lay ahead for Disney and John Carter. The critics, I’m afraid, are going to absolutely tear John Carter apart because of the fact that Disney spent so much money on this film. Let me explain;

Where Avatar amazed its audience with stunning visuals but relaxed in the story department to something that was a little bland but easy-to-follow, John Carter goes all in. Perhaps the film doesn’t look as good as Avatar, but it definitely doesn’t look bad. The problem is that critics and the audience will not love the story. It is a total commitment to the science fiction realm, and even though the audience will recognize certain aspects of the story, the ones that George Lucas stole for Star Wars, it is largely an entirely unfamiliar premise. Disney went as far as removing the “on Mars” from the end of the title in the hopes that the audience would not think it is a self-obsessed science fiction epic that takes itself seriously. Well, it is a self-obsessed science fiction epic that takes itself seriously, but it is also made by Disney. Disney spent $250 million on a film that most audience members (and critics) will not be able to connect to, mostly because Disney polished the sharp corners in an attempt to make it easier to digest. Therefore John Carter lives in a paradox; The original story is so different that Disney toned it down in the hopes of making it more accessible and recouping their investment, but in doing so the resulting, slightly watered-down film is less impressive than it could have been which will drive audiences and critics away. It’s a no win scenario for Disney, one that I feel unfairly makes this movie look bad. It’s not.

Story: John Carter is a veteran of the civil war. Now that the war is over he is trying his luck prospecting for gold out west. He stumbles upon a portal and suddenly finds himself on a populated Mars in the midst of another war. He is initially discovered by a band of barbarians, but learns that there are two competing factions of civilized men battling for control of the planet. A mysterious force with devastating technologies presents itself to one of the factions, giving them the means by which to conquer the planet easily. When it is revealed that John Carter’s earth-born body gives him certain physical advantages on Mars, he becomes a weapon himself, but first must make the decision if he wants to be involved in yet another war or return to Earth a rich and powerful man…Good (22/25)

Acting: Another problem that will hurt audience’s and critic’s opinion of this film is that it has no real star power. John Carter is played with some success by brooding Taylor Kitsch. His expressionless acting echos Sam Worthington’s in Avatar, most likely the product of much of the filming being done in front of a green screen. Lynn Collins plays opposite Kitsch as a martian princess and at least has some emotion and strength of character even if her costumes are cringe-inducingly skimpy. Mark Strong is as consistent as ever here where he plays the antagonist. The rest of the cast is just as unrecognizable as the stars but does a fairly adequate job of making the film feel lively. Okay (18/25)

Directing: Andrew Stanton is the latest Pixar director to make the jump to live action. Unlike Brad Bird, Stanton infuses his film with a distinct style that is only really recognizable once the film moves to Mars. Stanton frames the movie as if it were a 60’s sword and sandals flick. It has a distinct retro feeling that is a welcome change from the rather bland styled blockbusters that have been coming out of Hollywood lately. As a result, the film feels epic, and indeed the story has enough detail to be stretched out into an epic, but for some reason, either Stanton’s or the studio’s, the film feels too choppy and rushed towards the middle to do the story any justice. Still the distressed look that Stanton paints helps to make this film feel different than anything else you’ve seen. Good (22/25)

Special Effects: Perhaps if Disney had spent less money on this film critics would have been less harsh. Nonetheless the special effects are quite good. There are numerous digital characters and backdrops that will delight your eyes, and the good news is that never do the effects compromise the film. Unfortunately, many of the characters and especially the two warring factions look too similar. This makes it difficult to determine what is happening sometimes and adds to the confusion. Regardless if you can keep the characters straight or not, the film is still a gem as far as visual style and effects. Good (23/25)

Rating: (85/100) = B (Recommended) 

  • What’s Good: The story that influenced Star Wars finally makes it to the big screen. Its easy to see why this epic-feeling science fiction action-adventure has had so much influence, as it translates into a fun and lively film. The great special effects and retro style that the film exudes makes it a great popcorn flick.
  • What’s Bad: Despite its excesses, the movie feels like it needed to be more epic in order to adequately explain what was happening. As a result, the story feels rushed at times. The visual simularity between some characters, lack of a true star, and obvious ploys by Disney to widen the appeal all are slightly off-putting.

Summary: Disney gambles on big-budget, non-animated sci-fi, and almost pulls it off.

My previous review: Rated: Mini Reviews – Harry Potter

You may also be interested in: Rated: Dune (1984)

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